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True sustainability – taking us further down the track

Howard Lee /

Much has been said recently about Singapore's position towards sustainable development. "Sustainability" has become the new buzzword, taken to mean almost anything, or nothing.

In the past weeks, there has been reports on green vehicles making their operational tests on our roads. Awards have been given out to sustainable construction projects - oddly, by a government agency to other government agencies. It should also be no surprise that the theme for this year's Singapore International Water Week is "Sustainable Water Solutions for a Changing Urban Environment".

We begin to realise that we are developing at a rate that tests our ability to manage the environment that we live in. The response, however, has to date been reactive rather than proactive. We have a problem, let's find ways to fix it. Climate change is affecting us, we need solutions to minimise exposure to risks.

In essence, sustainable development for Singapore seem to be about finding means and ways to continue doing what we do, and using solutions that are not farsighted enough to ensure that we do not have to consider these problems ever again, or at least for a long while more.

Some examples, and I dare say they reflect the general norm and sentiment rather than the exception:

  • To promote a clean and green living environment, we pushed for bagging our waste, the result of which is the near-impossible-to-dissuade obsession with plastic bags rather than an emphasis on recycling.
  • To prevent flooding in the city, some have proposed to build a city park and stretch its use as an events venue, probably not realising that events with people stamping around might compact the soil and lead to, well, the same flooding.
  • To reduce carbon emissions by vehicles, public transport has been heavily promoted, with no clear figures for consumers to compare their carbon footprint through car-pool driving (burning fuel to produce direct locomotion) to taking the mass rapid transit (burning fuel to produce electricity to run trains, stations and track facilities).

The failure, or refusal, to realise that much more can be achieved if we prevent the problem from happening to begin with, as the only long term solution to sustainable development, is appalling.

Of course, past efforts must be acknowledged for areas where innovation has done us well. For instance, the burning of trash to generate electricity has done us credit. But that, too, was born of a necessity. Waste management was a priority, and in this aspect we have made a significant step in sustainability. Sadly, no further steps have been taken to increase the contribution of biomass to our power grid. It basically stopped with the management of waste.

These are examples of an era where, perhaps, the lack of knowledge or know-how prevented us from taking steps beyond mere solutions. They are also necessarily single-minded, with very talented people put on the job to dream up feats of engineering marvels to solve specific problems. But we realise today that no one solution can lead us to sustainable living. A multi-prong approach is necessary where, for instance, our power grid is developed next to public transport, next to residential needs, next to our aspiration to be a global hub for almost everything, next to… etc.

It is time to stop thinking of solutions to problems, but to re-examine why there are problems, and from there consider development projects and activities that give us what we want without making it difficult for us to manage further down the road, the result of which could very well run counter to our original objectives.

Another train of thought

I will but use one recent example to demonstrate the train of thought we should be adopting – the planned development of the KTM railway line. Make no mistake: Those who wish for it to remain a green corridor are definitely wishing for the impossible. But there are alternative ways for development, if only we take a step back to understand our underlying objectives.

In land-scarce Singapore, the development of the KTM railway line has but one core obligation to fulfill: Maximising land use and economic profitability at the same time. Few would argue with this. Most would argue with how it is to be realised.

The common sense method would be to see the railroad track as an extension of its proximity – what is built around it can be built into it as well. The logical deduction is to chop it up into sections depending on the development zone it falls into and spill our urban expansion into it.

Of course, plans will be made to ensure it remains sustainable – for example, ensuring proper drainage to prevent flooding. But there was also a time when we thought Orchard Road would never flood. Then there are other impact factors to consider. Congestion implications for people and traffic would be one such, and these are barely predictable factors. A straight urban development on the KTM railway would, I fear, have long term implications that we cannot fully understand, might spend more to rectify, or even ill-equipped to cope with.

There are alternatives to the conventional train of thought, and there must be plenty of ex-rail developments around the world for us to learn from. But the one I choose to highlight here, I have seen for myself – the Puffing Billy railway. This heritage monument of Victoria, Australia turned an old railway into a charming self-sustaining, volunteer-run tourist attraction, with acres of parkland for the enjoyment of both locals and visitors.

If volunteers can do this, there is no reason why a profit-based establishment cannot develop the KTM railway into a heritage trail, for walkers, campers and tourists to enjoy. Taking it one step further, it could also possibly be an exclusive and alternative transport system for residents living along the tracks, with scheduled stops during peak hours. Off-peak, it runs as our next tourism attraction, and is a full-time green lung cutting through the heart of our island.

Let interdependence and long-term be our guide

I would leave the real work to the engineers, accountants and realistic dreamers. But we need to remember that Singapore is not beyond such a solution.

Chek Jawa was ever saved from certain doom and preserved as a nature spot. For whatever the rational reasons behind the decision – perhaps we have over-evaluated the commercial value of this little corner of Pulau Ubin – Singapore has demonstrated that it is capable of thinking conservation first. It screamed against our usual "economy first" psyche, but today, we are none the worse from it.

We might never know for sure the implications on sustainability had urban development proceeded on Check Jawa, but it is clear that what we have done has effectively left things in equilibrium. And equilibrium is a basic piece of sustainability.

When you really thing about it, it is not about what we need to sacrifice, but what we don't want to sacrifice in the long run. The answer is not always to leave things untouched, but touching things in ways that answers a wider scope of issues, more interdependently.

Yes, the writer has sat on Puffing Billy. No, he does not own shares in the rail transportation industry. No, he is not a tree-hugging hippie, much as he would love to be.