Steps to beef up process of wildlife impact assessment: Desmond Lee

Audrey Tan Straits Times 26 Jun 17;

When the Phase 1 environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for the Cross Island MRT line was released in February last year, it described the impact of soil works on surrounding wildlife as "moderate".

But members of the public were left confused. What exactly does "moderate" impact mean?

There were concerns about how EIA studies are done after the release of the report which referred to possible plans for a tunnel under the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR) as part of the MRT line.

The Government now wants to strengthen the process, and the National Parks Board is working with partners to look at how it can be done, Mr Desmond Lee, Second Minister for National Development, told The Straits Times last week during his first interview as full minister.

"We are seeing how we can strengthen the EIA process, taking on board all the lessons that we picked up in the last few EIAs - improving baseline survey methodology, understanding of Singapore's perspective and situation," said Mr Lee, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Home Affairs.

Baseline surveys are done to identify the different types of wildlife in an area. "So if an EIA consultant comes from abroad, they must recognise the fragility of our environment, the fragmentation of certain nature areas, and recognise that when they do an EIA, they have to recognise context."

More details will be revealed at a later date, added Mr Lee.

His comments come in the wake of two high-profile developments - the Cross Island Line, which is expected to be completed in 2030, and the Mandai eco-tourism hub.

In both cases, EIAs were done by international consultancy Environmental Resources Management, which was founded in Britain. It explored ways in which works could be carried out to reduce impact to surrounding flora and fauna.

When the two reports were released months apart last year, they were disputed by nature groups which pointed to the lack of clarity of terms used in the reports, and the lack of consideration of the Singapore context.

For instance, the EIA on Mandai had determined that impact could be reduced from "medium" to "small" if mitigation measures, such as forest restoration and avoiding work in certain areas, were enforced.

But the Nature Society (Singapore) pointed out that the magnitude of the impact could be underplayed, considering the project site's strategic location just outside Singapore's largest nature reserve.

Ecology consultants and scientists are encouraged by Mr Lee's announcement that the Government is looking into strengthening the processes behind EIAs.

On the importance of ensuring that EIAs are tailored to Singapore's context, Ms Natalia Huang, principal ecologist at environmental consultancy Ecology Matters, pointed to the uniqueness of Singapore's human-dominated environment and small size.

"Other countries may look at landscape-scale impacts spanning say, 100km, but Singapore doesn't have such a scale," she said.

Mr David Tan, a bird scientist from the National University of Singapore, said it is important that baseline studies involve more than just coming up with a checklist of species, adding that connectivity between green plots is also important.

He said: "It is also important to consider whether development works in an area would affect how animals move from place to place."

Interview with Desmond Lee: Youngest minister a nature buff with a keen eye
Singapore's youngest Cabinet minister Desmond Lee highlights the importance of conservation and the need to balance between development and protecting our biodiversity.
Audrey Tan Straits Times 26 Jun 17;

Dressed in khaki and armed with a pair of binoculars, newly minted Second Minister for National Development and Home Affairs Desmond Lee arrived for an interview last Thursday at Windsor Nature Park looking ready for a bird-watching adventure.

It was an apt look for the youngest minister of Singapore's current Cabinet, a nature buff with a keen eye: During a walk around the park, the 40-year-old spotted and identified two dragonflies - a common scarlet and a crimson dropwing - each barely the length of a human finger.

But the easy demeanour of the father of three children - a seven- year-old daughter and two sons, aged three and five - spoke of more than just his enjoyment of nature.

It also reflected his approach to governance: one that involves walking the ground and speaking to different people, from nature enthusiasts - from whom he learnt how to identify birds - to construction company representatives, policemen and heritage group leaders, who hail from some of the sectors of society he interacts with frequently.

"The Government has no monopoly on knowledge or perspectives. We have to eat humble pie, we have to talk to people and get their perspectives... You want people's views, because it impacts them. And they give us a wealth of local knowledge and ideas," he said.

Mr Lee, whose father is former Cabinet minister Lee Yock Suan, entered politics in 2011 as a backbencher in Jurong GRC.

In 2013, he was made minister of state for national development, before being promoted to senior minister of state in 2015, taking on the additional portfolio of home affairs as well. In his latest promotion on May 1 this year, he became Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Home Affairs and National Development, which made him the youngest full minister in the current Cabinet.

Over the years, he has maintained close ties with conservation groups, most recently joining marine enthusiasts last week in discussions over Sisters' Islands Marine Park, Singapore's one and only marine park located south of the mainland.

Audrey Tan