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Today Voices, Jun 8, 2011

Green lungs to quell floods

Building boom is part of the problem; more sustainable development model is needed

Letter from Liew Kai Khiun

IT SEEMS certain that the islandwide floods are getting more routine as last year's images of submerged roads, water-choked basement car parks and ankle-deep waters in malls returned to haunt us on Sunday morning.

In spite of the extensive drainage work undertaken over the decades, the authorities have conceded that no amount of preparation can stop such freak floods that are attributed predominantly to global warming and "acts of nature".

Nonetheless, I would also like to draw a correlation between the floods and the high growth rates of the past few years, rapid urbanisation resulting from the property boom and the spike in population. Hence, the problems are not only global and natural but also local and man-made.
Studies in the environmental sciences have indicated that building and transportation infrastructural projects are instrumental in displacing organically permeable soil and vegetation with impermeable concrete surfaces that have less capacity to store rainwater.

In the case of Orchard Road, the floods seem to coincide with the replacement of an open and relatively well-vegetated green space between Orchard Road and Paterson Road with the megamall Orchard ION that has probably the deepest basements in Singapore.

Along Bukit Timah Road, which is seeing the more severe floods, are the new condominiums complexes that are squeezed tightly into the previously quieter and spacious neighbourhood of bungalows with spread-out lawns and gardens.

Added to this, the current paradigm to tackling the problem seems to be largely technical, involving drainage systems and building codes. However, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated recently, given the space constraints of Singapore, there is a limit to how wide and deep we can dig our canals.

In this respect, instead of seeing the problem as natural and the solution as pouring more concrete, there is a fundamental need for a more environmentally and socially sustainable development model. We have to see open spaces and natural vegetation not as potential exploitable land for property and industrial development but as green lungs and buffers with more intangible long-term benefits.
Increasingly too, trends in large-scale flood control worldwide are moving away from artificial canalisation and containment towards that of natural flood control management that entails the preservation of natural environments and natural water flows.

In Singapore, one such projects on the way to completion is the Waters@Kallang-Bishan Park project that involves the partial de-canalisation and the re-riverisation of water flows. Perhaps the Government should also start thinking of similar projects for Bukit Timah and Orchard roads with green lungs and corridor; and rethink development plans for existing green spaces like the current forested Bukit Brown Cemetery along Adam Road, as well as the lush stretch along the railway tracks from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands.

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