Best of our wild blogs: 23 May 17

Adventures with new friends!
Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs

Tanah Merah, 1965
The Long and Winding Road

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Singapore team digs in to help Riau village combat haze

Joint effort results in canal block that helps prevent peatland fires
Arlina Arshad Indonesia Correspondent In Sungai Tohor (Riau) Straits Times 23 May 17;

A group of Singaporeans has been digging up dirt with hoes and machetes in a remote Sumatra village to help stop haze from developing.

The 13 volunteers from Singapore environmental group People's Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze) were in Sungai Tohor, a small coastal village in Riau province, earlier this month.

They worked with residents to construct a "canal block" - used to re-wet peatland that had been drained to make way for an acacia plantation by local pulpwood company Lestari Unggul Makmur, or PT LUM.

The volunteers dug up the peat soil and packed it into empty rice sacks, which were then sewn up and stacked in a wooden structure in the canal to trap water and keep the peat moist. A sluice gate helps to control the water level.

Said volunteer Aravindkumaran Sabapathy, 26: "We did only a small part. It's a lot of manual work. It's tiring but (the residents) are not complaining and still smiling."

Building canal blocks is one of the measures taken by the Indonesian government to prevent peatland from drying out. Dry peat burns easily and is hard to put out as fire continues to smoulder underground and spread quickly.

Peatland fires in Indonesia were a major contributor to the 2015 haze crisis, said to be among the worst in the region's history.

Haze co-founder led Singaporean group in constructing canal block

"What we hope to do here is show that it's possible for Singapore and Indonesia to work together for a common good," said PM.Haze co-founder Tan Yi Han.

Said Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which partnered with PM.Haze: "We want more Singaporeans to witness first hand the hard work of ordinary Indonesians to safeguard their own environment against fires and haze."

PM.Haze collaborated with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) to build the $3,000 canal block, with money raised from the public.

Volunteers told The Straits Times they had joined the trip to better understand the problem that has plagued Indonesia and its neighbours for years and how the locals are tackling it.

"We hate the haze to the core and we always complain about it," volunteer Bernice Lau, a 36-year-old teacher, said.

"Shovelling was really laborious. It was also a rather arduous trip. It took 61/2 hours on three separate boat rides to get here so I learnt that help won't be easy."

Sungai Tohor, a farming village of 1,300 people, had suffered the brunt of the haze, brought about by massive fires - which, at its peak in 2014, razed some of the community's sago and rubber plantations and cloaked the village in toxic smoke.

Residents blamed PT LUM, which had dug canals over 10km long through the peatland in its 10,390ha concession.

They filed a petition online, calling for President Joko Widodo to visit the village to see how the haze had affected their lives.

They said schools were shut down for two months and farmers lost their incomes as their plantations were destroyed.

Mr Abdul Manan, 44, who started the petition, said: "We were disappointed as we had suffered the haze for 17 years and even exported smoke to Singapore and Malaysia."

Mr Joko visited the village in November 2014 and ordered the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to revoke PT LUM's licence and review all permits of companies located on peatland.

Singaporean volunteers dig deep in Sumatra to combat haze

Concession land has since been seized from PT LUM and returned to the villagers to manage sustainably on their own. So far, 22 canal blocks have been constructed and large-scale wildfires have not returned since 2015, villagers said.

"Sago trees need lots of water to grow healthily. With these canal blocks, we now have ready water to irrigate our land and to use at home for showering and washing. But most importantly, they have helped dampen the peat and stop fires and haze," sago farmer Agus Windy, 37, told The Straits Times.

The villagers understand that canal blocking is not a comprehensive solution to the haze problem and greater preventive efforts from Indonesia are needed. Villager Heri Daswani, 37, said: "Small help is still help. I'm grateful that our Singapore friends have travelled all the way here to help us build the canal block. Working together is always better than blaming each other."


Singaporean volunteers work to build canal block in Indonesia.

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What does sustainable development mean for Singapore?

Audrey Tan Straits Times 22 May 17;

This is the eighth of 12 primers on current affairs issues that are part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times- Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

At the grand entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is a relic from the past that speaks of the world's future - and it is not the skeleton of a dinosaur.

Quite the opposite. Now that a global pact to steer the world away from catastrophic climate change has been inked, a quote on a wall aptly sums up the world's ambition to treat "natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value". Former United States president Theodore Roosevelt said this nearly a century ago. Today, this sentiment is known by a more familiar catchphrase: sustainable development.

It is internationally defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.

Singapore has jumped on the bandwagon. Today, the Republic boasts green cars, green buildings and research into green energy. But what does being a responsible steward of natural assets have to do with Singapore - a country with no natural resources?

Singapore has been consuming natural resources from beyond its borders - resources under threat by climate change.

Up to 60 per cent of Singapore's water is from Malaysia, and more than 90 per cent of its food from around the world. But the extreme weather patterns symptomatic of climate change - such as floods and dry spells - are wreaking havoc on these supplies.

Last October, water levels at Johor's Linggiu Reservoir reached a historic low of 20 per cent, after a prolonged dry spell in 2014 led to steadily declining levels there. The Linggiu Dam is Singapore's main source of water in Malaysia.

And a study by the Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies had noted that by 2030, rice production in Thailand's rice bowl in the north-east could be reduced by up to 17.8 per cent due to flooding and storm surges. Fish catch potential in the waters of South-east Asia could also shrink by up to 60 per cent, as fish migrate away from the Equator to escape warmer oceans and increasingly acidic waters.

Though the Republic may generate only about 0.11 per cent of global emissions, it still has to do its part "as a responsible and vulnerable member of the global community", in the words of Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan.

Singapore has been working to combat climate change by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change that can already be felt. This has been done by following the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Re-adapt.


The first step to reducing emissions is to get people to use less resources. Singapore is doing this with its promotion of energy efficiency at home and in the workplace. This boils down to the use of less resources to achieve the same result, such as lighting a room with an energy-saving LED bulb instead of a fluorescent one.

Last month, changes were made to the Energy Conservation Act to force large energy users to do more for energy efficiency - including ensuring that common industrial equipment and systems meet minimum energy performance standards. Reducing the use of resources could also extend their lifespan - crucial, if climate change is causing their depletion. However, Singapore's move to do this did not come without controversy.

In February, the Government announced a 30 per cent water price hike that will be implemented over two phases to reflect costlier investments in weather-proof technology such as desalination and Newater, and to encourage its conservation.

There was a backlash with people protesting against the price hike, although experts welcomed it as a good way of controlling demand.

On the waste front, using less is also important for Singapore, considering it has but one landfill on Semakau Island that is filling up at an alarming rate. Its deadline is 2035 - a decade sooner than the original 2045 projection.

Singapore is looking to enact a law in the next three to five years to reduce packaging waste, which makes up a third of all household waste, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said last July.


Reusing resources also helps extend the lifespan of what is available. Singapore has a plan to reuse water endlessly, and national water agency PUB is already achieving this with its Newater technology that allows used water to be purified and used again.

Reusing nature's provisions to meet urban needs can also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike countries which have large tracts of land for the installation of solar panels, Singapore is land-scarce. But plenty of research is being done on this front to see how sunny Singapore can overcome its space constraints. This includes the setting up of the world's largest floating solar-cell test bed.

Ten different systems are being tested in the $11 million project at Tengah Reservoir, as scientists evaluate the performance and cost-effectiveness of each one.

Local solar energy firm REC Solar has also designed a new panel which is able to work even if part of it is shaded, something conventional panels cannot do. Its makers believe such a panel could be a possible solution to the lack of space in Singapore for conventional solar panels.

The hope is that Singapore could by 2050 meet 30 per cent of its energy needs with solar power. Right now, 95 per cent of Singapore's energy comes from natural gas . This may be the cleanest form of fossil fuel around - but it is still a fossil fuel.


To safeguard its people and economy, Singapore has to adapt to changes in the climate. According to the projections from Singapore's Second National Climate Change Study, mean sea level is estimated to rise by up to about 1m by 2100.

The Ministry for the Environment and Water Resources has said that the sea-level rise is expected to be a gradual process that will take place over several decades. But Singapore has already taken steps to adapt to the changing environment.

In 2011, for example, the authorities raised the minimum reclamation level to at least 4m above mean sea level, which is an increase of 1m. Selected roads, such as Changi Coast Road and Nicoll Drive, have also been raised to reduce the impact of flooding. To mitigate coastal erosion, seawalls and rock slopes near the coasts have also been installed.

But re-adaptation has to go beyond the physical environment. Mindsets, too, have to be changed.

Estimates have shown that even if countries keep to their pledges for emission cuts under the Paris Agreement,total emissions in 2030 will still exceed what is needed to keep global warming to an internationally agreed target of 2 deg C this century.

So while Singapore has enacted laws to help it tackle climate change, every individual needs to feel that he has the power to make a difference. This applies even with the simplest of actions, such as turning off lights that are not in use. Without this conviction, the world may well go the way of the dinosaurs.

The Singapore Perspective
Boosting energy efficiency to curb carbon emissions
Audrey Tan Straits Times 22 May 17;

Floods, heatwaves and other disasters induced by climate change have been plaguing the world for years.

But only in December 2015 did countries agree to tackle it, after decades of wrangling. The historic event in Paris saw delegates from nearly 200 countries - including Singapore - agreeing to go on a carbon diet.

The pact, the first universal, legally binding climate deal, came into force on Nov 4 last year, and aims to keep the global temperature rise this century to below 2 deg C.

Under the pact, Singapore pledged to become greener economically and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to achieve each dollar of gross domestic product by 36 per cent from 2005 levels, come 2030. It also pledged to stop any further increases to its greenhouse gas emissions by the same timeline.

Last July, Singapore unveiled its plan to meet its targets.

A pivotal strategy is to cut carbon emissions by improving energy efficiency across all sectors, namely power generation, industry, buildings, transport, households, waste and water.

Singapore has moved to do it on all fronts.

Changes made to the Energy Conservation Act in Parliament last month will require large polluters to step up green efforts or face higher penalties.

Companies have to adopt a structured measurement and reporting system for their greenhouse gas emissions - a move that will pave the way for the carbon tax scheme that the Government plans to impose in 2019.

Large emitters - such as power stations, refineries and petrochemical and semiconductor manufacturers - will likely be taxed in the range of $10 to $20 per tonne ofgreenhouse gases they produce.

For vehicles, the National Environment Agency has introduced a new Vehicular Emissions Scheme , starting on Jan 1 next year. It will be much stricter on carbon dioxide emissions and will include checks on four other pollutants: hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

National water agency PUB is also testing new technologies that will help cut energy use in water-treatment processes.

Besides curbing emissions, Singapore's climate action plan will also set out ways for the country to deal with climate change in six areas, including coastal protection, managing the water supply and improving food supply resilience.

For example, one project is to build Changi Airport's Terminal 5 at 5.5m above the mean sea level - higher than the level that PUB stipulates for other areas in Singapore. This measure is to protect against floods.

Audrey Tan

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Malaysia: Perak plastic ban on hold

The Star 23 May 17;

SERI ISKANDAR: Perak is putting the brakes on the statewide ban on polystyrene containers and plastic bags, which was originally sche­duled to begin June 1.

Confirming that the ban has been called off, Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abd Kadir said the state would reintroduce it after a full study.

He said the announcement on the ban last year was meant to be a trial period for the people to adjust to the ban, and for the state to see how it could be implemented properly in the future.

“We cannot tackle the problems of plastic and polystyrene usage without providing the correct alternative, as well as creating an environment that leads towards the ban.

“The state environment committee has been tasked with conducting proper studies on the impact of the ban on stakeholders,” he told reporters after attending the state-level Teachers Day celebration here yesterday.

Dr Zambry said the government has to also study the implications of such a ban in states that have successfully enforced it.

“We’ve been receiving feedback from the public. We know they want to see public areas free of plastic and polystyrene waste, but I want the feasibility of this ban to be looked into first.

“We don’t want to end up creating another problem,” he said.

Perak Environment Committee chairman Datuk Dr Muhammad Amin Zakaria said Perakians needed more time to adjust to the ban.

“The manufacturers also have to cut down on the production of plastic bags and focus on biodegradable materials.

“Biodegradable materials are costlier and they are not widely used, but I believe our state is heading towards the direction of using more environmental-friendly materials for packing food and groce­ries,” he said.

Dr Muhammad Amin said feedback from the public, local authorities and manufacturers would be taken into account.

In April last year, he announced that the total ban on plastic bags and polystyrene containers would be enforced in stages, starting with state government buildings.

Cafeterias in the state buildings started using biodegradable containers every Friday from June last year.

In the second stage from January this year, the ban was extended from weekly to daily.

The third stage, in January this year also covered all municipal councils in the state.

The fourth stage was the ban on polystyrene and plastic bags throughout the state.

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Australia: Baby dugongs' return to Great Barrier Reef suggests vital seagrass recovering from Cyclone Yasi

Robert Baird and Nathalie Fernbach ABC North Qld 22 May 17;

An increase in the number of baby dugongs on the Great Barrier Reef suggests seagrass ecosystems are recovering well after recent flood and cyclone events.

A James Cook University report on the distribution and abundance of dugongs and turtles on the southern Great Barrier Reef, between Hinchinbrook Island and southern Queensland, showed the number of dugong calves had gone from zero per cent after Cyclone Yasi in 2011 to ten per cent of the visible population in late 2016.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's (GBRMPA) Roger Beeden said the fact that dugongs are reproducing suggests their ecosystem is in better health.

"Because they have obviously found enough seagrass to sustain them and not only to sustain their growth but also to be able to reproduce," Dr Beeden said.

Mammal easier to count than blades of grass

Seagrass is the primary food source for dugongs and sea turtles, and seagrass beds are used by many fish and marine species as a nursery.

It can be tricky to assess the health of seagrass habitats as inshore beds can be hard to access, but Dr Beeden said dugongs are easy to spot in aerial surveys and give an indication of seagrass health.

"They are a really useful supplement to what happens with programs looking at seagrass numbers themselves," Dr Beeden said.

It has been shown that seagrass meadows can recover well from cyclone damage but Dr Beeden said there were concerns after Cyclone Yasi and subsequent floods escalated the impacts of repeated damage.

"For example in Cleveland Bay, which is just offshore from Townsville, the magnitude of the effect of those cyclones was very substantial — not just on the standing crop of seagrass but also on the seeds of the seagrass which were in the sand," Dr Beeden said.

"So we were very concerned about what the return time and health of those seagrass systems was going to be."

Dugongs' conservation status is vulnerable and it is believed that most of the world's dugong population lives in Australian waters.

The JCU dugong survey was conducted as part of a report for the GBRMPA on the distribution of dugongs and marine turtles in Moreton Bay, Hervey Bay and the southern Great Barrier Reef.

It estimated there were 5,500 dugongs on the southern Great Barrier Reef in late 2016.

Dugong calves make strong comeback on reef
ELISE DONALDSON Australian Associated Press 22 May 17;

Dugong calf numbers, wiped out on the Great Barrier Reef six years ago, have recovered and are thriving, new research has found.

An aerial survey conducted late last year has shown a significant recovery of the large sea mammal's population since Cyclone Yasi and widespread flooding damaged their seagrass food supply in 2011.

Numbers in the southern region of the reef have increased to more than 10 per cent of the current population, according to the James Cook University survey.

Scientists estimated there were some 5500 dugongs in the waters between Hinchinbrook Island and the Queensland-NSW border at the time of the survey, with just over half found in the reef's world heritage area.

JCU Professor Helene Marsh said the results were positive news for what was a "globally significant" dugong population on the Great Barrier Reef.

"Dugongs play an important ecological role in coastal marine ecosystems and the status of dugong populations in an area can be used as an indicator of general ecosystem health," Prof Marsh said.

The survey is part of an integrated monitoring and reporting program which assesses the progress of the Australian and Queensland government's Reef 2050 Plan.

Program director Dr Roger Beeden said the surveys would be completed every five years and were vital to conservation management of the reef.

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