'Creeping' environmental issues in the home of Earth Hour

Posted at 03/28/2014 12:47 AM | Updated as of 03/28/2014 1:44 AM

SINGAPORE -- International attention turns to this city-state Saturday for the 2014 Earth Hour as its famous Marina Bay skyline becomes focal point for the biggest global movement campaigning for environment protection.

Already, the World Wide Fund for Nature-Singapore (WWF), which was moved here from the original headquarter in Sydney in 2012, said in a media statement Wednesday that Singapore has broken its own Earth Hour 2013 record of 183 organizations ahead of this year's event. Over 350 organizations are planning to switch off lights Saturday to mark their commitment to save the planet, WWF said.

Earth Hour celebrations here will be top-billed by Spider-Man, Earth Hour’s global Super Hero ambassador and the cast of the movie ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ for the lights switch off across Singapore’s signature Marina Bay skyline.

“In 2014, the Earth Hour Blue sees the movement enter the most exciting stage of its evolution, to be at the forefront of crowd funding and crowdsourcing for causes, innovation and creativity for the planet,” organizers said in a statement. Essentially, Earth Hour Blue extends the hour-long blackout campaign to actual projects.

Yet, within Singapore’s borders, basic issues on water, food and housing, and the need to balance between rapid urbanization or development and the preservation of natural resources are surfacing. The efforts to cope range from government-constructed “green homes”, to a non-profit’s riverbank cleanups, to the promotion of what can only be described as ‘pop-up’ gardens in a country known for land reclamation.

‘Green homes’

The Treelodge@Punggol at the junction of Punggol Road, Punggol Place and Punggol Drive is called an ‘eco-precinct’ by the Housing and Development Board (HDB), Singapore’s public housing body. It boasts of eco-features such as rainwater harvesting, use of solar panels, energy-efficient lighting (like LED) and elevators and, and rooftop and vertical greening. Air-conditioning is discouraged, as even the usual direction of the wind was considered in the buildings’ construction, such that windows were placed on these sides.

Treelodge@Punggol sits on a 2.9-hectare complex and has 712 housing units mostly of 3 or 4 rooms. It was launched in 2007 and is now mostly occupied.

HDB’s Deputy Director for Sustainability and Building Research, Chang Tze Lum, said another innovation for the eco-precinct is the provision at every floor of chutes for recyclable and non-recyclable wastes.

All these innovations, they hoped, would “improve the green effect” and promote more energy efficiency.

Singapore has been long proud in having been able to provide homes for its citizens. But this project brings the housing provision a notch level: it also aims to set up residents for sustainable living arrangements, and possibly for the first time since public housing history here.

HDB’s said in its project brochure, “The Eco-Precinct is HDB’s demonstration project of an eco-friendly public housing development, envisaged to be a community for comfortable green living, one which is sustainable over the long term, lowers real costs and which strives for best practices in meeting environmental needs. With greater consciousness to the environment, it will bring about greater conservation efforts for a more sustainable environment in future.”

The same brochure described three other public housing projects to rise along the Punggol Waterway, which connects two water reservoirs, “creating a waterfront living experience for the residents.”

‘For clean waterways’

Developments such as these worry non-government organizations like Waterways Watch Society, which uses information and education drives to urge people to keep waterways clean and pollution-free.

The concern for waterways stems from limited water. Water here comes from limited sources: collected rainwater from reservoirs, imported from Malaysia, treated sewage water, or desalinated seawater.

Eugene Heng, chairman of Waterways Watch, said efforts such as the construction of the Treetop@Punggol is “admirable.”

“They (housing project planners) actually brought everybody out. They want to bring people closer to water. The intention is very admirable. They want people to touch the water, to play, to enjoy. But who’s gonna say to them, ‘don’t litter’?”

Heng does not also blame over-development, the sudden rise of too much business or even too many foreigners.

“I think at the end of the day, a lot of tourists… like those who come from Australia, America, and Europe… in fact, Korea, China… They got very good social behavior. I remember once we were doing a project, we were picking up litter at Marina, and a family of China tourists, the children all came rushing and started picking up with us,” Heng said.

For Heng, the choice is simple: “Everybody must take care of Singapore because this is our country.”

Heng’s group has managed to reach more than a third of Singapore’s 400 schools with its information and education drives to create awareness among students about the need to keep environment and waterways clean.

During these campaigns, Heng would hold up pictures of waterways littered with plastic water bottles or plastic bags. He said Singaporeans do not have an idea that the situation could be this bad.

“Many people are not aware. Why? Because… we are very clean by other people’s (standards). So we think we are clean, but we are not,” he said.

Currently, plastic bags are allowed in Singapore. Heng said he does not oppose this, but perhaps usage could be minimized if not avoided.
He is also wishing proper water use and care for the environment could be included in school lessons.

“Most of the universities know about us, and they run programs when they can. The thing is, in our education policy as of now, it’s not compulsory. They have values in action, community things, but it’s not compulsory,” Heng said.

‘Food-scaping’

Meanwhile, a group of 30-plus-year-old Singaporeans have left high-paying corporate jobs to be “urban farmers,” joining a UK-born farmer in setting up shop on rooftops, educating people about the importance of growing one’s own food. With 90 percent of Singapore food imported from neighboring countries, or even as far as the US or Africa, the cause for homegrown food seem to be gaining awareness.

Bjorn Low, a Singaporean, and Rob Pearce, of UK, are co-founders of the Edible Gardens, the two-year-old venture they call a ‘social enterprise’. They are joined in the group by Thomas Lim, who used to work in a finance firm in Hong Kong before moving back home to Singapore, and 5 others.

“We build organic gardens at these premises… We find use for underutilized spaces,” Pearce said.

He was brought up in an English farm and his online profile said he has handled award-winning and high-profile projects. He moved to Singapore with his wife and met Low in a gardening event here.

“We’re small but growing fast,” Pearce said of his group founded with an initial capital of “few thousand (Singaporean) dollars.”

The group’s latest project is a garden for an upscale hotel-restaurant, so that its chef could just easily harvest salad ingredients when needed.
This represents Edible Gardens’ business model: the team gets paid for helping people set up their own ‘pop up’ gardens and teaching them how to sustain these.

At the open air, Level 6 rooftop car park of the People's Park Complex along Park Road at the heart of Chinatown where Edible Gardens have set up shop of late, Pearce said they have been able to grow basil, legumes, banana, hibiscus, beans, corn, and zucchini. This is “food-scaping”, or a combination of food and landscaping.

Low said he got much of his farming influence from where he stayed in London. He concedes the venture may not bear return on investment until 8 or 10 years after its inception. But as a social enterprise company, what’s more important is to share with people the importance of food sustainability.

The issues of housing, water and food do not hog headlines in Singapore, yet there are observations that these are big issues that have to be tackled as the city-state stretches itself for more development and expansion.

(The author is an ABS-CBN journalist and currently a 2014 Fellow at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University.)