Nature lovers are not happy. The latest development plans by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) have generated a heated debate among green activists.
At stake is the possible destruction of important feeding grounds for birds and a wide variety of coral reefs. Singapore is a small island and as such has for years been trying to balance the need to build housing, industrial, retail and leisure complexes with the need to preserve its limited natural fauna and flora. Constantly building higher and reclaiming land from the sea, the authorities regularly stress that land is scarce. According to Nature Watch, the official magazine of the Nature Society of Singapore, the city-state had less than 5 per cent of its original mangroves left in 2000, mostly on the north of the island and in a much-degraded state. Several local extinctions have already occurred, like the arboreal orchids, and an estimated 40 per cent of coastal plants have been lost.
Last year, the Singapore Green Plan 2012 laid down a blueprint for environmental sustainability for the next decade, identifying several natural areas for preservation. Now some of them are in danger of destruction, as they have not been included in the URA 2003 Draft Master Plan, which details land-use policies for the next 10 to 15 years.
Among these are the mangrove-rich areas of Sungei Mandai and Sungei Khatib Bongsu, to the north of the island, as well as marine sites off the shores of St John's Island, Pulau Hantu and other areas known for their coral reefs.
All these areas are now slated for 'strategic and long-term development', although so far there seem to be concrete plans for only Sungei Khatib Bongsu, which could be dammed up to form a reservoir.
This is because Singapore is not only land-scarce, but also water-scarce, and gets most of its water from neighbouring Malaysia. Negotiations on a new water supply contract broke down over price, and Singapore is now determined to find alternative solutions. Hence, the launch of Newater last year, a recycled water project mainly for industrial use, and now a possible new reservoir.
Singapore has always taken a pragmatic approach to balancing conservation needs and development necessities, and National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan has made it clear that the land-scarce island cannot afford to protect all its natural areas. But he has also promised the government would try to avoid encroaching on green areas 'as much as we can' and keep them green as long as possible.
Yet, Singaporeans are developing a green conscience that the authorities will have to reckon with in years to come. A snap poll conducted by The Straits Times indicated that more than 96 per cent of the respondents were in favour of planners finding a way of meeting 'housing and other needs without tearing up remaining green sites'. Some have even dared to suggest building on the many golf courses instead, but that is surely taking things too far!