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  The Straits Times 16 Nov 05
Nature conservation and water: A link worth noting
by Lee Poh Onn

DURING a tree-planting ceremony in Queenstown for the month-long Clean and Green Campaign which began on Nov 5, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew emphasised the importance of conserving Singapore's environment.

MM Lee also urged Singaporeans to reduce a disproportionately high consumption of resources that came at the expense of the environment, and to be more environmentally conscious. His message was lauded by the Nature Society.

It is worth remembering that MM Lee has long been attuned to environmental concerns. He was the advocate for Singapore's Garden City concept some four decades ago in 1963, the clean-up of the Singapore River from 1977 to 1987, and the architect, some 20 years ago, of the idea of the Marina Barrage.

The link between environmental preservation and the economic and social well-being of any city cannot be overemphasised. This is especially true for Singapore, which has no hinterland, and is dependent on Malaysia for around 40 per cent of one very vital resource: water.

At present, around 680,000 cubic metres of Singapore's water consumption is sourced from domestic reservoirs. Singapore is working on increasing the coverage of its raw water reservoirs to around two-thirds of the total area of the island state, up from the present half. This will occur when the Marina Reservoir is completed in 2007/2008.

By 2011, this will ensure that more than half of Singapore's water needs can be sourced from domestic reservoirs and catchments, totalling more than 681 million litres per day, while the remainder will be drawn from its Newater plants (295 million litres per day), desalination plants (182 million litres per day) and the neighbouring state of Johor.

So what is the importance of nature areas and conservation in relation to water supplies?

It is often acknowledged that nature areas protect biodiversity and provide for areas of recreation. Remember, however, that they also serve a very vital and tangible function: Singapore's national security and drive towards self-sufficiency in water is linked to nature conservation (protection and non-disturbance of forested areas) in catchment areas. Undisturbed forested areas ensure that the waters from these areas are clean and suitable for drinking after the requisite treatment.

To be sure, the hydrological role of forests has not been conclusively proven or disproved. Further research is needed before broad generalisations can be drawn. There have nevertheless been studies which support the link between the existence of protected forested areas and the provision of constant supplies of water, and also the constancy of water flows. There have also been some studies which show this relationship to be inconclusive and subject to other factors.

The impact of a change in land use (including the clearance of forests) on water resources depends on more than just the removal of forested areas. Socio-economic factors, climate change, existing soil structures and topographies in different countries matter when drawing conclusions about the hydrological role of forests.

A joint publication by the World Bank and Worldwide Fund for Nature (WB-WWF) nevertheless helps to shed some light on the role of forests in relation to water. (See Running Pure: The Importance Of Forest Protected Areas To Drinking Water, Nigel Dudley and Sue Stolton, World Bank/WWF Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use, August 2003).

In this report, a case study on water systems in Melbourne, Australia, reported that water yields were positively related to the age of the protected forest area. Forest disturbance (removal of trees) reduced run-off by up to 50 per cent compared to the run-off in mature undisturbed forested areas. This was because evapotranspiration from older forests (loss of water through secretion) is lower per unit area when compared to younger ones. Hence, in order to protect water yields, forested areas must be left undisturbed or uncleared.

In the same WB-WWF report, a study on New York's water supplies indicated that the protection of watersheds through land and forest conservation measures costs US$1 billion (S$1.7 billion) to US$1.5 billion over 10 years. By contrast, a treatment plant costs US$6 billion to US$8 billion to set up, plus an annual US$300 million to US$500 million in ongoing annual operating costs - around 80 per cent more.

This stark fact was incidentally also highlighted at the seminar on Environmental Challenges To Singapore's Sustainability by the Nature Society's president, Dr Geh Min, at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore, on Sept 21.

Caring for and conserving Singapore's environment requires a long-term perspective. Contrary to the general view that the environment provides little or no tangible benefits, the conservation of nature areas provides for sustainable and clean supplies of water on which our livelihood and very existence depend. This is especially so when Singapore needs to ensure that it generates and secures as much water as possible to meet demands in the years to come.

Although strong generalisations cannot be obtained yet about the link between the conservation of forested areas and water supplies, there is enough to suggest that such a link exists. More exhaustive and rigorous scientific research needs to be undertaken but a precautionary stance should now be adopted.

Doing too little to protect conservation areas in Singapore just because results are still inconclusive is not good decision-making. The precautionary stance is necessary.

And let us not be terrified when we look down the road and realise that a lot of the destruction could have been prevented, and prevented in the necessary cause of ensuring and protecting Singapore's future water supplies.

The writer is a fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.

Running Pure: The Importance Of Forest Protected Areas To Drinking Water, Nigel Dudley and Sue Stolton, World Bank/WWF Alliance for Forest Conservation and Sustainable Use, August 2003 (PDF file)
Related articles on Singapore: general environmental issues and Singapore: water issues
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