Best of our wild blogs: 18 Sep 17

Corals in the City
Little Green Men

Pulau Tekukor Intertidal Trip on SG52
Offshore Singapore

Barramundi (Lates calcarifer) @ Coney Island (Pulau Serangoon)
Monday Morgue

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Lessons for Singapore from Houston floods

Geh Min For The Straits Times 18 Sep 17;

The fallout for a city state would be far more serious as people have no hinterland to move to and could become environmental refugees.

Floods, like other disasters, make headline news but recede just as quickly from the public's attention - unless you happen to be a victim. But Houston's flooding, though geographically more remote, seems to strike closer to home than the far more frequent and more fatal floods in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, China and even our Asean neighbours because Houston, in the US state of Texas, is a wealthy, First World global metropolis, an important port and petrochemical hub, a top medical centre and home to many Fortune 500 multinational companies. It is also flat and low lying.

So can what happened to Houston also happen to Singapore?

Mother Nature has been kind to Singapore. Although we often bemoan our lack of natural resources, we actually have a very rich biodiversity. We are also free of natural disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Singapore has also been extremely fortunate to have a far-sighted government which has made good urban planning and water management a priority from the start.

Most of the damage to Houston was from water and not strong winds. Houston's floods appear to be largely a result of poor urban planning and unregulated building. This article, however, is not intended to be a paean of self-congratulation but a sober look at what lessons Singapore can learn.

Although we do not rank high among cities at risk of flooding, unlike Shanghai, Bangkok or New York, we are not risk-free as climate change has resulted in increasingly frequent and more severe episodes of extreme weather and rising sea levels.

If Singapore were to suffer serious flooding, the social, economic and political consequences would be far more serious than Houston's. First, because of land scarcity, much of our key infrastructure is on low-lying coastal land or even underground. Second, our hard-earned reputation as a First World city that attracts global talent and investments (and is even exporting our urban planning and building model overseas), will be seriously damaged.

But most devastating of all is the question of where we could go. People from Shanghai, Bangkok or Houston and Florida can relocate inland either temporarily or even permanently, as has happened in New Orleans. This already traumatic social dislocation would, in our case, take on a national dimension and we might become environmental refugees like the citizens of Kiribati and Tuvalu.

So here are three lessons we should remember.


We should never underestimate the ability of the human species to think short term, both regarding our past and future. The deadliest hurricane in American history was one that hit Galveston in 1900, effectively wiping it out. It seems to have also been wiped out of Houston's memory, which is surprising because many of the refugees moved inland and settled in Houston, then a one-horse town which then grew to become the fourth-largest city in the US. Such rapid growth in slightly more than a century might seem a success story but "what made Houston so vulnerable to flooding was rampant, unregulated growth", economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times on Sept 7. Singapore's growth as a city has also been phenomenal but matched by strict regulation and long-term urban planning and water management.

But we too have had our episodes of excessive complacency like the series of flash floods from 2010-2013 after 35 years of being flood-free. The first was initially dismissed as a one-in-a-hundred year freak event till the second flood less than two weeks later. That prompted the setting up of a commission to investigate the causes and to recommend corrective measures to our outdated drainage system.

Flooding can also be caused by roads, paved areas, carparks and other impermeable surfaces. While government planners have generally been vigilant about preserving sufficient porous land cover such as parks and nature reserves, it is obvious that these are gradually being eroded by built surfaces, Bukit Brown and Bidadari being two recent examples of green spaces being replaced by roads and housing developments.

Land use planners and developers should not only replace the equivalent area of permeable surfaces but should increase it to cater for more extreme weather conditions. This simple precautionary measure would save the state and taxpayers a fortune in downstream flood-control infrastructure and damage.

En bloc sales and the high price of land lead private developers to maximise their built-up space to the extent that any recently built private condominium is likely to have far less open space than Housing Board blocks. All this increases our risk of flooding and adds to its potential severity.

Building is essential but we should distinguish between necessity and vanity projects and build with humility, not hubris.


The larger and wealthier a city, the more complex, diverse and potentially conflicting its needs and demands. Predicting and juggling the intricate interactions between people and their environment goes far beyond simple arithmetic.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima tragedy in Japan, it seems highly irresponsible to the point of insanity to have sited a nuclear reactor in a tsunami-prone area, however well protected by sea walls and levees. But a crowded country needs energy, and nuclear reactors are usually sited in the least-populated part which typically is that way for a reason, in this case, tsunamis.

Singapore's planners have a Herculean task fitting our multifarious requirements on such a small island with no real hinterland. Our international airport, financial district, petrochemical and other major industries, many reservoirs and waste-disposal facilities are sited on low-lying, reclaimed land. We have little choice. But do we want to narrow our options further? People, unlike buildings, cannot be abandoned in an emergency.

The Government's 2010 White Paper on population projected for an artificial population growth to 6.9 million based largely on economic growth, the desired labour force and the changing dependency ratio of an ageing population. Factoring in social cohesion accurately turned out to be more challenging, but our ecological carrying capacity seems to have been missed out completely - except for a brief mention on green recreational spaces. Worryingly, in the subsequent furious debate, some well-respected planners said that we could actually comfortably grow to a population of 11 million or 12 million.

The more our population grows, the more ecologically vulnerable we make ourselves; and the faster we grow, the less time we have to correct our mistakes. How would we know we have reached or even exceeded the tipping point if we don't have time for checks and balances?


Like much of the developed, urbanised world, Singaporeans generally have a narrow anthropocentric view of nature which we regard as recreational or ornamental rather than providing essential ecosystem services. We fail to realise that nature is often not the problem but the solution.

After the tragic Asian tsunami in 2004, it was found that coastal villages with intact mangroves and coral were relatively unscathed but those nearby that had destroyed these natural barriers were severely damaged.

But most coastal cities like Miami, New Orleans and Singapore have removed these natural barriers in the course of development. Singapore has projects to regenerate our mangroves and corals but it will take a long time to do so.

Massive engineering projects like sea walls and pumps may afford temporary protection but are hugely expensive to build and maintain and when they fail, as happened in Fukushima and New Orleans, they can do so disastrously.

The Dutch, past masters of flood control (60 per cent of Holland is below sea level) depend heavily on technology and man-made barriers but they also integrate nature-based solutions and adaptations to flooding, following Francis Bacon's dictum that nature to be commanded must be obeyed. Wetlands and floodplains provide additional layers of protection to sea-level rises and storm surges and, if required, a well-managed, controlled retreat. Their safety margins are gargantuan; equivalent to a once-in-10,000-year flood for the most populous areas - something that engineering alone could not achieve.

They have been advising us on water and flood control but other than different geographical conditions, the Dutch have a nationwide awareness of their risks and an inclusive stakeholder approach to solutions whereas we Singaporeans leave the problem to the Government.

Our leaders are always reminding us of our many social and economic vulnerabilities and how every Singaporean must play a part. The same should go for our environmental fragility. If we could have the same checks and balances for our environmental resources as for our fiscal reserves and social fabric, we would be far more sustainable.

Don't forget that past perfor- mance is not a reliable predictor of the future in environmental as much as economic crises. The once-in-a-hundred-year flood is as likely statistically to happen tomorrow as in a hundred years.

• The writer, an environmentalist and former Nominated MP, is the immediate past president of Nature Society (Singapore).

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Local firm develops meat alternative from plants

NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 17 Sep 17;

SINGAPORE — With a protein-rich offering derived from plants, but which tastes like chicken, a local start-up has set its sights on pleasing meat eaters while incurring a smaller environmental footprint.

Mr Ricky Lin, 35, founder of food technology start-up Life3 Biotech, is looking to attract about S$1.5 million in funding to set up a production facility for his plant-based protein.

Tentatively called Veego, it is possibly the closest made-in-Singapore product to “clean meat”, which has generated excitement abroad among high-profile investors.

“Clean meat”, or cultured meat, is grown from animal cells without the farming and slaughtering of animals. Its close cousin is plant-based protein that tastes like real chicken or beef.

Last month, it was reported that Singapore investment fund Temasek led a US$75 million (S$101 million) investment in American company Impossible Foods, which produces plant-based protein that tastes and looks like beef. The company genetically modifies yeast and uses fermentation to produce an iron-containing molecule called heme, which gives the patty its red colour.

Separately, billionaires Richard Branson and Bill Gates were among the investors who pumped US$17 million into “clean meat” company Memphis Meats in August.

Mr Lin has been working on Veego since June last year with a small team, zeroing in on the ingredients and processes that would deliver the taste, texture and nutritional content he wanted.

Working out of the food science and technology lab at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and advised by NUS senior lecturer Leong Lai Peng, Mr Lin believes he has a product that consumers will enjoy.

Unlike tofu, which disintegrates more easily, Veego can be sliced like real meat. It can be braised, steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, and cooked in curry or teriyaki-style. After rounds of experimentation, it has gone from “yucky to tasty”, said Mr Lin.

While the exact blend of ingredients is a trade secret, he said they include legumes, grains and soya beans.

“The product can go even further … to Version 2.0. Right now, it’s about Version 1.5,” said Mr Lin, who goes meat-free on Wednesdays.

“We’ve had a panel of analysts and business owners who have tested our product and they were happy, so we decided to launch with this first.”

Even in a less evolved state last November, Veego (then called Veyotein) won two awards — the first runner-up and Most Functional awards — at the Food Innovation Product Award, organised by the Singapore Food Manufacturers’ Association and supported by various government agencies.

Mr Lin, who will be speaking at a food innovation panel session at the TechInnovation industry event on Wednesday, said it could be fortified with more iron in future. TechInnovation is organised by the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s Intellectual Property Intermediary.

According to him, Veego contains at least 18 grams of protein per 100g (tofu has about 8g while chicken breast has about 26g) and is high in fibre and low in saturated fats. It contains Vitamins A, B and C, and magnesium. Unlike mock meat, which is often made of soya bean skin and wheat gluten, Veego is gluten-free. Mr Lin has approached catering companies, restaurants and social enterprise NTUC Foodfare to taste his product.

Executive Chinese chef Brian Wong of Wan Hao restaurant at Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel has tried Veego a few times and said the product is versatile. Its nutritional content is a selling point, he said.

“I would not compare it to meat because if we compare it to chicken or pork, people would taste it with certain expectations,” said Mr Wong in Mandarin.

“If it were up to me, I would (introduce it at the restaurant) because we have customers who are vegetarian, but who do not want mock (meat) because of the starch and chemicals.”

Veego has garnered interest from food and beverage firms as well as institutional caterers that supply to nursing homes and athletes, and Mr Lin is hopeful that investors will come on board by end of next month.

He reckoned that with a 3,000 sq ft to 5,000 sq ft production facility, Life3 Biotech would be able to produce 25 tonnes a month for a start.

There is currently no government-funded research on “clean meat”. Asked if it sees research and development potential, Dr Benjamin Seet, executive director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*Star) biomedical research council, did not comment specifically on “clean meat”.

A*Star is looking at how biotechnology can safely meet consumer demand for “clean labels” and natural ingredients in food, said Dr Seet.

Meanwhile, in a sign that consumer demand for meat alternatives may be growing, NTUC FairPrice outlets and RedMart recently began selling products from British brand Quorn.

The meat substitute is made from fermentation using a nutritious fungus. FairPrice’s director (fresh products) Peter Teo said Quorn is the first plant-based protein available at the supermarket chain and has a “very similar texture to meat”.

Consumers are more environmentally conscious, and FairPrice saw potential for Quorn products as they generate 90 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions and use 10 times less water than beef, he said. Four products began retailing last month at S$5 for a 300g pack and more will be available soon, said Mr Teo.

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Malaysia: ‘Bush meat a health risk and can lead to extinction’

The Star 18 Sep 17;

KOTA KINABALU: There is no need for urban dwellers to consume bush meat even if they came from farms because protein can be sourced from livestock, says Sabah-based conservationist Dr Benoit Goossens.

Eating bush meat also poses a health risk, he added.

Dr Goossens, who heads the Danau Girang Field Centre in Kinabatangan, said that bush meat are sources of protein for certain forest communities.

“But for most people today, protein can be obtained by consuming chicken, lamb or beef,” he said.

Dr Goossens was commenting on a Facebook post over a recipe to cook porcupine meat, which has alarmed conservationists.

He said porcupines were being farmed and sold in peninsular Malaysia, but the question is whether animals like porcupines were really sourced from the farms.

“It is easy to tell the customer the meat came from a farm. How can you prove it? It can easily be taken from the wild,” he said, adding that there is also the risk of transmission of diseases from wild animals.

Dr Goossens said people should avoid wild meat because it would lead to the extinction of various animal species.

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The Everglades have always been hit by hurricanes. Thanks to climate change, Irma could be a different matter.

Chelsea Harvey The Washington Post 16 Sep 17;

As residents of the Southeast are returning home and assessing the damage left by Hurricane Irma, Florida scientists are anxiously waiting to evaluate the storm’s impact on one of the state’s most valuable — and vulnerable — ecosystems: the Everglades.

Already threatened by the continuous progression of sea-level rise — which pumps damaging salt water into the habitat, jeopardizing groundwater resources, contributing to erosion and threatening wildlife and vegetation — some scientists worry that the weakened Everglades are becoming less resilient to disruptive events like hurricanes. The issue is a prime example of the way climate change can render ecosystems more vulnerable to even natural disturbances.

Indeed, it’s an issue that President Barack Obama chose to highlight two years ago during his last term. On a visit to Everglades National Park in April 2015, timed to coincide with Earth Day, Obama emphasized the growing threat of climate change and pointed to the impact of the rising seas in Florida as an example.

“Climate change is threatening this treasure and the communities that depend on it, which includes almost all of South Florida,” he said in a speech delivered at the entrance of Everglades National Park. “And if we don’t act, there may not be an Everglades as we know it.”

Everglades National Park consists of about 1.5 million acres, or more than 2,300 square miles, of wetland area, containing pine woodlands, saw grass marshes and extensive mangrove forests, which help to naturally build up the land and buffer the coast against the rising seas. It’s home to a diverse variety of wildlife — including crocodiles and alligators, as Obama pointed out in his speech — and it’s part of the freshwater system that feeds South Florida’s Biscayne Aquifer, a source of drinking water for millions of people.

Hurricanes, in and of themselves, are not necessarily devastating events for the Everglades, according to Harold Wanless, an expert on coastal geology at the University of Miami. They have long been a natural and common occurrence in South Florida. They can even sometimes benefit the landscape by throwing mud onto the coast and helping to build up the land.

“From my point of view, they’re part of the system,” Wanless told The Washington Post.

Over the last century, however, sea-level rise — accelerated by human-induced global warming — has begun to degrade the Everglades by allowing salt water to seep into the system. This is bad news for the freshwater plants and animals that live there, but it’s also a major threat to South Florida’s drinking water supplies. And some scientists believe that salt water intrusion may be contributing to the erosion and collapse of certain parts of the landscape.

“Plants are not as productive as they have been, and soils in places are disappearing,” said Evelyn Gaiser, an Everglades expert and executive director of the School of Environment, Arts and Society at Florida International University. Particularly concerning is a process known by scientists as “peat collapse,” in which the rich, organic soil beneath the marshes is starting to collapse and be overtaken by open water.

“We’re trying to understand through a lot of ongoing science why that’s happening, but what we do know is it is occurring in areas that are receiving more salt than they have in the past, as a result of chronic salt water encroachment,” Gaiser said.

These soil losses are also making it increasingly difficult for the mangrove forests — some of the Everglades’ greatest natural defenses against sea level rise — to maintain themselves at the edges of the ecosystem, Wanless noted.

Now, scientists are growing increasingly concerned that the impact of hurricanes could exacerbate some of the climate-related challenges already facing the Everglades, by driving more salty water into the system or destroying more mangroves.

Researchers are awaiting clearance to enter the national park and begin assessing the impact of Hurricane Irma, but there are a few disturbances they’ll be looking out for, according to Len Berry, former head of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University and now a professor emeritus and independent consultant. A major priority will be “looking for the extent inland that the surge went, bringing salt water,” he told The Post.

“What’s expected to happen is that you get short-term contamination of the aquifer, but what’s more important perhaps is you get a longer-term degradation of the vegetation,” he added. While there’s some hope that the mangrove forests may continue to gradually shift inland in advance of the rising seas, a violent storm surge can overwhelm them, he said.

Indeed, previous hurricanes have destroyed thousands of mangrove trees as they passed through — Hurricane Wilma in 2005 was one of them. That said, Gaiser noted that the destroyed mangroves were regrowing within a matter of months, and had reached their previous levels of productivity within a few years.

The question now, she said, is how 12 more years of sea-level rise and degradation have affected the Everglades’ resiliency.

“Is this kind of recovery that we saw 12 years ago still possible?” she asked. “Because we know that we are on a different trajectory in this ecosystem than even we knew about 12 years ago at the timing of Hurricane Wilma.”

For now, scientists are continuing to collect data and improve the models they use to make long-term forecasts for the future of the Everglades, Gaiser said.

Scientists say there are still important improvements that could made to the region’s ongoing recovery efforts. Wanless has suggested more resources devoted to the recovery of mangroves, especially after large disturbances like hurricanes, and to the recycling and storage of much-needed fresh water to bolster the Everglades’ water levels.

That said, the greatest ongoing challenge for the Everglades remains the progression of climate change and the relentless rising of the seas. The Everglades’ response to Hurricane Irma may hold important clues about how the ecosystem is continuing to change, at a time when the its future remains deeply uncertain.

“When things are changing outside the range of anything that you’ve seen in the past it’s very hard to be very sure about what might happen in the future,” Gaiser said.

Chris Mooney contributed to this report.

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