“Let’s make use of natural heritage to cut down huge ecological footprint” [The Straits Times, 26 May 2007]

“Let’s make use of natural heritage to cut down huge ecological footprint,” by Hugh Tan and L.M. Chou and Darren Yeo and Peter Ng. The Straits Times [In Review – Tech & Science], 26 May 2007

No matter how small the habitats, protecting them is better then having them eliminated

WE HAVE become aware of how important the natural heritage is to the environment and to human society. People in this region rely heavily on natural resources – providing them with food and material.

But in urban Singapore, just how useful is our natural heritage? What can we expect from the isolated pockets of nature and how do we justify conservation when the demand for land is so acute?

We do not depend on the natural habitat for food, or material for construction or other purposes. Fishing is carried out but on a limited scale.

As a nation with limited land and sea, we depend very much on imported food and material. Singapore is environmentally unsustainable.

Our ecological footprint is large, estimated at 7.2ha per person. This is the area of land needed to generate the amount of food and material needed by each person here. Our demand is much higher than the global average, which is estimated at 1.7ha per person.

The demand for energy is high as we seek to keep cool indoors. What we have available is equivalent to only 0.1ha per person.

If environmental sustainability is a long way down the road for Singapore, does this mean that we should not worry about protecting the natural environment?

Perhaps we should consider how we can make the best use of our natural heritage to reduce our ecological footprint. Lowering our energy demand can help reduce our footprint.

Since we live in a built environment, strategies should also seek to improve the built environment to make it more environmentally friendly.

We need also to look at the natural environment, including modified habitats, to see what can be done to enhance the level of environmental goods and services.

Effective management

FOR the built environment, imagination and a willingness to try out ideas are important, provided that the innovations are based on scientific understanding. If rooftop gardens are developed over all commercial buildings and apartment blocks, this will significantly lower ambient temperature and reduce air-conditioning costs.

Changi Airport’s Terminal 3 will have trees and waterfalls within the building to help cool the interior. The other two terminals have been upgraded to make more effective use of natural light. There are many architectural innovations that can be tested to make buildings more environmentally friendly and less demanding on the resources.

Nature has already shown that these innovations work. The large mounds built by termites are a marvel in animal architecture. They permit natural ventilation and the constant flow of air within keeps the internal temperature constant. At the same time, there is sufficient air exchange.

For the natural environment, effective management is needed to prevent loss of habitat quality and decline in habitat health. An understanding of how a habitat functions will help in the formulation of suitable management policies.

For example, it is now accepted that protection of a species will not work if its habitat is not protected as well. For degraded habitats, restoration activities can help to give them a lease of life, provided the techniques and approaches used are based on a good understanding of ecological principles.

For example, it is not wise to plant deep forest species in open land. A better approach is to first plant species adapted to open land and later introduce deep forest species as the restored habitat develops.

Protecting habitats and biodiversity is essential to the management of the whole environment. No matter how small or fragmented the habitats are, protecting them and reversing degradation is better then having them totally eliminated. The environment without the living component is not wholesome.

Development is necessary, but steps can be taken to minimise unnecessary habitat loss and to restore unused areas that had to be cleared for the development, but were not used after completion of a project. Natural habitats help to maintain environmental quality and can accommodate a variety of other activities, such as fish farming.

Protecting nature areas, reducing unnecessary habitat loss, restoration and the linking of habitats with nature corridors are all very important efforts at ensuring that it is possible for us in a city state to live close to nature.

Apart from maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, our natural heritage has educational, research and tourism value. The high biodiversity concentrated in the habitats here, most of which are confined to small areas, is an attraction in itself.

Visiting these places is always a delight for those who want to see as many species as possible in a short time. Most of our natural habitats do not disappoint: it is common to come across species not encountered in earlier visits.

Local and visiting scientists have described many new species from Singapore. And the potential of new species discovery remains high. Scientists have also turned their attention to screening natural compounds from plant and animal species in the hope of uncovering compounds that have pharmaceutical or agricultural applications.

Many bioactive compounds have been isolated from local species; this further emphasises the need to preserve biodiversity. Our natural heritage is a rich genetic bank from which promising bioactive compounds can be found.

Biodiversity crucial

STEPS have been taken to allow the public to enjoy the natural heritage. Museums and herbariums are a storehouse of preserved specimens, important for keeping a permanent record of the country’s natural heritage.

But habitats maintain them alive!

And they offer an altogether different aspect for observation. Facilities and educational centres in some of the nature reserves and parks help visitors to learn more and to see more.

Boardwalks and pathways at places such as Sungei Buloh and Chek Jawa permit people to move comfortably through the habitat and to see more from a vantage position. The HSBC TreeTop Walk, opened in 2004, is a suspension bridge in MacRitchie that goes across different stages of a mature secondary forest. Visitors walk at eye level with the forest canopy and can view such life from a perspective often missed when walking over the forest floor.

There is the accompanying problem of too many visitors. As many of our habitats are limited, visitor numbers have to be regulated. When the public heard about the rich biodiversity at Chek Jawa coming under threat of impending reclamation, scores of visitors went across and almost trampled the place to death.

This needed a quick response and management plans were implemented to prevent excessive damage. This involved limiting the number of visitors and building a boardwalk that prevented trampling.

The case of the Semakau Landfill also shows positive commitment to balance conservation and development. It is an indication that conservation and development can co-exist.

The restored mangroves and the protected coral reefs were saved by design. If these were not planned for, there would be only the landfill today and nothing of environmental significance.

Biodiversity is all the more crucial in our urbanised city state.

We need to maintain what natural heritage we have left, and take full advantage of the benefits it readily provides for free.

This article was adapted from an excerpt in the recently published second edition of The Natural Heritage of Singapore, a book detailing Singapore’s natural history. The writers are Singaporean academics at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Biological Sciences. Between them, they have several decades of research experience in land and water ecology, botany, zoology and conservation in Singapore and South-east Asia.


Development is necessary, but steps can be taken to minimise unnecessary habitat loss and to restore unused areas that had to be cleared for the development, but were not used after completion of a project. Natural habitats help to maintain environmental quality and can accommodate a variety of other activities, such as fish farming.

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