Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Naturally Resourceful Nation SINGAPORE

Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay
Singapore is one big Universal Studio with several theme parks. This thought occurred to me, not on the better known Sentosa Island, but at the island city’s latest tourist draw, Gardens by the Bay. The flower domes (propagating flora of Mediterranean region), cloud forests (montane rainforests) and state-of-the-art ‘supertree’ groves at Gardens by the Bay are a great education and recreation, for locals, particularly the young, and tourists, alright. In that, they are studio recreation of earth’s diverse and niche ecological habitats which betray gianormous effort and technological skill sets that have gone into its development. In the absence of its very own natural resources, Singapore has been resourceful enough to bring Equatorial Africa and Australian outback centrestage in its citizenry’s consciousness. 

This attitude manifests itself, particularly, in the country’s desire to showcase world flora and fauna at every available space and opportunity. Therefore, public spaces are landscaped to just the right degree and uniform shade of green. The boulevard trees, many of them consciously native, are trained to behave like the everyday vehicular traffic that sticks to earmarked lanes and regulations. The roads are flanked by majestic heritage (those hundred or more years old) trees such as rain tree and mahogany but, like our host remarked, if they do decide to spread their tentacles a bit tawdry, they are promptly pruned to size.

The famed Botanic Gardens, the original avataar of the overriding theme of  “Garden city”, are the cultural legacy of the British with their penchant for manicured green spaces. They were envisaged early on in the initial town plan by Sir Stamford Raffles, the ‘founder’ of Singapore. So while they do host indigenous dipterocarps of the primary rainforests, the gardens are actually a tribute to world tropical diversity. The same goes with the breathtakingly beautiful National Orchid Garden which boasts of nearly thousand species of tropical orchids. Like much else Singaporean, technology and innovation is deployed here too, to create new hybrids. It is therefore, apt, that the national flower of Singapore is a hybrid - Vanda Miss Joaquim, eponymously named after its creator. Of course, the world-renowned orchid garden is still a rich repository of wild orchids, the last vestiges of the lowland rainforests that the island was once covered in. 

Singapore was once a tropical island rainforest, but the urban sprawl saw it diminish greatly. Today, only a small pocket lies preserved in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, which unfortunately, I did not get to see. To meet the demands of the increasing population, urban Singapore has had to reclaim nearly 200 sq. kms of land from sea. On the one hand, Singaporeans seem to be spending little time on procreation and the “precious jewels” (the natural resource of children) are becoming scarce. The state has to woo and incentivise couples to bear more children. On the other hand, the government has opened its borders to immigrants. That, in turn, has led to disgruntlement among the settlers and the new generation who feel that migrants dilute the fabric of Singapore society. Today, Singapore has one of the highest population densities in the world! To accommodate its people the Housing Development Board (HDB) develops high rises at dizzying speed as housing is a national priority. This has seen verticalization of, not only buildings, as one might expect, but even horticultural farms!

In my 10-day sojourn in Singapore I saw crows, mynas, pigeons and orioles on my regular jaunts, but not much else, despite the verdure. I thought Jurong Bird Park would educate me on the local avifauna but I should have known better by now. JBP, too, is a cauldron of different bird species of the world, from turacos to toucans. The highly popular High Flyers’ show featuring macaws and cockatoos of the Amazon rainforest, though spectacular, left me feeling a bit low. The birds were shitting time and again, nervous as they obviously were performing in front of a mass of humanity. I shuddered to think what rigour  they had to undergo and over what workday they had to rehearse such a precise and synchronized show. At the other show, King of the Skies, which featured predatory birds – hawks and vultures – I could see the leash on the birds’ feet! The exhibits were even more depressing though the enclosures were squeaky clean and the birds well-fed. The ‘World of Darkness’ enclosure of owls proudly claimed: “Enter the darkness of night, in broad daylight…” Imagine seeing the owls in dim light in broad daylight; owls are nocturnal but they do not stay in darkness whole day long. The scarlet ibis (looked like flamingoes to me!) looked sadly out of place on the faux wetlands at the Park. But, it also set me thinking. Were these minority specimens not any different from the migrants that came to Singapore from erstwhile Malaya, or India or China? Migrants, who got uprooted from their native land and were transplanted into an alien culture and habitat due to unforseen circumstances? And who over a period of time, over generations, got naturalized to a new foreign identity, like the Peranakans, perhaps? They are no different from migrants of yesterday who become today’s card-carrying citizens imbuing the city-state with entrepreneurial energy and can-do attitude!

Back to pavilion after the show as the free-spirit myna (above right) looks on

 After these encounters with nature, I was glad I did not go to the Singapore zoo and night safari. It would be an understatement to say that after my safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, this would have been a come down. For a country that has little wildlife, such attempts to procure and display wildlife, may be commendable, but also puerile. 

Having done the tourist circuit, I am glad we went off the beaten track, to visit the Marina Barrage, as it took me closer into the psyche of a nation that is environmentally conscious and concerned. I truly admired the chutzpah of the nation that imports 50% of its water requirement from neighbouring Malaysia, its ambition to achieve self-sufficiency in water supply in the coming years. For some reason, Singapore does not have a sustainable groundwater table, so currently its water needs are satisfied by desalination plants, apart from water imported from Malaysia as per two bilateral accords. The Public Utility Board, the national water agency, is not hedging its stakes entirely on its neighbour and has built several reservoirs and water catchment areas for harvesting rainwater. Marina Barrage, the latest reservoir doesn’t just collect rainwater but also prevents flooding by separating seawater from freshwater. This project is not just a staid state project operating behind-the-scenes, it is an engineering marvel that is being peddled as prime recreation club. Even from where we stand we can see youngsters flying kites from the green roof terrace of the Barrage complex. Children play in water and families get together for sailing and other water sports over weekends, we are told. When they do so, they also visit the Sustainable Gallery which is a “sensory extravaganza” to educate public on importance of water cycle and water recycling.

Green roof-top terrace of Marina Barrage overlooking Singapore skyline

What is particularly commendable about PUB’s efforts is that they realize the importance of self-reliance when it comes to generating this precious resource, especially in the light of history of strife with its neighbour from which Singapore separated to form an independent nation. And they make every drop count. Thus, recycling used water and treating it for reuse for industrial and even, household purposes, is also top on the agenda. Recycled water, currently meets 30% of Singapore’s water needs. The PUB product NEWater is high-grade bottled ‘treated waste water’ which surpasses WHO requirements for drinking water. The PUB has designed and developed an ambitious programme for generating water resource and is co-opting NGOs to spread awareness and take the message across its people. Today, Singapore is recognized as a model city for good water management and is global hydro-hub (which means it has domain expertise in water management and is in a position to share it with or help water-stressed countries). PUB won the 2007 Stockholm Industry Water Award “for their holistic approach to water resources management which made water use sustainable for different sectors of society in a unique and challenging urban island environment.”

Singapore is singularly wanting in natural resources as illustrated above but that hasn’t hampered or hindered its progress in any way. In fact, precisely for that reason, today, it values them more and is conscious of environmental housekeeping. The nation, by nature, is resourceful enough to tide over the shortfall and create plenty.