Will We See Singaporean Seawalls?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 8/30/2007 02:21:00 PM
The International Herald Tribune has a set of articles out today [1, 2, 3] dealing with Singapore. The first deals with how Singapore's founder, Lee Kuan Yew, is changing along with the times together with Singapore, while the second is an interview with him. I do suggest reading these if you're interested, though the third one about Singapore envisioning the construction of a seawall interests me most. Like many other countries in Asia and elsewhere, low-lying Singapore is vulnerable to rises in the sea level. They've already "gone to the well" by asking the Dutch masters for advice on combating encroachment by the sea to build up their defenses.

While I'm glad to know that Singapore is getting ready for the nearly inevitable rise in sea levels, I'm also saddened that there are so many other countries that do not have the foresight of a Lee Kuan Yew, the educational research facilities of Singapore, or its deep pockets in dealing with the matter. Make no mistake: there are a lot of vulnerable countries that have not given this matter much thought and are even less prepared to meet its challenges [sigh]. Let's go about things in order. We begin with this snippet which shows the absolutely astounding amount of knowledge Lee has about global warming and other, ah, burning issues. Petro BushTM he ain't:

Lee Kuan Yew: ...You in America could ignore large parts of the world. Why do you worry about what's happening to the Aborigines of Australia, or natives in the Congo or the Amerindians in South America. They do not concern you.

But this interconnected world is not going to become disconnected. Technology has brought this about. I do not see that technology disappearing. I think the problems will become more acute the other way, overpopulation, earth warming and displacement of millions, maybe billions of people, that is the greater danger.

IHT: What about the risks to Singapore, what are the risks to Singapore in those scenarios?

Lee Kuan Yew: Oh! We are already in consultations with Delft in Holland to learn how we can build dikes!

IHT: Is that right?

Lee Kuan Yew: Oh, yes! Let's start thinking about it now.

IHT: Are you serious?

Lee Kuan Yew: We are. We are in consultations with them.

It scares me because many world leaders have not woken up to the peril that their populations are in. This melting ice cap. I expected great consternation! What would happen to this earth? But, no. Has it triggered off emergency meetings to do something about this?

Earth warming, the glaciers melting away? Never mind the Swiss Alps and skiing resorts having to manufacture snow. When the glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet melt away, the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Irrawaddy, the Mekong, may dry up, except for rainy seasons. What will happen to the hundreds of millions? Where do they go? Where can they go? This will be a very serious problem.

And without further ado, the article on how Singapore is planning for sea level rises:
Surrounded by sea and almost pancake flat, Singapore is without doubt vulnerable to the rising sea levels many scientists predict global warming will cause.

While topographical maps are considered a military secret here, anyone flying into Singapore can easily see that the island is elevation-challenged. Its highest point is a jungle-clad hill rising 165 meters, or 540 feet, above sea level. Most of the business-end of Singapore - its airport, its business district and, of course, its busy container ports, lie less than two meters above sea level.

Faced with the prospect of a long, slow submersion into the very waters that serve as the lifeblood of this maritime trading hub, Singapore has reached out to the world's greatest experts on the subject of battling back the sea - the Dutch.

"We are already in consultations with Delft in Holland to learn how we can build dikes," said Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister, in an interview last Friday.

Delft Hydraulics, a research institute and consulting firm specializing in water management issues in the canalled Dutch city of Delft, is already helping Singapore convert its biggest river and marina into a huge downtown reservoir. Now it is also helping the city-state look into just what it can do to defend its roughly 200-kilometer, or 125-mile, coastline.

"We feel we have strong reasons to be concerned, but no reasons for panic," said Vladan Babovic, director of the Singapore Delft Water Alliance, a $43 million research center opened in February between Delft, the National University of Singapore and the country's water management agency, PUB Singapore. "We will be able to resolve these challenges," he said.

Singapore got a preview of just what havoc rising sea levels could cause back in 1974 when a rare astronomical event caused the tides to rise 3.9 meters, more than double the usual level.

"It eroded the coast very badly," said Wong Poh Poh, an associate professor specializing in beach geography at the National University of Singapore, who studied the event. Areas along the Singapore River were inundated, as were parts of the airport and a coastal public park built on reclaimed land.

Wong later discovered that during such periods of elevated sea levels, the variations between high and low tide are accentuated, putting the country's reservoirs, many of which lie adjacent to the coast, at risk. Singapore officials later used one of Wong's reports to draw the attention of the United Nations to the problems associated with global warming.

Still, no one is certain just how much of Singapore is vulnerable to the problem. The Singapore Delft Water Alliance and researchers at the national university's Tropical Marine Science Institute began a study into the potential effects of climate change on Singapore in March. But the leader of that study, Liong Shie-Yui, said that the group had yet to produce any noteworthy findings.

Assessing the risk is complicated by the fact that no one knows for sure just how much the sea may rise or how fast. Estimates vary from as little as 60 centimeters, or about 24 inches, to as much as 6 meters. And sea levels are not consistent from place to place: atmospheric pressure, wind and currents can cause variations.

Ultimately, Singapore is unlikely to build dikes per se, but rather concrete seawalls, Babovic said. Dikes are technically made of earth. After digging up and quarrying much of its own interior to reclaim new land that has increased Singapore's area by between 15 percent and 20 percent, Singapore now relies on imported landfill and sand for its reclamation efforts and to produce cement for new buildings.

Many scientists believe that dikes are no longer the most environmentally sensitive solution. Wong recommended docks and seawalls back in the early 1990s but now said that more natural structures might work better.

Babovic said that scientists were studying ways to incorporate mangroves and sea grasses into the design of dikes and seawalls to improve their environmental impact and make them look better, too.

"You need more imaginative solutions," said Wong. "What we don't want is to put something there that will constrain future use."