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NSS asks HDB to release full report on environmental study at Tengah

With disputes over another environmental study, this time about Tengah where forests are being cleared for public housing, environmentalists are calling for the Housing Development Board (HDB) to release the full report to the public.

However, it seems HDB has no intention of doing so. Responding to queries from The Strait Times (ST), a spokesperson for HDB said that the board has already shared key findings of the Tengah Environmental Baselines study on 29 Oct 2018. She did not elaborate why the full report isn’t being made public. The first tranche of 1,60 flats was put up for sale in November 2018.

Last October, HDB said they had commissioned the study to ensure that Singapore’s first ‘forest town’ was built in an environmentally responsible manner. Key findings from the report were sent by Aecom, and independent consultant for HDB. The report said that the study revealed Tengah vegetation to be mostly of ‘low conservation significance’ where common animals such as wild boars, long-tailed macaques and monitor lizards thrive.

Conversely, ecologists say that the forests is an important vegetation node that connects the Western Catchment with the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Basically, the Tengah forest acts as a pathway for wildlife to move from one forest patch to another.

Unfortunately, a research assistant at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Mr David Tan said that roughly 150ha of forest from the 700ha site has already been cleared. This is based off satellite data from the European Space Agency.

Still, all is not lost. Singapore’s Nature Society (NSS) says that the remaining forest is still home to plenty of wildlife, including some rare species such as the endangered nesting changeable hawk-eagle, and the critically endangered Sunda pangolin. Dr Ho Hua Chew of NSS emphasised that while there are many common species of wildlife, highlighting only the common species is rather ‘misleading’.

Mr Tan added that everything could be made clear if HDB makes public their full report. He said, “”Poorly designed studies may rely on inappropriate methods, or small sample sizes, or exclude potentially important factors in their analyses. All of these can result in misleading conclusions.”

Back in October 2018 when HDB released their key findings, they said the study found Tengah to be a forest patch that facilitates the migration and dispersal of native wildlife between the Western Catchment and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

However, they also said that the existing vegetation at Tengah was mostly ‘scrublands, woodlands, and secondary forests of low conservation significance’. They also described it as ‘young’ due to the land being used in the past for a variety of reasons such as factories, villages and plantations.

It’s estimated that only about 10% of the original forest will be left once development is complete. But HDB said that it has measures in place to reduce the impact of the development such as including a forest corridor to facilitate movement of wildlife.

This isn’t the first environmental report to have caused tension among ecologist and environmentalist. Nature groups have pointed out the lack of clarity in the reports for the Cross Island MRT Line and the development of Mandai. In the case of development at Mandai by Mandai Park Holdings (MPH), NSS has release a strong statement in disagreement of the content of MPH’s Environmental Impact Assessment, saying that the impact of continued development on wildlife in the area is significantly higher than is reported in the EIA. They also noted how the planned wildlife corridor there would not be sufficient to mitigate that impact.

Obviously, these cases have raised the question of how transparent such reports should be.

In 2017, the Singapore government said that it wanted to strengthen the process for environmental impact assessments. Yesterday, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Development said that as part of the review, existing processes are now being studied “with a view to improving them, taking on board lessons and feedback from past experiences”.

She added, “these include studying how best to strengthen baseline survey methodology and how to ensure that mitigation measures are implemented in the right spirit, taking into consideration Singapore’s unique urban context.” More details will be announced later this year.

Will that be too late to preserve the forests at Tengah and the wildlife that inhabits it? Sadly, yes. It might be too little too late.