The Big Read: Without fanfare, a 40-strong team is laying the groundwork to save Singapore from sea level rise

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SINGAPORE: Many people sat up and took notice when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at the 2019 National Day Rally about spending S$100 billion over the next 50 to 100 years to protect Singapore from rising sea levels.

Since then, the buzz has somewhat dwindled as more pressing issues occupied Singaporeans’ minds. And there was also the not insignificant matter of a pandemic which seized Singapore and the rest of the world, and very much put everything else on hold.

Quietly in the background though, efforts to lay the groundwork to protect Singapore’s coastal areas have continued unabated: For now, the gigantic task of preventing parts of the island from becoming partially submerged beneath the waves — possibly by the end of the century if nothing is done — falls onto a group of public servants comprising senior assistant director Sarah Hiong, 36, senior engineer Eugene Lim, 33, and their colleagues from national water agency PUB’s coastal protection department.

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Not that any of them are fazed by the size of the undertaking — the urgency and significance of which, in fact, seem to be lost on some members of the public such as the team members’ own friends and family.

“During Chinese New Year, or even at gatherings, when I tell them (friends and family) about my job, they will be like, ‘Oh, what is sea level rise and what do you do?’” said Mr Lim.

But instead of getting disheartened by the lack of awareness, Mr Lim said their curiosity often presents him with an opportunity to educate them on the need to get Singapore ready for rising sea levels caused by global warming and melting ice sheets.

Mr Lim has been with PUB for eight years. He previously held an operations-related role in another PUB department, and was assigned to the coastal protection department in 2020 when it was first formed.

the coastal protection department currently has more than 40 members.
“Transiting from an operations role to a planning role was something very, very new to me … but I thought it would be very exciting to be part of a pioneer team of engineers embarking on a journey to protect Singapore from sea level rise.”

Today, his team manages Singapore’s first site-specific study for the City-East Coast coastline which covers 57.8km of coastline across areas including Changi, East Coast, Marina East, Marina South as well as part of the Greater Southern Waterfront. The study was announced a year ago and is slated to complete by 2025.

Part of the job, said Mr Lim, entails understanding the characteristics unique to the area, which will then allow PUB to design suitable coastal protection measures.

Although the department was formed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Lim said it has been making “steady progress in charting coastal protection strategies to combat rising sea levels”.

According to data from the National Climate Change Secretariat, about 30 per cent of Singapore is less than 5m above sea level.

The sea levels are projected to rise by 1m by 2100. However, they could go up to 4m or 5m above today’s mean sea level if factors such as daily tidal activity, storm surges and land subsidence — the sinking of land caused by tectonic movement — are taken into account, said PUB on its website.

Referencing these facts, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu said in March that this is “high enough to potentially flood one-third of Singapore”.

PUB was appointed in April 2020 to lead and coordinate the Government’s efforts to protect Singapore’s coastlines.

n any case, Ms Fu described coastal protection in her speech in March as a “long-term endeavour”.

Among those in the coastal protection department helping with this endeavour is Ms Hiong and her masterplanning and regulatory team.

Ms Hiong, who has been with PUB for 13 years, said her division is responsible for reviewing Singapore’s long term-coastal protection strategies, policies and regulations that need to be put in place.

“As climate science and projections are continuously evolving, we have to think about the implications of different scenarios of sea level rise on Singapore. This complicates the planning of coastal protection strategies,” said Ms Hiong, adding that coastal protection against rising sea level is a relatively new field here.

Unlike Mr Lim, Ms Hiong was previously from a department dealing with climate change adaptation plans for water supply and drainage infrastructure and was already “plugged” into the Building and Construction Authority’s (BCA) Coastal Adaptation Study.

“I think of it like a blank canvas. Today there is no coastal protection policy or master plan in place, so it is up to this team to … set the rules, so to speak,” she said.
Still, Ms Hiong was quick to stress that this does not mean that the coastal protection department is working in the dark.

Aside from using BCA’s study as a starting point, she said Singapore is also learning from other nations which have already begun their journey such as the United Kingdom and the world leader in coastal protection technologies, the Netherlands.

She added that PUB has also set up a coastal protection panel, comprising experts here and abroad, to strengthen its knowledge and expertise in coastal engineering.
“So that really mitigates the problem of us working in the dark,” she said.

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