Fieldtrip to Pulau Semakau
Pictures from the Semakau fieldtrip (Courtesy of Rachel Lee)
As part of my holiday job, we held short skits about the island of Pulau Semakau to educate children about marine life in Singapore and how they can protect it. Most of their eyes glaze over slightly when we talk about the area being a landfill. However, by the time they have seen the knobbly sea star (Protoreaster nodosus) that is commonly found within the intertidal regions, I am convinced that the island of Pulau Semakau will be remembered for a different reason. The children are fascinated. Most are grossed out by the defense mechanisms of the sea cucumber. Others widen their eyes upon learning how the sea stars feed. Sometimes information like how corals are not plants are new to the teachers as well.
The fact that a landfill can be a starting point for education about marine biodiversity does say a lot. The first time I set foot on the island, I remember thinking that this was nothing like a dumpsite for garbage. The road we walked onto was sandwiched between a grassy patch of field and mangroves along the fringe of the coast, and the view was picturesque. In my opinion then, Semakau was undisputedly something to be proud of. Landfills were something I thought of once as a necessity. Why would there be any issues about the way waste is disposed of in Pulau Semakau if everything was managed so well? What I came to realize is that while Semakau is a success in dealing with waste and being able to still have biodiversity, the issues involved with waste disposal are complex and the landfill created is not as perfect a solution as it seems. Within this reflection, I will discuss about my take on how Pulau Semakau is largely a success in terms of managing balanced development and how despite this success, I find that it is not a sustainable solution of waste management in the long run.
The issue of balanced development: The challenges in balancing both human and environmental needs of Singapore
Supporting the human population and finding ways to develop can often be factors that are in opposition to environmental conservation. When it comes down to prioritizing these issues, it is no surprise that the former takes precedence over the latter. The root of the problem for Semakau is that the Singaporean government is more pressured into dealing with brown issues than dealing with green issues. The Singapore government’s “priority areas are focused on…air & water pollution, energy efficiency, resource management, education for environmentally clean and non-wasteful habits & practices, etc.”. (NSS, 2009) These are the issues that have a direct impact on the population of people and the quality of life in general. What may seem neglected are the green issues such as the “fragmentation of our Nature Reserves, endangered species protection, biodiversity and natural habitat conservation” (NSS, 2009) which we need to put “into the forefront as priority issues as well and not let them be put on the back shelves”. (NSS, 2009) These green issues may not have a direct and tangible impact on most of the population. (Although it may seem hard to admit, we live in a society that will not hesitate to complain about the haze situation by posting a picture of the fuzzy view outside their home on STOMP. How many of us would be equally worked up by land reclamation efforts occurring 7 kilometers away from mainland Singapore?) Within the populist nation of Singapore, the government has to deal directly with the issues that immediately impact its people. That means that brown issues are more relevant in satisfying most of the environmental concerns raised by the public and also that green issues will naturally only be dealt with after the main concerns are addressed.
The case of whether Semakau should be used as a landfill or protected for its flora and fauna is a case that straddles between having to deal with the brown issues of waste management and the green issue of conservation. On one hand, it is easy to see why some think “The Semakau Landfill is arguably one of the waste world’s greatest engineering achievements” (CleanEnviro Solutions, 2012-2013). Many have extolled the success of Pulau Semakau, because the method for solid waste management is an innovative solution. Within the year 2012, the total amount of waste disposed reached 2933900 tonnes. (NEA, 2013) Because of this high volume of waste, Semakau is needed as a landfill. Then, it seemed like the only solution for Singapore’s constraints of land scarcity and a rising population. Without Semakau, it is not possible to dispose of all this waste within Singapore territory in a manner that does not pose health risks and minimizes pollution. Without a doubt, I believe these factors make Semakau a success in terms of dealing with brown issues.
The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether enough was done to make Semakau a success in terms of dealing with green issues as well. Ultimately, conserving Semakau’s original landscape and biodiversity failed. Efforts were made to mitigate the impact (e.g. Avoiding reefs on the west of the island and building along the east) (Tan, 2010), but ultimately, the fact that the area was still turned into a dumpsite shows that conservation efforts failed to preserve the natural heritage. Within a country that has already eradicated most of our natural environments, it is sad that we continued to destroy the remaining fragments of nature. There was a struggle in terms of dealing with green issues, but recognition has to be given to the significant successes in dealing with the aftermath of destruction. Today, Semakau is marketed as the only landfill that can have both recreational and educational purposes. Nowhere else in the world can you find a landfill that is able to generate revenue from eco-tourism and draw nature enthusiasts for activities such as intertidal walks, wildlife photography, sport fishing, stargazing and bird watching. Not far from the rock bunds outlining the cells of buried ash enclosed within impermeable geomembrane and geofabric, there is a thriving ecosystem of marine life. Once cells are filled, they are covered with topsoil for plants to grow. Mangrove replantation efforts were made along the side of Semakau. If anything, nature has its way of restoring itself, without too much human disturbance, though this takes an extended period of time. In terms of preserving our natural heritage, we can construct a new one for ourselves. Sometimes we joke that everything in Singapore changes rapidly and undergoes construction. It looks as though even nature is not exempt from this and will have the ability to cope with the change in our society as well.
The issue of sustainability: Alternative solutions and the need to reduce dependence on Semakau and other landfills.
Is Semakau something for us to be proud of? Yes, given the limited resources and technology we had a decade ago, it is. Does that mean that we should be proud to have another Semakau? No. The reason why we can justify using Semakau as a landfill is because we needed it. Whether we need to resort to building more landfills in the future, however, is a complex question. Published in the Straits Times, it is reported that the National Environmental Agency (NEA) “hoped that the site will carry on being used until 2045 and beyond” (En, 2012). However, unless we find a way to reduce our dependence on landfills, this will not happen and it will only remain a mere hope. Landfills like Semakau cannot be the long-term solution to our problems and just because we have the resources to deal with our waste in a convenient manner does not make it right.
With the advancement of technology and a heightened awareness among Singaporeans about environmental issues, we should be able to increase the rates at which we reduce our waste, reuse it, and/or recycle it. The only way for us to responsibly avoid turning another island into a landfill is for us to turn Singapore into a zero waste city. This is an ambitious target and will require the support of the state, industries and organizations as well as each individual person living within the country. According to the Singapore Green Plan 2006, there is an aim to “strive for zero landfill and close the waste loop”. (MEWR, 2006) The plan states that it aims to do this by improving the recycling system and infrastructure and by improving initiatives to reduce packaging waste. Achieving such sustainability, however, is no mean feat and while there is the idea of what needs to be done, it will take a lot more to convince the majority of the population. I would like to think that what Ester Boserup, Danish economist, had to say about agriculture and development will hold true for the case of Semakau as well. To her, “necessity is the mother of invention”. In other words, Singapore will find a way to solve her own problems if she needs to. I trust we will find innovative solutions to adhere to the three Rs and technology will develop for us to maximize our resources, but only if we are land scarce and need to close the waste loop badly enough. The next question that follows, however, is what happens if we don’t think it’s necessary? Will we never be pushed to find a solution then?
Creating landfills like Semakau is not a sustainable solution, we cannot go on like this indefinitely and we have to find solutions. Why? Reclamation requires resources such as sand. Sand in quantities that aren’t commonly found on mainland Singapore. The dependence on this import of sand from our neighboring countries is disadvantageous for two main reasons. Firstly, we are always at risk of having supplies cut by neighbouring countries, which poses a huge problem for construction as well as reclamation. In 2007, for example, Indonesia suddenly banned the export of land and sea sand that contributes more than 90% of Singapore’s demand, problematizing both the construction as well as reclamation industry. (Shankari, Wee, 2007) Secondly, countries like Indonesia, Cambodia and Malaysia that export sand do it at the cost of their environment as well. Now, the impact of creating a landfill is twofold—detrimental to existing ecosystems within our country as well as to the countries sand is taken from. When sand is extracted, it destroys marine life and increases the susceptibility of the area to erosion and floods, posing multiple environmental problems to these countries. While it is arguably necessary to import sand for national development and to safeguard our national interests, I feel that Singapore should not be developing at the expense of its neighbouring countries. This may sound idealistic, because the priority of every nation is to safeguard its own interests and no country can afford to solve the problems of another. Rather, if it is truly unavoidable, then the least we can do as a nation is to reduce dependence and find alternatives where possible.
Singapore is a country with the ability to constantly surprise herself. For a country with so many limitations and a lack of resources, we are capable and ambitious enough to find solutions to support ourselves. Most of us Singaporeans are consumed by the insatiable desire for progress and are spurred on by our own economic, political and social achievements. Yet, it is vital that efforts for progress are holistic and that we do not develop at the expense of our own cultures and heritage, moral systems and of course, the environment. The projects at Semakau represent a combination of both development and conservation, without which we will be unable to succeed as a nation. We can be proud of our achievements, but cannot be lulled into a false sense of complacency.
- The Nature Society (Singapore) Conservation Community. (2009). Feedback for the Inter-Ministerial Committee Project . Sustainable Singapore: Lively and Liveable City (p. 22). Singapore: The Nature Society (Singapore) Council.
- CleanEnviro Solutions. (2012-2013). The benefits of Landfill to Municipalities . CleanEnviro Summit (p. 38). Singapore: CleanEnviro Summit Singapore.
- National Environmental Agency (NEA). (2013, 06 14). Waste Statistics and Overall Recycling. Retrieved 09 14, 2013, from Waste Management: http://app2.nea.gov.sg/energy-waste/waste-management/waste-statistics-and-overall-recycling
- Tan, R. (2010, 01 29). Pulau Semakau: glimpses of the past in NewspaperSG. Retrieved 09 14, 2013, from WildSingapore: http://wildshores.blogspot.sg/2010/01/pulau-semakau-glimpses-of-past-in.html#.UjUt32QZi4
- En, S. M. (2012, 06 12). Pulau Semakau landfill site to be expanded. Home, The Straits Times . Singapore, Singapore, Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings.
- Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources Singapore. (2006, 02 01). Singapore Green Plan 2012. (F. S. Luen, Ed.) Retrieved 09 14, 2013, from Singapore Green Plan 2012: http://app.mewr.gov.sg/data/imgcont/1342/sgp2012_2006edition.pdf
- Uma Shankari, V. W. (2007, 01 25). Indonesia bans sand export – Singapore mulls new supply sources, stockpile release. Business Times Singapore . Singapore, Singapore, Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings.