Best of our wild blogs: 23 May 17

Adventures with new friends!
Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs

Tanah Merah, 1965
The Long and Winding Road

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Singapore team digs in to help Riau village combat haze

Joint effort results in canal block that helps prevent peatland fires
Arlina Arshad Indonesia Correspondent In Sungai Tohor (Riau) Straits Times 23 May 17;

A group of Singaporeans has been digging up dirt with hoes and machetes in a remote Sumatra village to help stop haze from developing.

The 13 volunteers from Singapore environmental group People's Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze) were in Sungai Tohor, a small coastal village in Riau province, earlier this month.

They worked with residents to construct a "canal block" - used to re-wet peatland that had been drained to make way for an acacia plantation by local pulpwood company Lestari Unggul Makmur, or PT LUM.

The volunteers dug up the peat soil and packed it into empty rice sacks, which were then sewn up and stacked in a wooden structure in the canal to trap water and keep the peat moist. A sluice gate helps to control the water level.

Said volunteer Aravindkumaran Sabapathy, 26: "We did only a small part. It's a lot of manual work. It's tiring but (the residents) are not complaining and still smiling."

Building canal blocks is one of the measures taken by the Indonesian government to prevent peatland from drying out. Dry peat burns easily and is hard to put out as fire continues to smoulder underground and spread quickly.

Peatland fires in Indonesia were a major contributor to the 2015 haze crisis, said to be among the worst in the region's history.

Haze co-founder led Singaporean group in constructing canal block

"What we hope to do here is show that it's possible for Singapore and Indonesia to work together for a common good," said PM.Haze co-founder Tan Yi Han.

Said Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which partnered with PM.Haze: "We want more Singaporeans to witness first hand the hard work of ordinary Indonesians to safeguard their own environment against fires and haze."

PM.Haze collaborated with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) to build the $3,000 canal block, with money raised from the public.

Volunteers told The Straits Times they had joined the trip to better understand the problem that has plagued Indonesia and its neighbours for years and how the locals are tackling it.

"We hate the haze to the core and we always complain about it," volunteer Bernice Lau, a 36-year-old teacher, said.

"Shovelling was really laborious. It was also a rather arduous trip. It took 61/2 hours on three separate boat rides to get here so I learnt that help won't be easy."

Sungai Tohor, a farming village of 1,300 people, had suffered the brunt of the haze, brought about by massive fires - which, at its peak in 2014, razed some of the community's sago and rubber plantations and cloaked the village in toxic smoke.

Residents blamed PT LUM, which had dug canals over 10km long through the peatland in its 10,390ha concession.

They filed a petition online, calling for President Joko Widodo to visit the village to see how the haze had affected their lives.

They said schools were shut down for two months and farmers lost their incomes as their plantations were destroyed.

Mr Abdul Manan, 44, who started the petition, said: "We were disappointed as we had suffered the haze for 17 years and even exported smoke to Singapore and Malaysia."

Mr Joko visited the village in November 2014 and ordered the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to revoke PT LUM's licence and review all permits of companies located on peatland.

Singaporean volunteers dig deep in Sumatra to combat haze

Concession land has since been seized from PT LUM and returned to the villagers to manage sustainably on their own. So far, 22 canal blocks have been constructed and large-scale wildfires have not returned since 2015, villagers said.

"Sago trees need lots of water to grow healthily. With these canal blocks, we now have ready water to irrigate our land and to use at home for showering and washing. But most importantly, they have helped dampen the peat and stop fires and haze," sago farmer Agus Windy, 37, told The Straits Times.

The villagers understand that canal blocking is not a comprehensive solution to the haze problem and greater preventive efforts from Indonesia are needed. Villager Heri Daswani, 37, said: "Small help is still help. I'm grateful that our Singapore friends have travelled all the way here to help us build the canal block. Working together is always better than blaming each other."


Singaporean volunteers work to build canal block in Indonesia.

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What does sustainable development mean for Singapore?

Audrey Tan Straits Times 22 May 17;

This is the eighth of 12 primers on current affairs issues that are part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times- Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

At the grand entrance of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is a relic from the past that speaks of the world's future - and it is not the skeleton of a dinosaur.

Quite the opposite. Now that a global pact to steer the world away from catastrophic climate change has been inked, a quote on a wall aptly sums up the world's ambition to treat "natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value". Former United States president Theodore Roosevelt said this nearly a century ago. Today, this sentiment is known by a more familiar catchphrase: sustainable development.

It is internationally defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own.

Singapore has jumped on the bandwagon. Today, the Republic boasts green cars, green buildings and research into green energy. But what does being a responsible steward of natural assets have to do with Singapore - a country with no natural resources?

Singapore has been consuming natural resources from beyond its borders - resources under threat by climate change.

Up to 60 per cent of Singapore's water is from Malaysia, and more than 90 per cent of its food from around the world. But the extreme weather patterns symptomatic of climate change - such as floods and dry spells - are wreaking havoc on these supplies.

Last October, water levels at Johor's Linggiu Reservoir reached a historic low of 20 per cent, after a prolonged dry spell in 2014 led to steadily declining levels there. The Linggiu Dam is Singapore's main source of water in Malaysia.

And a study by the Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies had noted that by 2030, rice production in Thailand's rice bowl in the north-east could be reduced by up to 17.8 per cent due to flooding and storm surges. Fish catch potential in the waters of South-east Asia could also shrink by up to 60 per cent, as fish migrate away from the Equator to escape warmer oceans and increasingly acidic waters.

Though the Republic may generate only about 0.11 per cent of global emissions, it still has to do its part "as a responsible and vulnerable member of the global community", in the words of Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan.

Singapore has been working to combat climate change by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change that can already be felt. This has been done by following the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Re-adapt.


The first step to reducing emissions is to get people to use less resources. Singapore is doing this with its promotion of energy efficiency at home and in the workplace. This boils down to the use of less resources to achieve the same result, such as lighting a room with an energy-saving LED bulb instead of a fluorescent one.

Last month, changes were made to the Energy Conservation Act to force large energy users to do more for energy efficiency - including ensuring that common industrial equipment and systems meet minimum energy performance standards. Reducing the use of resources could also extend their lifespan - crucial, if climate change is causing their depletion. However, Singapore's move to do this did not come without controversy.

In February, the Government announced a 30 per cent water price hike that will be implemented over two phases to reflect costlier investments in weather-proof technology such as desalination and Newater, and to encourage its conservation.

There was a backlash with people protesting against the price hike, although experts welcomed it as a good way of controlling demand.

On the waste front, using less is also important for Singapore, considering it has but one landfill on Semakau Island that is filling up at an alarming rate. Its deadline is 2035 - a decade sooner than the original 2045 projection.

Singapore is looking to enact a law in the next three to five years to reduce packaging waste, which makes up a third of all household waste, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said last July.


Reusing resources also helps extend the lifespan of what is available. Singapore has a plan to reuse water endlessly, and national water agency PUB is already achieving this with its Newater technology that allows used water to be purified and used again.

Reusing nature's provisions to meet urban needs can also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike countries which have large tracts of land for the installation of solar panels, Singapore is land-scarce. But plenty of research is being done on this front to see how sunny Singapore can overcome its space constraints. This includes the setting up of the world's largest floating solar-cell test bed.

Ten different systems are being tested in the $11 million project at Tengah Reservoir, as scientists evaluate the performance and cost-effectiveness of each one.

Local solar energy firm REC Solar has also designed a new panel which is able to work even if part of it is shaded, something conventional panels cannot do. Its makers believe such a panel could be a possible solution to the lack of space in Singapore for conventional solar panels.

The hope is that Singapore could by 2050 meet 30 per cent of its energy needs with solar power. Right now, 95 per cent of Singapore's energy comes from natural gas . This may be the cleanest form of fossil fuel around - but it is still a fossil fuel.


To safeguard its people and economy, Singapore has to adapt to changes in the climate. According to the projections from Singapore's Second National Climate Change Study, mean sea level is estimated to rise by up to about 1m by 2100.

The Ministry for the Environment and Water Resources has said that the sea-level rise is expected to be a gradual process that will take place over several decades. But Singapore has already taken steps to adapt to the changing environment.

In 2011, for example, the authorities raised the minimum reclamation level to at least 4m above mean sea level, which is an increase of 1m. Selected roads, such as Changi Coast Road and Nicoll Drive, have also been raised to reduce the impact of flooding. To mitigate coastal erosion, seawalls and rock slopes near the coasts have also been installed.

But re-adaptation has to go beyond the physical environment. Mindsets, too, have to be changed.

Estimates have shown that even if countries keep to their pledges for emission cuts under the Paris Agreement,total emissions in 2030 will still exceed what is needed to keep global warming to an internationally agreed target of 2 deg C this century.

So while Singapore has enacted laws to help it tackle climate change, every individual needs to feel that he has the power to make a difference. This applies even with the simplest of actions, such as turning off lights that are not in use. Without this conviction, the world may well go the way of the dinosaurs.

The Singapore Perspective
Boosting energy efficiency to curb carbon emissions
Audrey Tan Straits Times 22 May 17;

Floods, heatwaves and other disasters induced by climate change have been plaguing the world for years.

But only in December 2015 did countries agree to tackle it, after decades of wrangling. The historic event in Paris saw delegates from nearly 200 countries - including Singapore - agreeing to go on a carbon diet.

The pact, the first universal, legally binding climate deal, came into force on Nov 4 last year, and aims to keep the global temperature rise this century to below 2 deg C.

Under the pact, Singapore pledged to become greener economically and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to achieve each dollar of gross domestic product by 36 per cent from 2005 levels, come 2030. It also pledged to stop any further increases to its greenhouse gas emissions by the same timeline.

Last July, Singapore unveiled its plan to meet its targets.

A pivotal strategy is to cut carbon emissions by improving energy efficiency across all sectors, namely power generation, industry, buildings, transport, households, waste and water.

Singapore has moved to do it on all fronts.

Changes made to the Energy Conservation Act in Parliament last month will require large polluters to step up green efforts or face higher penalties.

Companies have to adopt a structured measurement and reporting system for their greenhouse gas emissions - a move that will pave the way for the carbon tax scheme that the Government plans to impose in 2019.

Large emitters - such as power stations, refineries and petrochemical and semiconductor manufacturers - will likely be taxed in the range of $10 to $20 per tonne ofgreenhouse gases they produce.

For vehicles, the National Environment Agency has introduced a new Vehicular Emissions Scheme , starting on Jan 1 next year. It will be much stricter on carbon dioxide emissions and will include checks on four other pollutants: hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

National water agency PUB is also testing new technologies that will help cut energy use in water-treatment processes.

Besides curbing emissions, Singapore's climate action plan will also set out ways for the country to deal with climate change in six areas, including coastal protection, managing the water supply and improving food supply resilience.

For example, one project is to build Changi Airport's Terminal 5 at 5.5m above the mean sea level - higher than the level that PUB stipulates for other areas in Singapore. This measure is to protect against floods.

Audrey Tan

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Malaysia: Perak plastic ban on hold

The Star 23 May 17;

SERI ISKANDAR: Perak is putting the brakes on the statewide ban on polystyrene containers and plastic bags, which was originally sche­duled to begin June 1.

Confirming that the ban has been called off, Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abd Kadir said the state would reintroduce it after a full study.

He said the announcement on the ban last year was meant to be a trial period for the people to adjust to the ban, and for the state to see how it could be implemented properly in the future.

“We cannot tackle the problems of plastic and polystyrene usage without providing the correct alternative, as well as creating an environment that leads towards the ban.

“The state environment committee has been tasked with conducting proper studies on the impact of the ban on stakeholders,” he told reporters after attending the state-level Teachers Day celebration here yesterday.

Dr Zambry said the government has to also study the implications of such a ban in states that have successfully enforced it.

“We’ve been receiving feedback from the public. We know they want to see public areas free of plastic and polystyrene waste, but I want the feasibility of this ban to be looked into first.

“We don’t want to end up creating another problem,” he said.

Perak Environment Committee chairman Datuk Dr Muhammad Amin Zakaria said Perakians needed more time to adjust to the ban.

“The manufacturers also have to cut down on the production of plastic bags and focus on biodegradable materials.

“Biodegradable materials are costlier and they are not widely used, but I believe our state is heading towards the direction of using more environmental-friendly materials for packing food and groce­ries,” he said.

Dr Muhammad Amin said feedback from the public, local authorities and manufacturers would be taken into account.

In April last year, he announced that the total ban on plastic bags and polystyrene containers would be enforced in stages, starting with state government buildings.

Cafeterias in the state buildings started using biodegradable containers every Friday from June last year.

In the second stage from January this year, the ban was extended from weekly to daily.

The third stage, in January this year also covered all municipal councils in the state.

The fourth stage was the ban on polystyrene and plastic bags throughout the state.

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Australia: Baby dugongs' return to Great Barrier Reef suggests vital seagrass recovering from Cyclone Yasi

Robert Baird and Nathalie Fernbach ABC North Qld 22 May 17;

An increase in the number of baby dugongs on the Great Barrier Reef suggests seagrass ecosystems are recovering well after recent flood and cyclone events.

A James Cook University report on the distribution and abundance of dugongs and turtles on the southern Great Barrier Reef, between Hinchinbrook Island and southern Queensland, showed the number of dugong calves had gone from zero per cent after Cyclone Yasi in 2011 to ten per cent of the visible population in late 2016.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's (GBRMPA) Roger Beeden said the fact that dugongs are reproducing suggests their ecosystem is in better health.

"Because they have obviously found enough seagrass to sustain them and not only to sustain their growth but also to be able to reproduce," Dr Beeden said.

Mammal easier to count than blades of grass

Seagrass is the primary food source for dugongs and sea turtles, and seagrass beds are used by many fish and marine species as a nursery.

It can be tricky to assess the health of seagrass habitats as inshore beds can be hard to access, but Dr Beeden said dugongs are easy to spot in aerial surveys and give an indication of seagrass health.

"They are a really useful supplement to what happens with programs looking at seagrass numbers themselves," Dr Beeden said.

It has been shown that seagrass meadows can recover well from cyclone damage but Dr Beeden said there were concerns after Cyclone Yasi and subsequent floods escalated the impacts of repeated damage.

"For example in Cleveland Bay, which is just offshore from Townsville, the magnitude of the effect of those cyclones was very substantial — not just on the standing crop of seagrass but also on the seeds of the seagrass which were in the sand," Dr Beeden said.

"So we were very concerned about what the return time and health of those seagrass systems was going to be."

Dugongs' conservation status is vulnerable and it is believed that most of the world's dugong population lives in Australian waters.

The JCU dugong survey was conducted as part of a report for the GBRMPA on the distribution of dugongs and marine turtles in Moreton Bay, Hervey Bay and the southern Great Barrier Reef.

It estimated there were 5,500 dugongs on the southern Great Barrier Reef in late 2016.

Dugong calves make strong comeback on reef
ELISE DONALDSON Australian Associated Press 22 May 17;

Dugong calf numbers, wiped out on the Great Barrier Reef six years ago, have recovered and are thriving, new research has found.

An aerial survey conducted late last year has shown a significant recovery of the large sea mammal's population since Cyclone Yasi and widespread flooding damaged their seagrass food supply in 2011.

Numbers in the southern region of the reef have increased to more than 10 per cent of the current population, according to the James Cook University survey.

Scientists estimated there were some 5500 dugongs in the waters between Hinchinbrook Island and the Queensland-NSW border at the time of the survey, with just over half found in the reef's world heritage area.

JCU Professor Helene Marsh said the results were positive news for what was a "globally significant" dugong population on the Great Barrier Reef.

"Dugongs play an important ecological role in coastal marine ecosystems and the status of dugong populations in an area can be used as an indicator of general ecosystem health," Prof Marsh said.

The survey is part of an integrated monitoring and reporting program which assesses the progress of the Australian and Queensland government's Reef 2050 Plan.

Program director Dr Roger Beeden said the surveys would be completed every five years and were vital to conservation management of the reef.

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Best of our wild blogs: 22 May 17

22-28 May: Week 3 of Pesta Ubin
Pesta Ubin 2017

Raptors In The Rain
Winging It

Clouded Monitor (Varanus nebulosus) @ Island Club Road
Monday Morgue

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Malaysia: Dams full but dry weather threatens

RAZAK AHMAD The Star 22 May 17;

PETALING JAYA: The Klang Valley’s eight dams are all nearly full thanks to the recent wet weather, but a severe dry spell in the coming months could drain them and cause water supply disruptions.

Data from the Selangor Water Management Authority website ( showed that the water level in Sungai Selangor dam, which supplies 70% of the treated water in the Klang Valley, was at 100% last Friday.

Two other dams – Semenyih and Langat – were also at 100% capacity, while four others were at more than 98%.

A dry spell typically happens in the Klang Valley from July to August due to a reduction in rainfall in the west coast of the peninsula, so the high water levels at the dams should ensure adequate supply of raw water in the months ahead.

However, Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia president S. Piarapakaran said the high water levels are no cause for cheer.

He said unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change means there is a possibility that the coming dry spell could be more severe than expected.

“Two of the three treatment plants drawing water from Sungai Selangor are already overloaded by 10% and 20% respectively.

“A severe dry season could bring down the water levels at the dam much faster than expected,” he said, adding that this could raise the risk of supply disruption.

Pollution in rivers supplying water to treatment plants will also take longer to clean up when water levels at the rivers are low in the event of a severe dry spell.

“The authorities must be on guard and not be complacent due to the high water levels at our dams now.

“They must anticipate unforeseen circumstances to reduce possible risks,” said Piarapakaran.

To reduce the danger of lengthy disruptions to treatment plants due to pollution, he suggested that counter-measures be taken.

These include pre-treatment of raw water upstream before the water is drawn by the treatment plants.

This is done using several methods including placing mechanised devices that stir the water upstream to add oxygen to the water and reduce ammonia pollution.

The Langat 2 water treatment plant is being built to increase the raw water supply for Klang Valley but Piarapakaran said this is only expected to be ready at the end of 2019.

The unpredictable weather also poses a challenge to the Fire and Rescue Department, which is preparing for an outbreak of forest and peat fires during the dry season.

“There is no longer any clear or specific trend when it comes to the severity of the dry season,” said its director-general Datuk Wan Mohd Nor Ibrahim.

He said that in general, Peninsular Malaysia gets two dry spell episodes, the first from February to March followed by a second one which starts in June or July.

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Best of our wild blogs: 21 May 17

Larval Host Plant for Butterflies: Sea Almond
Butterflies of Singapore

Night Walk At Punggol Promenade Nature Walk (19 May 2017)
Beetles@SG BLOG

Singapore Raptor Report – February 2017
Singapore Bird Group

Expect delays at Changi bumboats during peak periods until 17 Sep 2017
wild shores of singapore

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A burning issue for Singapore: Indonesia readies for haze battle

Jakarta is desperate to prevent a repeat of the forest fires that caused US$16 billion of damage, kicked up more carbon dioxide than the United States, and upset neighbours including the Lion City, Malaysia and Thailand
JEFFREY HUTTON South China Morning Post 21 May 17;

Almost every year around this time – during the dry season – haze descends on Riau. And every year Jois Marfu’ah suffers.

Villages and some businesses across Riau, on the island of Sumatra, slash and burn shrub land to make way for crops. The flames belch out a toxic mess that is dangerous to breathe. Ear, nose and throat infections are common. Day becomes night as visibility drops to 50 metres or so, Jois says. Schools close. Trips to see relatives – already arduous on Indonesia’s woeful roads – become torture. And all this goes on for months.

“I want to cry,” says Marfu’ah, 30. “It’s so uncomfortable and scary.”

Two years after fires laid waste to 2 million hectares of land – causing US$16 billion in damage and fraying relations with neighbours Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, which were blanketed in haze – Indonesia is desperate to avoid a rerun.

President Joko Widodo has banned new plantations on fire-prone peat land and bullied police and the military to lift their game. Police chiefs face demotion if fires break out on their patch. A new agency has been created to restore burned-out swathes and Widodo has promised more resources to fight fires.

How effective these measures are is unclear. Last year the dry season that usually settles across much of the archipelago around this time of year, and lasts until October, failed to materialise. This year the weather forecasts for the dry season are split – maybe wet, maybe dry. In any case, the man in charge of fighting the fires once they break out says he’s not taking any chances.

“The fires gave Indonesia a bad reputation. We were caught by surprise,” says Willem Rampangilei, head of the National Agency for Disaster Management. “Last year we got some help from God because of the rain. This year we think it will be drier. We must be prepared.”

Widodo wants Chinese to keep coming – as investors, not workers

At the centre of the issue is peat. A mat of semi-decayed trees, grass and other plants built up since the last ice age, peat land makes up 12 per cent of Indonesia’s territory.

Remote and marginal, the land is cheap and attracts plantation companies growing millions of hectares of oil palm or acacia trees for pulp and paper. Draining and drying peat oxidises all that built-up carbon and makes it flammable. At their height, the fires in 2015 kicked up as much carbon dioxide as the whole of the United States during an average 24-hour period.

The government, through its newly minted Peatland Restoration Agency, has restored about 270,000 hectares. It’s promised an additional 150,000 hectares will be restored before the end of the year.

“The political will is there. The government was deeply embarrassed by the fires in 2015,” says Herry Purnomo, a researcher at the Centre for International Forestry Research in Bogor, 40km from Jakarta.

“The government is pulling in the same direction, and for the police their careers depend on preventing fires. This is significant.”

But discouraging people from using fire to clear land means going much deeper than the attitudes of bureaucrats in faraway Jakarta. The practice is baked into the mindsets of many who firmly believe not only that it is cheap but, falsely, that it is a source of fertiliser.

So some plantation companies are attempting to help villages that border their concessions to break their fire habit. Three years ago Singapore-based pulp and paper company Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd (APRIL) offered 100 million rupiah
(HK$60,000) in prize money for villages that remained fire-free for a year. Winnings from the programme go towards infrastructure such as bridges or markets.

A year later the company spruced up the programme, offering advice on clearing land without fire and agriculture as well as the annual prize money. It appointed a local resident to keep a finger on the pulse of the village as a way of staying abreast of local needs and identifying potential firebugs.

The programme resulted in a dramatic fall in the amount of land consumed by fire. Throughout the nine villages, covering more than 400,000 hectares of land, that were participating in the programme in 2015, only 54 hectares were burned. The company has since expanded the programme to 27 villages.

One of the villages to win was Sering, population 3,000. Months of back and forth between company representatives and the village helped whittle the area lost to fire from 80 hectares in 2013 to just 0.5 hectares in 2015 and then finally to zero last year.

“There is a culture of burning the land,” Amirul Mukminim, a department head with the local government, says. “Most of the community had the perception that burning is legal and normal.”

But as the message filtered into the sermons during Friday prayers, attitudes started to change. “Sering is poor. It’s not easy to socialise people away from burning,” Mukminim says.

Not everyone is a fan of the approach. Greenpeace says that, though welcome, APRIL’s outreach to villages deflects attention from how it manages peat land within its concessions and those held by suppliers, which contribute about half of its raw material. “It’s not enough for the company to point to work in one area to reduce fires without demonstrating how it is reducing fire risks elsewhere, such as through raising water levels across the entirety of its operations on peat,” says Annisa Rahmawati, senior forest campaigner of Greenpeace Indonesia.

APRIL defended its approach: “Fire prevention is one aspect of a holistic landscape approach that aims to balance responsible production with forest conservation and protection. We are focused on a science-led approach to responsible peat land management.”

Other plantation companies have picked up the model, at least in part. Singapore-based palm oil company Musim Mas offers prizes of roughly US$2,500 to villages that remain fire-free. It says its efforts cover 72 villages comprising more than 500,000 hectares. The company wanted to move fast because it was concerned about burnishing its sustainability credentials and fending off legal probes as governments cracked down on plantation companies.

Indonesia’s haze crisis is Singapore’s haze crisis. During the worst of the burning season, prevailing winds from Sumatra coat the city state in fine particulate matter. The tiniest of these lodge in lungs and wreak havoc. Last year the index measuring these pollutants, PM2.5, went above 470 – out of a maximum of 500.

“This is such a powerful issue here,” says Musim Mas spokeswoman Carolyn Lim, who is based in Singapore. “You look out your window and you can’t see anything.”

Singapore has threatened to haul plantation companies – many of which are listed there – to court to answer for the haze. The government has demanded that six Indonesian suppliers linked to Asian Pulp and Paper Group explain their sustainability practices to its National Environment Agency.

In March last year Malaysian palm oil giant IOI Group was stripped of its sustainability certificates by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. The loss meant multinational companies dumped it as a supplier.

“This programme does wonders for your sustainability. We didn’t use to do any fire management outside of our concession. We realised that this whole situation is becoming criminalised,” Lim explains.

“Whether you like it or not you’re responsible for what happens in these villages.” ■

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Amid high-tech push, longtime Lim Chu Kang farmers keep faith with tradition

WONG PEI TING Today Online 20 May 17;

SINGAPORE — As the longtime farmers in Lim Chu Kang come face-to-face with the Government’s push for them to adopt new technologies, they swear by the simple technologies that they have devised and used over the past 20 years, saying that these work.

No need for conveyor belts or state-of-the-art tools, for what they have on their side is the strength of their know-how, personal care and knowledge of their farm animals and produce, and the results to show for it.

A quail farmer, a vegetable farmer, and a frog farmer tell TODAY about the values of prudence and minimalism that they uphold.


Step into 63-year-old farm Lian Wah Hang, and you will feel like you are visiting a science park of sorts that is filled with disarming inventions.

There are cages with 15-degree sloped bases, so that freshly laid quail eggs can roll out gently onto a collection tray.

Incubators are made using household items such as light bulbs and black plastic sheets that cost no more than S$200 each.

And there is that atmospheric-pressure-based water feeder, made of pipes with holes, that will dispense water onto a holder when pecked by bird chicks.

These simple tips and tricks are all the technology that 94-year-old Ho Seng Choon and his sons adopted.

The farm, mind you, was once at the frontier of modern farming techniques in the 1960s. It was one of the pioneers to introduce machine incubators, automatic egg graders that check for spots and cracks and sort eggs according to their size, and feather-plucking machines.

Despite having helped other farms including pig farms in Punggol and Kalimantan, Indonesia, move into automation in the past, it kept its own processes fuss-free today because “hi-tech doesn’t always equals results”, Mr Ho’s son William, 51, said.

For example, an automatic quail egg grader and packer could cut the job of four workers, but its S$500,000 price tag is not justified to help the farm sort and pack 30,000 eggs a day. Right now, six workers can do this in an hour in the evenings.

Another idea that sounds good on paper is to fix conveyor belts so that more labour-intensive processes such as feeding, egg collection and manure collection can be sped up, Mr Ho said. However, while it may reduce one’s physical exertion, it increases mental stress instead when they have to balance the accounts, such as having to match the investment with increased productivity when the demand remains largely stagnant.

Mr Ho, who had chosen farming over a career as an engineer with the Republic of Singapore Air Force, said such mental strain is uncalled for, and that farming is supposed to be all country and soul, with “no pressure”, yet “very fulfilling”.

“It’s very rewarding because you tend the earth, the animals give you back the returns.”

This is a day in his life: In the morning, his employees will feed the quails and clean up the coops so that their birds — numbering 150,000 at present — can “feel more at home”.

Then he will send about 10,000 quails to the slaughterhouse or transport the birds’ manure to other farms to be used as fertilisers.
After lunch, they will put new eggs into an incubator or take chicks into a brooder, which is a toasty-warm coop to nurture them into toddlerhood.

After tea time, they will feed the animals again and collect the eggs. This last part still thrills Mr Ho.

“Every egg you collect is like every cent that you put in your pockets… You feed the quails in the morning, and collect the returns by evening. The feeling is indescribable. That’s why I love being a farmer,” he said.

All these have served the business well, but the signs that things have to change are appearing.

The farm has been making S$90,000 in monthly revenue from 1997 to 2016, until Malaysian imports started to flood the market this year and they are only getting a third of what they used to earn.

Then, by 2019, it would have to move out of its 2.7ha premises to a proposed 1.5ha space, the vacated site of Aero Green Technology at Neo Tiew Crescent.

Mr Ho shook his head as he foresees that he would need an estimated S$3.5 million to build his facility from scratch there. “The investment, overheads and material costs will be sky-high... I asked for the ministry to come up with a special arrangement or package to help us in financing the structural build-up, but unfortunately, there is no mechanism yet.”

He finds that the same money could be used to upgrade Lian Wah Hang’s existing space, which has not been open to public since 2004, to kickstart its recreational and educational arm, such as having a visitor’s centre, museum and event hall, among others. For now, the Tourism Board certified nature guide is currently conducting farm tours from Farmart Centre at Sungei Tengah near Choa Chu Kang.
Moving would mean “needing to start all over again (and) that we need to slowly build our flocks up”, he said.


Fluctuating weather in Singapore is a daily battle for local vegetable farms Farm 85 and Yili Vegetation. Too hot, and crops like cai xin and xiao bai cai might not get receive enough water. Too wet, and soil nutrients and fertilisers get washed away.

But the farms, neighbours at Lim Chu Kang Lane 1, have found a way to overcome the problem, through adapting a greenhouse setup they came across four years ago during a study trip to a Shandong farm in eastern China.

They used black netting as the heat-trapping material, in place of a white plastic cover, so less heat penetrates when the sun is overhead. To allow more air to flow through the greenhouse, they extended the width of the roof from 1m to 2.5m.

Just like that, the two farms, which have been around for about 20 years, manage to churn out about 15 harvests each annually. That’s seven tonnes of leafy greens daily, or about one-quarter the Republic’s vegetable produce.

Everything else at their setups is by the sweat of brow. Seeds, germinated in a nursery for up to 12 days first, are transplanted by hand. Four to five workers are needed for each hectare of land – Farm 85 is close to 14ha, Yili is 4ha.

After 20 to 24 days — depending, again, on the weather — the produce is harvested by hand and manually packed.

Although they are keen to continue upgrading their systems, Farm 85 director Tan Koon Hua, 49, and Yili owner Alan Toh, 53, said it is not just a matter of buying machines.

Mr Tan said, in Mandarin: “(Relying on a machine to keep temperatures in a greenhouse constant) might work in countries with four seasons, but it is not suitable in Asia. Singapore’s temperature fluctuates a lot, so the system needs to keep adjusting to keep the conditions the same, so the machine spoils easily, incurring higher maintenance costs, while its intended impact is not there.”

What could work, though, are sensors that alert them to toggle settings to regulate temperatures remotely, they said. Even if they are overseas, a few taps on a tablet or smartphone is all that is needed to ensure crops are tended to optimally.

But such sensors cost S$15,000 each. And for every hectare, eight such sensors are needed.

With the land they are currently sitting on up for redevelopment by the end of 2021, the idea has to be put on the backburner.

For now, a bigger concern looms: Is the land parcel they are relocating to reclaimed land?

Half of Yili sits on reclaimed land, and it took Mr Toh more than five years to adjust the soil conditions using compost. And even then, the results are sub-optimal, 20 years on.

Mr Toh said water still does not drain as well as it does on natural soil, and the yield is as much as 30 per cent lower, as well as of poorer quality.

“(Produce) from reclaimed land are ‘old-looking’ – they take two to three days more to ripen, so the quality changes,” he said. “But on natural soil, my spinach heads are white and translucent, they sparkle.”


Thirty-six years ago, Ms Chelsea Wan’s father started Jurong Frog Farm, even though the various limitations here — they depend on Mother Nature for enough rain for their frogs to grow properly because rules forbid them from using water from the tap for the frogs, for instance — put the number of frogs they can rear from scratch out of their hands.

Since then, their singular focus has been to make every frog they have count — beyond the frog legs they sell for dishes, such as porridge.

In 1999, they had their first breakthrough: Producing hashima locally. The collagen-rich delicacy was previously thought of as only attainable from frogs living in mountains in the northern regions of China. But Ms Wan’s father, after two years of experimentation, found a way to convert the fatty tissue found near a frog’s fallopian tube into hashima.

He used different methods and temperatures to dry the tissue, but the taste and texture was not up to mark. So he employed various ways to cutting the tissue, finally finding a streamlined process to mass-produce it for the market.

Today, the hashima they produce earns enough to “cover one to two head counts” but is a source of pride.

They did not stop there.

Later, Ms Wan found that frog innards can be sold to pet shops and clinics as an alternative diet for dogs with skin problems.
Frog skin? Why not deep fry it and serve it as a snack, similar to what is done for fish skin?

Recently, they started working on a new idea. Tapping researchers from the Nanyang Technological University — who took up residence at the farm — they are toying with processes to harvest bioactive collagen peptides from frog skin for use in cosmetic products.

All these efforts, said Ms Wan, have yielded extra income, so much so that half of what they used to discard now brings in revenue.
This enterprising spirit, to the 34-year-old who became a frog farmer right after graduating with a Sociology degree from National University of Singapore, is what it means to be true farmers: They make do, innovate, and grow within their means.

After all, farming is “not rocket science”, she quipped. The conditions are “so simple, so basic”, and “you don’t need to employ a six-figure system to run the operations, and then incur much more in percentage of utility costs”, she added.

“There are things like automatic food dispensers, but farmers should be the ones feeding because you need to monitor the rate of (your animals’) growth. You need to pick up the diseased animals early enough. You just need to feed them – how long will it take?”

In fact, getting your hands dirty is, to Ms Wan, as much a vital part of a farming existence as the simple pleasures she enjoyed growing up in her family’s farm.

Last December, she moved into a flat in Bukit Panjang and is still trying to adjust to the changes — traffic is too noisy, there is no fresh air, nor unobstructed views of the sky.

“Right now work is still quite menial. Nothing is really mechanised ... We rely on the elements, but funny thing is the farm is still around 35 years later,” she said.

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Best of our wild blogs: 20 May 17

Expect delays at Changi bumboats during peak periods until 17 Sep 2017
wild shores of singapore

Intertidal Outing @ Nicoll Drive
Bugs & Insects of Singapore

Festival of Biodiversity Speaker Series – May 27 & 28

Toddycats’ prepare for Festival of Biodiversity 2017 – this time, a forest walk at the MacRitchie forest!

Nature Conservation Talk & Film Screening by Cicada Tree Eco-Place
Love our MacRitchie Forest

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Fish vaccines keep antibiotic risk at bay

It is more effective than antibiotics and benefits consumers' health too, but costs are higher for farms
Audrey Tan Straits Times 20 May 17;

Just as infants are vaccinated against certain diseases, young fish at three farms here are also getting the same treatment.

They are injected with vaccines instead of being fed with antibiotics, the usual practice currently.

This keeps the fish - and the humans who eat them - healthy. This is because vaccines reduce the risk of people developing a resistance to antibiotics.

When farmed animals, such as fish, are fed with antibiotics, there is the possibility of residual drugs passing through the food chain and ending up in the bellies of humans, said Emeritus Professor Hew Choy Leong from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) department of biological sciences.

"Many of these antibiotics are used to treat human diseases. If antibiotics are consumed excessively, the bacteria can develop a resistance to medicine that was previously able to kill them," he said.

Only three of some 120 fish farms here have started vaccinating their fish, but experts hope more will follow. Fish farm Marine Life Aquaculture, for example, started a pilot to swop antibiotics for vaccines about four years ago.

Its managing director Frank Tan said the pilot has been successful - 90 per cent of vaccinated fish survived, compared with 20 per cent of those fed with antibiotics.

The farm will scale this up from next month to all its fingerlings, or young fish about 10cm long.

"When we vaccinate the fish, there is herd immunity which prevents disease from spreading fast - important for farmed fish in close proximity to one another. Antibiotics are mainly used after a bacterial infection hits, and it may be too late," said Mr Tan.

Vaccines cost twice as much as antibiotics, and administering them is labour-intensive - workers have to manually vaccinate the fish one by one - but Mr Tan said the high survival rate was worth it.

The Straits Times reported last December that the Health Ministry was working with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), the National Environment Agency and NUS on a nationwide strategy to tackle the problem of some bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

"Due to increasing worldwide concerns over the development of antimicrobial resistance, AVA has been stepping up efforts to advise and educate our farmers on proper fish health management to prevent infections without using antibiotics, and (on) prudent drug usage to treat disease when needed," an AVA spokesman told The Straits Times.

Farmers must follow certain procedures which, among other things, will prevent residual antimicrobials from exceeding certain levels, she said.

Whether more farms would start vaccinating their fish depends on factors such as cost, said Dr Grace Loo, a lecturer in marine science and aquaculture at Republic Polytechnic's School of Applied Science.

Dr Dirk Eichelberger, from fish farm Singapore Aquaculture Technologies, believes vaccines are key as they improve survival rates.

"However, there is a shortage of suitable vaccines in Singapore, and those that are available require a very high minimum order quantity," he said, adding that he uses antibiotics only in the rare event of disease outbreaks.

AVA said farms can tap its Agriculture and Productivity Fund to buy equipment, such as those required for fish vaccination, that boosts productivity.

Service executive Julie Ng, 60, said she is keen to buy vaccinated fish. "It sounds like the healthier choice, and why not, if the fish are cheaper too."

But teacher Ho Heng Mei, 56, said fresh fish are not sold with nutrition labels, making it hard for consumers to differentiate between vaccinated fish and fish fed with antibiotics. "There is no way to know the treatment process given. So as long as there is no health warning, I will continue to enjoy eating fish."

Why vaccines work better than antibiotics

Give a man a fish and he feeds for a day. Teach a man to fish and he feeds for a lifetime. That is essentially what antibiotics and vaccines do respectively.

Antibiotics are chemical compounds designed to kill bacteria - they treat a disease when it happens. Vaccines, on the other hand, are preventive. They contain biological compounds that bolster the body's own immune system to protect it against specific pathogens.

Mr Lee Yeng Sheng, a senior specialist for global marketing in aquaculture at MSD Animal Health, which developed the vaccines used by local fish farm Marine Life Aquaculture, said fish vaccines work like human vaccines. "Once administered, the fish will mount a natural immune response and be protected from infection by the disease, allowing for the use of medicines such as antibiotics when only absolutely necessary," he said.

This means that the next time a fish encounters an infection caused by bacteria or viruses it has been vaccinated against, its immune system will be ready to fight it. But if it had been given antibiotics instead, a new dose would be required every time there is an outbreak.

This could encourage and breed resistance in the bacteria, said Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.

When fish are given antibiotics, the chemicals are usually mixed in its food.

"When the antibiotics go directly into the sea, or are excreted by the fish into the sea, it provides sub-therapeutic levels of the drug - which means the dosage is lower than that required to kill the pathogen," said Dr Leong. This makes it easy for the bacteria to mutate against the drug - an effect that vaccines do not have on the pathogen.

"In other words, give the fish antibiotics, you rid the bacteria for one day. Give the fish a vaccine, you teach the fish to fight the bacteria every day," he said.

Audrey Tan

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