Best of our wild blogs: 11 Mar 15

Update on dead fish at Lim Chu Kang: out of sight but not out of smell
from wild shores of singapore

CAT Walk: What you might see if you join us!
from Cicada Tree Eco-Place

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Mass fish deaths: Steps in place to aid farmers, says MND

Channel NewsAsia 11 Mar 15;

SINGAPORE: The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) is working with local fish farmers to put in place measures to build up their resiliency in coping with future plankton blooms and the effect it has on the fish stock, said Minister of State for National Development Maliki Osman on Wednesday (Mar 11).

For one, AVA will work with these farmers to develop operationally ready contingency plans to reduce their losses in future occurrences, and allow farmers to learn from others who have installed resilient systems.

"Farmers can tap on AVA’s Agriculture Productivity Fund to purchase relevant equipment to enhance their resilience. MND and AVA are exploring further assistance beyond these measures for affected farms to restart their operations," Dr Maliki said in Parliament during the Committee of Supply debates.

Through the Co-Innovation Partnership Programme, AVA has commissioned projects to develop closed containment systems, which can reduce the vulnerability of fish stock to water conditions, he added.

"The existing mode of farming in net cages in the sea exposes the fish to unnecessary risks. Fish farmers must consider modernising their farming methods so that they are better protected in the long term," Dr Maliki said.

As for better understanding the science behind the phenomenon of plankton bloom and fish kill, AVA is collaborating with agencies such as NEA, NParks and PUB, and experts from research institutes such as Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI), to study the relationship, he said.

The Minister of State also gave an update on the latest fish losses, noting that up to 600 tonnes of fish have been lost so far, most of which are farms near the East Johor Straits. That said, the plankton situation has improved, with reduced fish mortality, he added.

"Similar to last year, AVA will not impose the minimum production requirement on affected farms, nor take action against them for not meeting the minimum production requirement," said Dr Maliki.

"We are very reasonable people. We are not heartless. We understand the difficulties the farmers face during these times and will allow them sufficient time to get back onto their feet and we will continue to help them do so."

- CNA/kk

Mass fish deaths: AVA will help fish farmers build resilience, says Maliki
KELLY NG Today Online 11 Mar 15;

SINGAPORE—The Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) will be helping fish farmers to develop contingency plans to reduce future losses like those caused by the recent plankton bloom, such as by helping farmers develop “resilient systems”, said Minister of State (National Development) Mohamad Maliki Osman today (March 11) during the MND Committee of Supply debate.

In light of the recent plankton bloom that wiped out more than 600 tonnes of fish along the East and West Johor Straits, Dr Maliki told the House that AVA is working with agencies such as the National Environment Agency, NParks and PUB, and experts from research institutes, to better understand the relationship between plankton blooms and fish kills.

The authority has also commissioned projects to develop “close containment systems” that reduces the vulnerability of the fish stock to harmful water conditions.

Dr Maliki added that AVA will not impose the minimum production requirement on the affected farms, nor take action against them for not meeting the production requirement.

“We cannot prevent plankton blooms from recurring, but we can take steps to minimise their impact when they occur,” he added.

He added that AVA had advised fish farmers to harvest their fish early on Feb 16 and 17 as it detected elevated plankton levels, and farmers that heeded its advice before fish deaths peaked on Feb 27 adverted the worse.

Singapore Budget 2015: AVA taking steps to address fish deaths from plankton bloom
RACHEL AU-YONG Straits Times 11 Mar 15;

SINGAPORE - The plankton bloom responsible for the recent mass fish deaths cannot be prevented, but steps can be taken to minimise its impact when it occurs, Minister of State for National Development Maliki Osman said.

Elaborating on these in Parliament on Wednesday, Dr Maliki said the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) will help farmers to develop "operationally-ready contingency plans" to reduce their future losses.

He advised fish farmers to learn from counterparts who have installed resilient systems, and to tap on the agency's Agriculture Productivity Fund to purchase the relevant equipment.

Dr Maliki also said that like last year, the AVA will not impose the minimum production requirement - 17 tonnes of fish for every 0.5 ha of farm space - on affected farms. "We understand the difficulties the farmers face during these times and will allow them sufficient time to get back onto their feet," he said.

Over the last two weeks, more than 600 tonnes of fish have died - the fourth mass death in five years - with farms near the East Johor Straits the worst-hit.

Plankton blooms can be deadly as the plankton suck oxygen from the water, suffocating other marine life. They could be caused by unfavourable environmental factors, like neap tide, dry weather, and pollution.

Dr Maliki added that his ministry is looking at what can be done to reduce pollution.

The AVA is also working with agencies and research experts to study the relationship between plankton blooms and fish kill.

It has also commissioned projects to develop closed containment systems, which would reduce the volunerability of fish stock to water conditions.

Currently, many farmers rear fish in net cages in the open sea, exposing their stock to unnecessary risks, he said. Citing Singapore Aquaculture Technologies, a company which used such a system and saved two-thirds of their stock, Dr Maliki said: "Fish farmers must consider modernising their farming methods so that they are better protected in the long term."

Plankton blooms' link to fish deaths under study
Rachel Au-yong The Straits Times AsiaOne 12 Mar 15;

SINGAPORE - Researches from several organisations are working with the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) on the link between plankton blooms and fish deaths, to shed more light on the causes of the mass deaths at Singapore's fish farms.

The AVA will also help fish farmers put in place contingency measures to minimise the fallout from such incidents in the future, Minister of State for National Development Maliki Osman said.

It will also not impose the minimum production requirement of 17 tonnes of fish for every 0.5ha of farm space on affected farms, a concession it made last year after similar plankton bloom problems.

"We understand the difficulties the farmers face during these times and will allow them sufficient time to get back onto their feet," said Dr Maliki.

He was replying to Parliamentary Secretary Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC), who wanted to know what the Government was doing to help the affected fish farms. So far, about 600 tonnes of fish have died, with farms near the East Johor Strait the worst hit.

But the situation has improved, said Dr Maliki at the debate on his ministry's budget.

Plankton is a main food source for sea creatures but an unexpected population explosion can suffocate them. Such blooms could be triggered by factors such as dry weather and pollution.

While his ministry is looking at what can be done to reduce pollution, Dr Maliki said it also needs to "better understand the science behind this phenomenon".

This is the second year in a row of mass fish deaths at the farms.

The AVA is collaborating with agencies such as the National Environment Agency, National Parks Board, national water agency PUB and research institutes like the Tropical Marine Study Institute at the National University of Singapore on the study.

Dr Maliki advised fish farmers to learn from counterparts who have installed resilient preventive systems and to tap funds to buy the equipment.

Earlier this month, the AVA also awarded a tender to develop closed fish rearing systems to five companies.

These systems shield fish from external harmful forces. Many farmers rear fish in net cages in the open sea, exposing their stock to unnecessary risks.

Modernise fish farming methods to cut losses: Maliki
LAURA PHILOMIN Today Online 12 Mar 15;

SINGAPORE — Although steps will be taken to minimise the impact of recurring plankton bloom — the most recent episode killed more than 600 tonnes of fish — farmers “must consider modernising their farming methods, so they will be better protected in the long term”, said Minister of State (National Development) Maliki Osman yesterday.

To help fish farmers, the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) will not be imposing the minimum production requirement on affected farms nor take action against them for failing to meet the criterion.

“We ... will allow them sufficient time to get back onto their feet and will continue to help them do so,” Dr Maliki said during the second day of the Ministry of National Development’s Committee of Supply debate yesterday.

The impact of this year’s algal bloom appeared to be more severe, with losses of up to 600 tonnes of fish belonging to 55 farms — up from 500 tonnes of fish from 53 farms last year.

The AVA has been monitoring fish farming areas daily over the past weeks and issuing warnings when needed, Dr Maliki noted.

For example, when it detected elevated plankton levels in the East Johor Straits on Feb 16 and 17, the authority issued warnings to farmers before fish deaths peaked on Feb 27.

Some farmers were able to save part of their stocks following the AVA’s warnings, but Dr Maliki noted that there were others who had not reacted in time.

“We cannot prevent plankton blooms from recurring, but we can take steps to minimise their impact when they occur,” he said.

The AVA will be helping fish farmers develop contingency plans to reduce future loss, while farmers can learn from those who have installed “resilient systems”.

They can also tap the AVA’s Agriculture Productivity Fund to buy relevant equipment, Dr Maliki added.

For example, after the AVA issued its first warning to alert farmers of adverse weather conditions in January, Mr Gary Chang of San Lay Marine Culture Co began lining his net cages with canvas and installed a simple infiltration system to maintain water quality.

His quick action mitigated his losses to only a tenth of last year’s fish kill.

The AVA has also commissioned projects to develop closed containment systems that reduce the vulnerability of fish stock to harmful water conditions.

“The existing mode of farming in net cages in the sea exposes fish to unnecessary risks,” Dr Maliki said, as he urged farmers to modernise their methods.

Read more!

Netting more ways to keep fish farms sustainable

Goh Tian And Jonatan A. Lassa For The Straits Times AsiaOne 10 Mar 15;

SINGAPORE aims to be partly self-sufficient in three food items as part of an overall strategy to safeguard food security.

It strives for self-sufficiency for 30 per cent of egg, 15 per cent of fish and 10 per cent of vegetable supplies.

Producing food locally has the additional benefit of mitigating climate change through reduced food miles.

Unlike egg and vegetable production - where layers are kept in shelters and vegetables are grown under controlled conditions - fish farms are highly dependent on water and environmental conditions.

The current plankton bloom that has caused massive fish deaths is not likely to be the last.

If it wants to be self-sufficient for 15 per cent of fish supply, Singapore needs a more sustained effort to make fish farms more sustainable, and less subject to environmental damage.

This calls for changes in fish farming techniques, and substantial investments in capital - both financial and technological.

The plankton bloom now hitting Singapore's fish farms has caused at least 600 tonnes of fish losses, more than 10 per cent of annual production.

More than 55 out of 117 floating fish farms have been affected, with losses estimated at between $15,000 and $300,000 per farm.

The total losses could be between $4 million and $5 million. A similar amount of fish loss occurred last year.

In 2009, fish farms in Singapore were affected by their first plankton bloom and a total of 400,000 fish were lost.

While the numbers are small compared to fish consumption in Singapore and are unlikely to affect total supply, fish farmers have been hit hard by the recurring events.

Interestingly, fish grown in tanks were also affected by the plankton bloom due to the use of unfiltered sea water.

Plankton bloom, or harmful algal bloom, is caused by a combination of higher concentrations of nutrients, which can be enhanced by organic runoff and increase in decaying matter such as fish feeds, high temperatures and sunlight, as well as poor water exchange.

Warm temperatures and high solar irradiance during the dry season can encourage growth of phytoplankton through better photosynthesis.

Poor water circulation in the Johor Strait enhances the rapid multiplication of these organisms.

Plankton bloom results in lower oxygen levels in the water and this can cause fish deaths.

To provide support during massive fish deaths due to plankton bloom, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) introduced assistance packages to the fish farmers who were affected.

To prevent the deaths, AVA also implemented round-the-clock real-time monitoring and early warning systems to provide information on increase in plankton levels to farmers via SMS.

Yet, even with these policies in place, the recent damage to fish stocks suggests that risk mitigation measures must go beyond financial support for recovery and monitoring of water conditions.

While AVA had alerted farmers to elevated plankton levels, some could not take action as they lacked the tools or financial resources to do so.

The real question, then, is whether the present approach is sufficient to ensure local fish production, and at what cost?


SINGAPORE has been using three key strategies to ensure food resilience.

The first strategy is to ensure diversification of food import sources.

The second is to increase local production to achieve a certain degree of self-sufficiency, and the third is to ensure that there are buffer stocks.

Currently, Singapore imports fish from 46 countries.

More than 70 per cent of the fish imports are from South-east Asia and about 10 per cent of its fish is from Norway. Local fish production accounted for about 8 per cent (4,200 tonnes) of total consumption in 2013.

Local fish production forms a "virtual" buffer stock to increase domestic supply during an import disruption.

To support the local fish farming industry, AVA has rolled out various policies such as the Food Fund, technical support and infrastructural support like the construction of the Lorong Halus jetty, which cost $3.85 million.

Another $8.2 million has been set aside for fish farmers to upgrade farm infrastructure and technology.

However, the vulnerability of the fish farming model to plankton bloom warrants evaluation of the present approach.

Rethinking fish farm model

FISH farming is inherently susceptible to marine changes.

Some methods can help reduce the risks.

For example, Singapore can explore the option of constructing infrastructure such as lining net cages with canvas and installing filtering and aeration systems in sea farms.

However, the challenge is how farmers can be incentivised to adopt these measures voluntarily.

Given that fish farms span an area of 100.5ha, the scale of investment required is huge. Co-financing of such infrastructure for fish farms may be needed.

Alternatively, the Government can provide 100 per cent of equipment and infrastructure to fish farms to reduce external environmental impacts.

In return, the Government can factor the investment costs into a new leasing price.

Consultations between the Government and fish farmers on how to make this option beneficial to farmers with rational public spending need to be undertaken.

The Government is also currently encouraging indoor "vertical" fish farming, a tank-based fish farming technique which can be installed in the roof of the buildings or in any available space where water and environmental conditions can be better controlled.

This is a good realignment of policy priority towards mitigating risks of fish farming and ensuring that fish production is sustainable.

Unfortunately, this practice is still nascent and can be expensive, and therefore requires financial support from the Government.

Diversify or self-produce

AT A more strategic level, there might be a need to examine the feasibility and costs of achieving 15 per cent self-sufficiency.

Boosting food security by building up self-sufficiency rates at any cost can be inefficient and economically unsustainable.

In fact, the options above to support fish farming will be expensive.

Diversifying import sources can successfully secure supply of stocks at a more reasonable cost.

Singapore needs to weigh the costs of diversifying sources of fish imports against the costs of food self-sufficiency.

With greater climate variability and change such as expected increases in temperature, ocean acidification and changes in solar irradiation in the coming decades, volatility in fish production and losses from fish farms are expected to worsen.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently projected that ocean fish catch potential in the South-east Asian tropics may be reduced by 40 to 60 per cent due to fish migration.

Consequently, fish populations in the neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines are likely be affected by ocean acidification by 2050.

In the light of Singapore's dependence on fish from South-east Asia, it is necessary to look for fish beyond its immediate shores.

For now, achieving 15 per cent self-sufficiency for fish is equivalent to two months of fish consumption.

The present annual production rate equals one month of fish consumption.

The Government may need to review the self-sufficiency target to a more modest one.

Whatever the target, for now it makes sense to continue the strategy to diversify fish import sources and increase fish buffer stocks.

But if the state is serious about targeting 15 per cent self-sufficiency for fish supplies, more focused incentives are needed to build a resilient and efficient fish farming sector.

Fish farmers old and new will need sustained help from the Government and industry leaders.

Capital funds will be needed to set up new types of fish farms, perhaps on a leasing model with equipment built in.

Intellectual capital in the form of know-how that mixes traditional fish farming methods with new equipment will be pivotal to the success of new farms.

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Gearing up for dry periods

Audrey Tan The Straits Times AsiaOne 11 Mar 15;

The recent hot weather, parched grass and receding levels at water bodies across Singapore all point to one thing - yet another stretch of dry weather.

Although not as bad as last year's dry spell, it is still the second year in a row the Republic is experiencing such weather conditions, on top of other symptoms of climate change, such as heavier rain and flash flooding.

But there is hope for this concrete jungle. An internationally renowned urban planner has suggested that in built-up Singapore, its buildings could do more to protect the country against the effects of climate change.

At a green conference on Feb 27, Dr Herbert Dreiseitl suggested that buildings could include more green features, and from an earlier stage of the design process.

Water retention tanks could be installed to store rainwater collected during heavy rain. This would not only reduce the amount of rainwater flowing into the public drainage system - thus lessening the chances of flash floods - the stored water can also be used to water plants during a dry spell.

"We have 2.4m of rain coming down every year, we should be able to use this water, and we can, if we have a collection system," noted Dr Dreiseitl, who is director of Liveable Cities Lab.

The German, who founded city planning firm Atelier Dreiseitl and was in 2011 awarded the prestigious Loeb Fellowship at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, is no stranger to Singapore's landscape.
He was one of the designers behind the project to convert a concrete canal in Bishan Park into a meandering waterway with anti- flood features, under the national water agency PUB's Active Beautiful Clean (ABC) Waters programme.

What Singapore has done

The country has experienced more instances of extreme weather, from intense downpours to prolonged dry periods. In 2013, there were 36 flash-flood days, up from 23 in 2011.

During last year's drought, when barely any rain fell for two 27-day dry stretches, PUB was pumping 20 million to 25 million gallons of Newater a day into reservoirs to maintain their water levels. Desalination and Newater plants ran at almost full capacity for more than a month to supply the country with water.

During the current dry stretch, PUB has also injected Newater into the reservoirs.

Over the years, the agency has spent over $2 billion on drainage infrastructure, and more than $150 million a year on drainage improvement projects. This has reduced flood-prone areas from 3,200ha in the 1970s, to pockets amounting to about 35ha today.

But limited space for drainage infrastructure means flood management is an ongoing challenge. The PUB recognises this, which is why it looks at other ways to deal with flash flooding, such as the ABC Waters programme.

It is working with developers of commercial, industrial, institutional and residential projects that are at least 0.2ha to implement measures, such as facade greenery, to slow runoff.

PUB also works to enhance flood protection by installing flood barriers and raised platforms to prevent water from entering buildings.

Sharing space

"One solution is to share spaces, and use mono-functional systems in a multifunctional way," said Dr Dreiseitl. "This could be an area where you hold, filter and keep the water during a heavy downpour, but use it for another purpose during dry weather."

For this, places such as playgrounds and amphitheatres are "highly feasible", said Dr Chew Soon Hoe, council member of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore (IES).

In Boston and Philadelphia, some basketball courts and playgrounds have porous pavements to let water seep through and be stored beneath, or channelled to a storage tank, he said.

But this requires "engineers, architects and landscape architects to work together as early as possible, preferably as early as the design stage, to encompass all requirements including water harvesting and reusing of water".

Layers of green

Another way to boost Singapore's resilience is to introduce layers of green in buildings, instead of, say, just one green roof, said Dr Dreiseitl.

The Parkroyal on Pickering hotel is one example. Its facade is interspersed with green walls and horizontal balconies of plants. When these are part of a system that includes a retention tank, the gardens serve as a filter to purify the water before it is stored.

During a dry season, the water can be used to water the facade greenery - essential for cooling temperatures, attracting biodiversity into the city and contributing to the good health of people.

Facade greenery is feasible, as shown by Singapore achieving its greening target of 50ha two decades before its 2030 deadline, but the use of detention tanks is not yet widespread here.

A spokesman for property developer City Developments told The Straits Times that technical challenges, cost and space constraints must first be overcome.

For instance, a dedicated piping system is required to reverse the pumping up of rainwater from the ground floor to higher levels. That entails long-term running cost.

Situating the tanks on upper floors would be at the expense of "premium, sellable areas", he said. Tanks located on rooftops may also pose aesthetic concerns.

Porous pavements

Porous pavements can be used to slow down rainwater flowing into the public drainage system. Such pavements include those made of pebbles with gaps for water to seep through.

But porous pavements are not feasible for many areas, such as main arterial roads and expressways, due to their strength and safety requirements, said Dr Chew. Such roads must be well compacted to support the load, which means water is not likely to flow through the layers easily.

Porous pavements that are not regularly and properly cleaned may cause ponding over time, affecting driving comfort and safety, he said, adding that such pavements can be considered for minor roads or open carparks.

Moving forward

Implementational issues aside, what is more challenging is mindset change.

"The traditional architectural mindset is to get rid of water as quickly as possible. Water was always seen as the enemy," said Dr Dreiseitl.

"This has started to change... Water is no longer the enemy, it is actually our friend."

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Three more agencies to partner MSO: Grace Fu

KELLY NG Today Online 10 Mar 15;

SINGAPORE — From April this year, the Municipal Services Office will partner three additional agencies, namely the Building and Construction Authority, the Singapore Land Authority and the Urban Redevelopment Authority to expand its scope of work and ensure that municipal feedback is properly acted on, said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Grace Fu today (March 10).

The three agencies, which manage around 700 municipal cases every month, will have to adopt the office’s service standards, which includes a protocol to surface complex cases to partner agencies’ senior management and the MSO’s attention. Feedback provided to these agencies will also be channeled to the MSO’s integrated municipal management system. The full system integration is targeted to complete by 2016.

With these three agencies on board, the MSO will now have a total of 11 partner agencies, including existing ones like the Singapore Police Force, the National Environment Agency, the National Parks Board, the Land Transport Authority, the Housing & Development Board, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, the People’s Association and PUB.

Ms Fu also announced a pilot trial between MSO and the Jurong and Holland-Bukit Panjang town councils to fine-tune feedback management protocols. The trial started this month and will be extended to all town councils if successful.

As part of efforts to improve efficiency in public service, from June onwards, NParks will be the central agency for public greenery maintenance. As a start, it will centralise grass-cutting works currently managed by the SLA, PUB and HDB.

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Singapore on track for 'more sustainable' population growth: PMO

Channel NewsAsia 10 Mar 15;

SINGAPORE: The Republic remains on track for "slower and more sustainable" population growth, with the overall growth rate of 1.3 per cent in 2014 the slowest in the past 10 years.

This is in line with what was proposed in the Population White Paper and a result of concrete measures taken to moderate foreign workforce growth said Ms Grace Fu, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, speaking at the Committee of Supply 2015 debate on Tuesday (Mar 10).

She added that the size of the Permanent Resident population in Singapore has "stabilised" over the past two years, falling slightly from 531,000 in 2013 to 528,000 last year.

She also said the Government has taken a calibrated approach when it came to issuing citizenships and permanent residences status. Last year, 20,348 Singaporean Citizenships and 29,854 new Permanent Residences were granted.

In the same year, citizen births rose to around 33,000, about 2,000 more than in 2013, with the Total Fertility Rate increasing to 1.25 from 1.19 over the same period. There were about 24,000 marriages involving at least one citizen in 2014 - the highest since 1997, she said.

"The size of our Permanent Resident population has stabilised, and in fact fallen slightly in the last two years. Overall, our immigrants help to prevent our citizen population from shrinking," said Ms Fu, who is also the Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources and for Foreign Affairs.

Within the citizen population, the median age increased to 40.4 years, while the proportion of those aged 65 and above rose to 12.4 per cent, up from 11.7 per cent in June 2013.

"In all, we remain committed to our goal of a sustainable population, to ensure that Singapore remains a good home for Singaporeans of all ages to live, work and play."

Even as the Government continues to build up the Singaporean core in the workforce, Ms Fu emphasised that it is important for the country to remain open to foreigners.

"Foreigners help to plug gaps that cannot be filled by Singaporeans, provide expertise and ideas to kickstart new sectors, and transfer skills that enrich our local workforce and businesses," she said.

Ms Fu added: "For example, research and development in Singapore has benefited from the experience and expertise from around the world, and has resulted in several breakthroughs such as more effective treatment of tuberculosis and underwater robotics. The result is a more flexible and competitive workforce which is responsive to the shifting global business environment."

- CNA/es/xk

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Can Malaysia still afford to ignore nuclear energy?


On the anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear plant accident four years ago today, we weigh in on plans for a nuclear energy programme here.

For many years, Yumiko Sato would delight in the boxes of local fruits and vegetables sent from her grandparents, who owned a small farm and market in their home town in northern Japan. Peaches, cherries, grapes, pumpkins, cucumbers and spinach were often in those boxes.

The “fresh, tasty and nutritious produce” was synonymous with her grandparents’ home town, Fukushima, which was known for its peaches. That was until March 11, 2011. Then a tsunami tore through the area, following a huge earthquake, leaving almost 20,000 people dead or missing.

The tsunami swamped the generators of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, unleashing a new tragedy – there was an explosion, a fire and the leak of contaminated water, and then the meltdown of three nuclear reactors.

“The news reports were saying everything was under control,” Sato wrote in an e-mail. “But I felt that something was very wrong.” Eventually some 160,000 people had to be evacuated; most never returned home.

For Sato’s grandfather, the disaster was “the most shocking thing he had ever experienced, more shocking than World War II,” wrote Sato, who still has family in Fukushima.

Today, food from Fukushima raises concerns about radiation, said Sato. Some 500,000 tonnes of contaminated water still sits on the plant and contamination from leaks is a concern.

The shockwaves from the incident hit hard. In Japan, the nuclear industry has almost collapsed, with dozens of plants mothballed. Germany is phasing out its plants, as are other European countries.

Yet other countries, including China, India and Russia, are still pushing ahead with their nuclear programmes, with approximately 60 plants under construction. For countries with only a few fuel resources, nuclear energy can seem an attractive alternative. Could Malaysia be pursuing that path?

Plan delayed

The Government’s 2010 Economic Transformation Programme clearly states the plan for nuclear energy “to meet future demand and diversify the energy mix”. Currently, the bulk of our power comes from natural gas and coal. In 2011, the Government set up the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation (MNPC) to implement a nuclear energy programme, with the delivery of a two-gigawatt power plant in 2021.

But how far along are we in this plan? “2021 is no longer the target date,” said Dr Mohd Zamzam Jaafar, the chief operating officer of MNPC. “We don’t know when it will be. We have to wait for the government to decide.”

The 11th Malaysia Plan, due to be tabled in June, might offer some answers.

Last year, Datuk Mah Siew Keong, a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, said the Government would conduct studies to assess the feasibility of building a plant. He promised to keep everything transparent. However, the disquiet is already building among anti-nuclear voices.

“I’m very concerned,” said Datuk Dr Ronald McCoy, former president of International Physicians for the Prevention of the Nuclear War (IPPNW) and the Malaysian Medical Association. McCoy wories that this would be a terribly misguided development policy.

He says: “The Government will never tell us when they will go ahead. But if they’re not going ahead, why still have MNPC?”

Cheap nuclear power is a “myth”, he said, because some costs are unaccounted for, such as the huge costs of managing waste, which can remain radioactive for thousands of years. Dozens of aged nuclear plants are now due for decommissioning, a process that is costly, hazardous and takes years.

Nuclear power has always had its controversies, and also its catastrophic accidents, such as the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl, Ukraine. But in recent years, it was on an upsurge.

Fukushima upset that wave. “It shed light on the myth (about nuclear energy),” said Abdul Hadi Khalid from Aman – Anak Malaysia Anti-Nuclear. “Nuclear energy is never green,” he states.

Not even as a “last resort” would he consider nuclear energy. “Let’s say we run out of fossil fuels. I would choose having no electricity at all rather than nuclear,” he said.

Hadi likened a nuclear plant to “having a (live) grenade in your hand — it’s safe as long as you’re steady.”

He pointed out that Malaysia did not have a culture of good maintenance, citing various disasters, such as the Terengganu stadium collapse.

So echoed environmentalist and engineer Tan Ka Kheng. Engineering practice and professionalism in Malaysia was, like the economy, at an “emerging” level. “But to run a nuclear power plant, you have to be very advanced. There are huge risks.”

In the 1980s, Tan campaigned against Asian Rare Earth, which dumped thousands of large drums of radioactive waste in Perak, some of which corroded and leaked into the environment.

“In a virgin forest,” he added. “It was absolutely disgusting.”

With safety and accountability perennial issues in Malaysia, how can we consider nuclear energy? “Even Japan did not do a good job,” Tan added.

Indeed, the Japanese parliamentary panel report on the Fukushima accident said while cataclysmic events were a trigger, “It was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.”

Waste not

But what options are there besides nuclear energy? “We do have other options – renewable energy and energy efficiency,” said Zaini Abdul Wahab, an energy efficiency consultant and activist. “This would be faster, cheaper, safer and more inclusive.”

Consumers and the industrial and building sectors could all play a role. Yet scant attention has been given to these areas.

“We have no policy on energy conservation,” he said.

The starting point should be energy conservation followed by energy efficiency measures, he said.

Some experts have estimated as much as RM7bil could be saved a year. Zaini added it was possible to have:

> Savings of 5%-10% of energy consumption from low or no-cost measures.

> Savings of 10%-30%, with good returns, from some investment.

Such measures are standard practice elsewhere. In Singapore, plans for energy efficiency stretch up to 2050.

However, Mohd Zamzam said energy efficiency was “not so simple”. Local manufacturers were not ready to produce the most efficient goods, and imports come at a high cost, he said. Some buildings were also “too old” to meet efficiency standards.

He added the electricity tariff had been raised to promote solar energy. “We’ve used the money now,” he said. “Someone has to pay.”

But critics point out nuclear energy has unseen and immeasurable costs. In Fukushima, the costs are huge, not only because of safety. There is the human toll, of disrupted lives and lost homes.

For Sato and her family, they have lost their ancestral home.

“Some people are deeply connected to their lands ... The people of Fukushima are like that, which adds to their suffering.

“What makes this situation difficult is that it is not over,” she said in an e-mail. “We continue to worry about the effect of the nuclear disaster. Living with uncertainty is very difficult.”

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Japan weather bureau raises chance of El Nino emerging by summer

Yuka Obayashi PlanetArk 11 Mar 15;

Japan's weather bureau said on Tuesday that the possibility of an El Nino pattern forming by summer is higher than the 50 percent it projected in its previous monthly forecast.

Normal weather patterns may continue, but there is higher chance of an El Nino, which is often linked to heavy rainfall in some regions and drought in others, emerging by summer, the bureau said.

The El Nino weather pattern - a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific - can trigger drought in Southeast Asia and Australia, and floods in South America, hitting production of key foods such as rice, wheat and sugar.

(Editing by Ryan Woo)

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Disaster damage expected to hit $300 billion yearly as events intensify

Chris Arsenault PlanetArk 11 Mar 15;

Investing in insurance programs for poor farmers today could save tens of billions of dollars in coming decades as climate change upsets growing patterns and makes harvests fail, U.N. officials said ahead of next week's conference in Japan on disaster preparedness.

An investment of $350,000 in disaster prevention for farmers, including irrigation systems, crop insurance and terraces saves an estimated $4 million in averted costs for humanitarian relief when a drought or flood hits, said Richard Choularton, chief of disaster risk reduction at the World Food Programme (WFP).

Index insurance systems, where farmers receive a payout if rainfall levels or the temperature pass a given threshold, have been some of the most effective tools in helping communities respond to floods, droughts or heatwaves, Choularton said.

"The poorest farmers are the ones who need access to insurance most," Choularton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Safety nets are needed to reduce and manage the risks from disasters."

A U.N. report released ahead of the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction set to take place in Sendai, Japan, from March 14-18 found that disasters are expected to cost the global community up to $300 billion in annual losses in the coming decades.

Choularton believes that estimate is conservative.

The scale of the problem is making governments start to appreciate the increased costs they can expect when natural disasters strike.

The African Union, for example, has set up an insurance fund to help member states when a drought hits, and individual countries are also building their own programs, Choularton said.

On average, the farm sector bears 22 percent of the costs caused by natural disasters, said Dominique Burgeon, director of emergencies for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

"The number of disasters is increasing, becoming more intense and more costly," Burgeon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, especially floods, droughts and heatwaves."

Around the world, 2.5 billion smallholder farmers depend on agriculture to earn a living, he said, including hundreds of millions who exist at subsistence levels at the best of times.

In the developed world, about 80 percent of agricultural insurance is subsidized by the state, the WFP's Choularton said, and governments in developing countries should work to expand social safety nets for farmers to mitigate the worst effects of disasters.

(Editing by Tim Pearce)

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