Cambodia’s environment, Singapore’s problem

MARCH 31 — So, apparently, my neighbourhood smells of urine.

That’s right, Yishun — that proud northern region of our island — denigrated by the ignorant as a hotbed of crime (okay, there were a couple of cat killers) is now literally a pee town?

Honestly, this is rubbish! Firstly, Yishun is a lovely neighbourhood and secondly, I haven’t noticed any urine smell and don’t know anyone who has.

Still, on the online forums it is apparently a thing.

The National Environment Authority has said the urine and burning smells detected island-wide are in fact the result of fires at landfills and farm sites in Johor.

And this brings us to a serious point; from the regional plastic waste that washes up on our shores to the oil slicks that appear due to discharge from passing ships  and of course the Indonesian haze that often chokes us in the hot months, Singapore seems to be the perpetual victim of other nations’ inability to take care of their environment.

But is this really the case?

On the surface it seems open and shut. Singapore is as clean and green as they come. Almost 50 per cent of the island is covered in foliage and we have created a beautiful green island, Pulau Semakau, out of our plastic waste recycling efforts.

Our air, when not polluted by particles from our neighbours, is clean.

But when you begin to unpack Singapore’s environmental credentials, things really aren’t so clear.

Actually, while Singapore is literally green with a good per cent of foliage, the rest of our track record isn’t necessarily great.

Our carbon footprint (per capita) is arguably the largest in Asia and the Pacific, particularly if you consider the emissions released by the planes that bring so many goods and people to our country. 

Our domestic recycling efforts are abysmal. Over 90 per cent of Singaporeans make no real effort to sort their trash or recycle; rather, our recycling successes are based on government efforts and armies of imported labourers — themselves flown in from various parts of the world. 

Our adoption of clean technologies like solar power, electric cars etc. has been sluggish but far worse than these is our role degrading the environment of our neighbours.

The reality is that Singapore’s clean, green reputation is built on our wealth — and our wealth has come at an environmental cost... to our neighbours. 

A simple example is our land area. To support our expanding population and economic growth, Singapore has added over 100 square kilometres to its land area over the past 50 years.

This reclamation though depends on raw materials, particularly sand extracted at great environmental cost to our neighbours.

Forty million cubic tons have been poured into the sea around our coast and a significant portion of this has come from unscrupulous suppliers.

Entire islands have vanished from the sea in Indonesia and river beds and ecosystems in Cambodia have been destroyed on account of sand mining — with one destination for this sand being Singapore.

So for the 100 square kilometres we have reclaimed, we have potentially damaged hundreds of kilometres of mangroves, rivers and islands in other countries. 

The reality is that the money and space we use to fuel our clean nation has come at a cost to other environments in the region. 

But it is not about blame — the point is about accepting our responsibility and understanding that Indonesia’s fires and Cambodia’s habitat loss are our problem too.

As such, it is imperative that we improve systems ensuring what sand we use is sourced sustainably (even if that means greater cost) and share wealth and technology.

We should be proud that 50 per cent our tiny island is green but maybe it is time we made the same investment to get the forest cover in Sumatra or East Malaysia back to 50 per cent too.

That would be an achievement and definitely make a dent in the haze. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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