The Maldives’ Anthropogenic Existentialism – Environmental Realities

A previously uninhabited island that has been used for tourism. A minute fraction of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge.

A previously uninhabited island that has been used for tourism. A minute fraction of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge.

The awesomeness of the tranquility of the Maldives is superceded only by that of its sheer natural beauty and pristine surroundings. For all the recognition the nation has built for itself as a secluded paradise away from the hustle and bustle of life in regions continental or more developed, the environment of the Maldives faces the globally induced and seemingly indomitable threat of anthropogenic climate change – a problem not caused in any large part by itself but one that bears much significance for the country’s very existence.

The Maldives is in many ways a unique place and its tectonic history is no exception. Peeping above the surface of the Indian Ocean, the 26 rings, or atolls, of a total of slightly under 1200 islands are the highest points of the mid-section of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge that extends as an undersea plateau from the Lakshadweep Islands of India north of the Maldives downwards to the Chagos Archipelago that lies south of the country. The ridge, and hence the islands, was formed by the Réunion hotspot and acts as a volcanic trace of it. It goes without saying that the past volcanic activity of the hotspot gave rise to the location of the Maldives today, just north of the Equator which, in turn, determined the climate experienced there. The unique geography of the Maldives has imposed upon its inhabitants a way of life that is very much influenced by their interaction with their environment. A myriad of human-environment relationships are noticeable upon setting foot in the country and perhaps even before landing; the many water bungalow resorts that dot its islands’ coastlines are telling of the extent to which tourism contributes to the local economy (30% of its GDP, in fact). These relationships manifest themselves in a variety of forms – urban land use, waste management, disaster management as well as dealing with weather and climate in general.

The Maldives lies in the middle of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge. The elongated nature of the the ridge is indicative of its origins due to ancient volcanic activity of the Reunion Hotspot.

The Maldives lies in the middle of the Chagos-Laccadive Plateau. The elongated nature of the  ridge is indicative of its origins due to ancient volcanic activity of the Reunion Hotspot.

Iconic water bungalows at the Adaaran Rannalhi Resort. Tourism forms the backbone of the Maldivian economy. While in the past, tourism was exclusive to resort islands, new government regulations have spurred the growth of affordable guesthouses on local islands, giving more locals a chance to partake in the economic benefits afforded by it.

Iconic water bungalows at the Adaaran Rannalhi Resort. Tourism forms the backbone of the Maldivian economy. While in the past, tourism was exclusive to resort islands, new government regulations have spurred the growth of affordable guesthouses on local islands, giving more locals a chance to partake in the economic benefits afforded by it.

In the local islands of the Maldives, as opposed to the resort islands, where relatively sizeable numbers of people live, competition for land use is a striking feature. In its capital of Male, the most built-up of all the islands, it is not uncommon to find buildings of very different functional natures existing side by the side. The juxtaposition of a local prison and a primary school is but one instance of an odd scattering of buildings around the island. This comes as little surprise, however, given the pressure upon an island with an area of merely 5.8 square kilometres and a population of around 153 379, rendering it one of the most densely populated islands in the world, with a population density more than 3 times that of Singapore’s. Land scarcity in and by itself is not the problem; the Maldives has an abundance of land, after taking into account hundreds of uninhabited islands that exist up and down the length of the country. Male, being the capital city, necessarily subsumes various main political, administrative, economic and social functions in its jurisdiction. Residents of Male have had to suffer the consequences of unfettered land use confined within a natural boundary in its coastline (that does not allow for urban sprawl as in continental capital cities), including high rental costs and a living environment too congested for comfort. Not all is doom and gloom though, as the government has gone so far as to reclaim whole islands such as the neighbouring Hulhumale island, opening up new space for residences together with restrictions permitting only locals to buy property there with the purpose of combating pressure exerted by land use competition.

Male, the capital city, is by far the most densely populated and built-up island in the Maldives. It is also one of the most densely populated islands in the world.

An aerial view of Male, the capital city. It is by far the most densely populated and built-up island in the Maldives. It is also one of the most densely populated islands in the world.

Where there are human settlements and economic activity, there will be waste. Add to this the fact that the main activity that holds up the Maldivian economy is one that guarantees a continual flow of people into the country, and it can only be expected that the supply of waste generated is just as steady. The lack of a comprehensive waste management system in the Maldives is exacerbated by the fact that each of the roughly 100 resorts on the exclusive resort islands have to manage their own waste systems. Equally, it is entirely plausible that ferry terminals at local islands host the rather unsightly image of a ferry carrying a gargantuan volume of waste being docked only metres away from one transporting commuters to other islands. Eventually, all waste from across the Maldives is dumped on Thilafushi island where a once unspoilt bay now literally overflows with waste. Even though government programmes such as a solid waste management test-bedding project at Ari Atoll seem to be making some headway to integrate solid waste management systems into local islands, empower local councils to institutionalise the training of staff skilled in the area of waste management, and educate local populations on the merits of recycling and composting, progress has been on a small scale and it is yet to be seen if this model is workable in other atolls. For now, the unsustainability of the indiscriminate dumping of waste shall continue to afflict human health and coastal ecosystems in and around Thilafushi island which has been accordingly dubbed ‘Rubbish Island’.

A local ferry ticket typically costs USD$2 per person. Ferries are an important mode of transport for Maldivians. The amount of space put aside for the transport of food is in line with the fact that almost all food except coconuts and seafood are imported into most islands. Finding a ferry transporting nothing but solid waste right next to this would be unsurprising albeit seemingly out of place. (Thankfully, we couldn't smell anything.)

A local ferry ticket typically costs USD$2 per person. Ferries are an important mode of transport for Maldivians. The amount of space put aside for the transport of food is in line with the fact that almost all food except coconuts and seafood are imported into most islands. Finding a ferry transporting nothing but solid waste right next to this would be unsurprising albeit seemingly out of place. (Thankfully, we couldn’t smell anything.)

Recycling efforts on Maafushi, a local island in Kaafu Atoll.

Recycling efforts on Maafushi, a local island in Kaafu Atoll.

Maldivians are a resilient lot. They weathered the devastation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which claimed 112 lives, displaced close to 30 000 and lashed out a host of problems to the environment including coastal destruction, degradation of coral reefs, extensive inundation of at least 99 outlying low-lying islands and even groundwater contamination due to the intrusion of sea water into aquifers. The impact on the local economy was glaring as well with the tourism, fisheries and agricultural sectors worst hit. Since then, the country has strengthened its national strategy to deal with potential tsunamis by improving the prediction of tsunamis through the integration of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Committee’s Tsunami Warning Centres as well as by boosting protection through rallying communities to conserve vegetation as a soft engineering mechanism to water down the impact of tsunamis. Today, the physical effects of the tsunami may be largely unnoticeable. In any case, it remains to be seen if the Maldives will be able to better deal with other tsunamis of the same magnitude as the 2004 tsunami, which might prove to be a challenge considering that the scattered nature of its islands and populations makes for a difficult environment to communicate information and coordinate efforts when the need arises.

Under normal weather conditions, strong winds and frequent rainfall events are a part and parcel of daily life in the Maldives, during the period of the South West monsoon in the summer months of the Northern Hemisphere. A lack of elevated relief to induce a rainshadow effect coupled with exposure to the vast, open waters of the Indian Ocean allow the Maldives to experience almost the full brunt and force of the South East Trades that get deflected as South Westerlies in the Northern Hemisphere due to the Coriolis effect. Given the small size of the islands, the rainfall events, while frequent, usually last merely from 5 to 15 minutes. The monsoon is, nonetheless, an important feature of the climate as it helps to recharge subsurface aquifers where groundwater accumulates. Groundwater is an essential source of freshwater for the people of the Maldives since the relief of their small islands does not favour river development.

Rain is fast and furious in the Maldives. Rainfall events occur frequently during the period of the SW Monsoon but last for 5-15 minutes not so much because the clouds dissipate as the islands are simply so small in size that rain clouds pass over them relatively quickly.

Rain is fast and furious in the Maldives. Rainfall events occur frequently during the period of the SW Monsoon but last for 5-15 minutes not so much because the clouds dissipate as the islands are simply so small in size that rain clouds pass over them relatively quickly.

Perhaps the most daunting of environmental challenges borne out of human-environment interactions that the Maldives faces is one that shall come to affect us all – anthropogenic climate change. The Maldives, unfortunately, is in a position where it faces an existential crisis as it stands to lose out more than other countries would, for their very physical existence is at risk due to rising sea levels. The 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the world’s leading authority on the subject, published in October 2014 warned of the unequivocal warming of the climate system and that sea levels had already risen on average by 3.2mm per year between 1993 and 2010 globally. Sustained global warming at projected rates will result in a further rise in sea levels due various factors including melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica as well as the warming and expansion of oceans themselves. This is particularly serious for a collective of low-lying islands such as the Maldives especially since the highest natural point of elevation in the country is merely 2.4 metres above sea level. Aerial photographs make it easy to deduce that the beaches of a typical Maldivian island spread outwards for tens or perhaps even hundreds of metres from the coastline in a very gentle gradient. Extensive inundation due to climate change may not occur as quickly as it would if due to a tsunami but it is certainly far from unfathomable. The effects of climate change will creep up on the Maldives as rainfall intensifies and becomes more frequent as well.

Aerial photo of an island. The lighter the colour of the water, the shallower the sea. Most islands have beaches and coasts with very gentle gradients.

Aerial photo of an island. The lighter the colour of the water, the shallower the sea. Most islands have beaches and coasts with very gentle gradients.

More frequent rainfall of higher intensity is projected to become a feature of future Maldivian weather patterns due to the threat of anthropogenic climate change.

More frequent rainfall of higher intensity is projected to become a feature of future Maldivian weather patterns due to the threat of anthropogenic climate change.

An aircraft taking off at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on an island adjacent to Male. Extensive inundation due to climate change (i.e.: rising sea levels) may not occur as quickly as it would if due to a tsunami but it is certainly far from unfathomable.

An aircraft taking off in the distance at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on an island adjacent to Male. Extensive inundation due to climate change (i.e.: rising sea levels) may not occur as quickly as it would if due to a tsunami but it is certainly far from unfathomable.

Already, the government has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2019 by eliminating fossil fuel use through drastically increasing dependence on renewable energy, for instance. It hopes to pave the way for other nations to do the same. Unfortunately, so long as the countries with the world’s biggest carbon footprints such as China and the United States do not heed Maldivian calls for tough action on climate change, the fate of the country seems to be sealed – a truly pitiable future for a country so majestically endowed with captivating natural beauty that its people are not only proud of but are also dependent on for their livelihood. The fossil coral reefs of the Maldives tell a story that dates back to the early parts of the Holocene epoch, as their uranium contents offer clues about past climatic conditions. Whether the bountiful, colourful Maldivian corals of today will tell the story of worsening global warming when they are fossilised and discoloured thousands of years from now is dependent on how driven the international community will be in tackling climate change.

While the Maldives faces environmental challenges that are due to their own human interaction with the physical environment in ways that pose problems for the country that they themselves can largely take into their own hands, climate change is one challenge that the Maldives will not be able to solve single-handedly. Hence, the Maldives serves as a timely and pertinent reminder that while we may think that our identities are very much defined by our geographical and political boundaries, the Earth does indeed belong to all of us and our stake in it could not be higher, at least for the sake of the people of the Maldives – for their livelihood and their heritage, natural or otherwise.

 

 

References:

Fretzdorff, S., P. Stoffers, C.W. Devey, and M. Munschy. “Structure and Morphology of Submarine Volcanism in the Hotspot Region around Réunion Island, Western Indian Ocean.” Marine Geology 148, no. 1-2 (1998): 39-53.

Kench, P.S., S.G. Smithers, R.F. Mclean, and S.l. Nichol. “Holocene Reef Growth in the Maldives: Evidence of a Mid-Holocene Sea-level Highstand in the Central Indian Ocean.” Geology, 2009, 455-58.

Ministry of Tourism. Tourism Statistics – May 2015. Accessed July 8, 2015. http://www.tourism.gov.mv/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/May-2015.pdf.

Naafiz, Ali. “Nine Years On, How Ready Is Maldives for a Tsunami?” Haveeru Online, December 26, 2013. Accessed July 8, 2015. http://www.haveeru.com.mv/feature/53003.

National Geographic. “Maldives Facts.” National Geographic Atlas of the World, Eighth Edition. Accessed July 8, 2015. http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/countries/maldives-facts/.

Rezwan. “There’s an Island Made of Toxic Trash Rising Out of the Sea in the Maldives.” Global Voices, October 24, 2014. Accessed July 8, 2015. http://globalvoicesonline.org/2014/10/24/theres-an-island-made-of-toxic-trash-rising-out-of-the-sea-in-the-maldives/.

Srivastava, Nitin, and Rajib Shaw. “Institutional and Legal Arrangements and Its Impacts on Urban Issues in Post Indian Ocean Tsunami.” In Recovery from the Indian Ocean Tsunami – A Ten-Year Journey, 17-25. 1st ed. Vol. 1. Springer, 2014.

The Basement Geographer. “Hulhumalé and the Last Stand of the Maldives.” April 14, 2011. Accessed July 8, 2015. http://basementgeographer.com/hulhumale-and-the-last-stand-of-the-maldives/.

UNEP. “National Rapid Environmental Assessment.” The Maldives. Accessed July 8, 2015. http://www.unep.org/tsunami/reports/TSUNAMI_MALDIVES_LAYOUT.pdf.

World Bank. “Maldives Ari Atoll Solid Waste Management Project.” Projects and Operations. April 11, 2014. Accessed July 8, 2015. http://www.worldbank.org/projects/P130163/maldives-ari-atoll-solid-waste-management-project?lang=en.

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A Passage to India

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset I always imagined that my first trip to India would have entailed a visit to either a southern state of the country such as Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh due to my ethnolinguistic affiliation to those regions by virtue of my ancestry or to the capital of New Delhi. But, as fate would have it, my initial impressions of India have been borne out of a trip to the state of West Bengal that I recently embarked on due to National Service commitments. Although my journey to the town of Kharagpur in Paschim Medinipur district was atypical of one undertaken by any ordinary civilian, I left the shores of India with a renewed outlook and vivid memories of the country. When Geographers travel, things start to unravel. What I saw could only have been a fraction of the immense geographical diversity that a country as big as India must have; with 5.9 million inhabitants, Paschim Medinipur (refer to Map A below) is the country’s 14th most populous district, accounting for merely 0.49% of 1.2 billion Indians, according to the 2011 Census. Given the sheer size of India, the uniqueness of Paschim Medinipur’s specific urban features, local economy, demography and physical characteristics is unsurprising.

Map A: Paschim Medinipur is a district that lies in the southwestern part of the state of West Bengal in India.

Map A: Paschim Medinipur is a district that lies in the southwestern part of the state of West Bengal in India.

A typical lower class residence located further away from the town centre in Kharagpur. Lower class residences may be built using materials other than concrete. They are not necessarily of illegal tenure, even if classifiable as slums.

A typical lower class residence located further away from the town centre in Kharagpur. Lower class residences may be built using materials other than concrete. They are not necessarily of illegal tenure, even if classifiable as slums.

Urban Structure

At first glance, a careless observer might assume the comparatively lower standards of living in a place like Kharagpur, as opposed to those we are fortunate to experience in Singapore, to be indicative of the rural nature of the settlement. After all, merely 12.22% of Paschim Medinipur is urban. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that Kharagpur is indeed an urban centre and a town in Paschim Medinipur that is separated from other cities and towns in the state, including the state capital of Kolkata, by rural settlements and a number of forest reserves. Such confusion may arise due to a lack of comprehension of inherent differences that exist between the ways in which urban zones can be delimited in the cities and towns of Developed Countries (DCs) such as Singapore, and those in Less Developed Countries (LDCs) such as India. Typically, in DCs, urban areas have an identifiable urban core, inner city locations and suburbs that would have experienced the increasing decentralisation of residences, industries and services. In LDCs, however, urban zones in a city or town may be organised along other lines – middle class and lower class residences, formal and informal industries are usually located in distinct zones of their own. The same is true in Kharagpur, where middle class residences are located closer to modern services and amenities in the town centre and where lower class residences, while not slums or shanty towns, are located slightly further away. A definitive feature that has influenced the distribution of industrial sites in Paschim Medinipur is the collection of railway lines, the earliest of which was built in 1989. Existing industrial sites are mainly linearly distributed (refer to Map B below), parallel to the rail network, the nucleus of which lies in Kharagpur which boasts one of the world’s longest railway platforms. Stretching a distance of 1072.5m, the railway platform connects Kharagpur to important port cities and centres of commerce such as Mumbai, Maharashtra on the western coast and Chennai, Tamil Nadu on the southeastern coast. Hence, the spatial distribution of residences and industries in Kharagpur proves that it is typical in its nature as an urban settlement in a LDC while unique in its specific industrial functions.

Map B: Industrial sites have popped up mainly along the railway tracks and major roads in the region.

Map B: Industrial sites have popped up mainly along the railway tracks and major roads in the region.

A train station located in the Kharagpur area.

A train station located in the Kharagpur area.

A view of one of the world's longest railway platforms, in Kharagpur.

A view of one of the world’s longest railway platforms, in Kharagpur.

An air-conditioned Indian Railways passenger train plying the route along Kharagpur's main railway platform which connects the town to the port cities of Mumbai and Chennai.

An air-conditioned Indian Railways passenger train plying the route along Kharagpur’s main railway platform which connects the town to the port cities of Mumbai and Chennai.

Demography

Demographically, Paschim Medinipur seems to be a microcosm of West Bengal and, indeed, India. While it had a lower population growth rate than the national average of 17.64% in 2011, it has followed the national trend of declining growth rates, decreasing from 26.87% in 1971 to 24.73% in 1991 and finally, to 13.86% in the 2011 Census. This renders the district a good representation of India as a LDC having transitioned from Stage 2 to Stage 3 of the Demographic Transition Model which offers an explanation for falling population growth rates as being attributable to a significantly lower death rate in Stage 3 than in Stage 2 coupled with a faster decline of the birth rate due to a variety of factors that accompany the industrialisation and development of a country. These factors may include better access to education, better family planning, better healthcare and higher incomes among a host of other factors. Other key indicators of Paschim Medinipur’s development are in line with this. For instance, average literacy had increased from 70.41% to 78.0% from 2001 to 2011. Furthermore, across this period, whilst the gap between male literacy, which stood at 85.26% in 2011, and female literacy still exists, improvements have been made to the latter; female literacy rates increased from merely 59.11% in 2001 to 70.50% in 2011. Hence, the demography of Paschim Medinipur generally mirrors that of India as a whole, owing slight differences to the unique local factors present at the state and district levels.

The Andhra Bhavan Primary and Higher Secondary School established in 1952 caters to the migrant Telugu population that hails from Andra Pradesh state and is located closer to the town centre in Kharagpur. A board outside the school advertises the tenets of a child's right to education as espoused by the 2009 Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act.

The Andhra Bhavan Primary and Higher Secondary School established in 1952 caters to the migrant Telugu population that hails from Andra Pradesh state and is located closer to the town centre in Kharagpur. A board outside the school advertises the tenets of a child’s right to education as espoused by the 2009 Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act.

Vulnerability

The significance of improvements in the key indicators of the development of Paschim Medinipur are perhaps better understood and appreciated against a backdrop of the vulnerability that persists there. Highlighted as one of the country’s 250 most backward districts, the region is plagued by hazards of both a physical and social nature. Situated in the southwestern corner of West Bengal, Paschim Medinipur experiences the tropical monsoon climate and has four rivers flowing through it that drain into the Bay of Bengal. Due to variation in relief, on the one hand, the southern and eastern areas of the district are usually well inundated and enjoy higher crop yields although this implies an increased risk of flooding in those areas (refer to Map C below). Kharagpur, in particular, has an abundance of waterlogged soil due to its location on the lower plains of the Kangsabati River, rendering agriculture an arduous activity. On the other hand, the western and northern areas that consist of undulated land with lateritic soil experience a higher frequency of crop failures and associated food insecurity due to a higher dependence on the monsoon as well as poor irrigation infrastructure. Hence, in a district located in close proximity to the Bay of Bengal and where 80% of the population are dependent on the monsoon for their livelihood and survival, the ill effects of drought, floods and cyclones have collectively not been unfamiliar to the people of Paschim Medinipur for the past few centuries.

Map C: Variation in the frequency and magnitude of floods exists between different regions of the district.

Map C: Variation in the frequency and magnitude of floods exists between different regions of the district.

As in other parts of India, social vulnerability caused by indebtedness, internal displacement and Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-related violence has had devastating effects on social mobility and security for the region’s poorest. An estimated 500 lives had been lost during the 2 years preceding 2011 due to violence inflicted by Maoist rebels alone (refer to Map D below). Hence, juxtaposed against such appalling instances of vulnerability, any improvement to the overall standards of living and quality of life in Paschim Medinipur are positive signs of development.

Map D: Maoist insurgents, otherwise known as Naxals, have generally targeted the western side of the district.

Map D: Maoist insurgents, otherwise known as Naxals, have generally targeted the western side of the district.

Outlook

The future of the district is surely not characterised solely by doom and gloom. Kharagpur, for instance, has been noted as being one of the most cosmopolitan areas in the entire state, where not only Bengalis reside but where there is also a significant presence of Indians from other corners of the country such as Telugus from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. There are plans for civilian flights to land and take off from the Kalaikunda Air Force Station located in Kharagpur, in coming years, to serve not only West Bengal but Orissa and Jharkhand states as well. These features of the town may put it in good stead to capitalise upon the opportunities afforded by the merits of better connectivity, for its future economic development.

Clockwise: A party office of the state government's ruling centre-left All India Trinamool Congress (AITC); a gleaming Prime Minister posing with the lotus of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently catapulted to power in New Delhi; a solitary hand of the Indian National Congress that led India through its independence; the sickle of the formerly state-ruling Communists with a message calling on voters to "Re-elect L/F (Left Front) Candidate, Probodh"

Clockwise: A party office of the state government’s ruling centre-left All India Trinamool Congress (AITC); a gleaming Prime Minister posing with the lotus of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently catapulted to power in New Delhi; a solitary hand of the Indian National Congress that led India through its independence; the sickle of the formerly state-ruling Communists with a message calling on voters to “Re-elect L/F (Left Front) Candidate, Probodh”

Moreover, for all the areas in which Paschim Medinipur is less developed than Singapore, one area that perhaps instills a sense of hope for the region is the vibrant political scene that is present in the district. One only needs to take a ride through the unpaved roads of Kharagpur to witness evidence of the political plurality that exists there and, by extension, in the rest of the world’s largest democracy. From the scene of a gathering of party activists at the local All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) party office to the spotting of an Indian National Congress (INC) election office to the numerous Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M))-inspired hammers and sickles painted and plastered onto the walls of the most humble of homes to a centrally located poster of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Prime Minister, the influence of regional and national politics in Paschim Medinipur is hard to miss. One hopes that this vibrancy will translate into social action and continued development for this geographically intriguing part of India which I have been fortunate to count as a gateway of sorts to the land from which my ancestors hailed.

References:

Census2011. District Census 2011. (2011, January 1). Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://www.census2011.co.in/district.php

Government of West Bengal. (2011, May 1). District Human Development Report – Paschim Medinipur. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://wbplan.gov.in/HumanDev/DHDR/DHDR_Paschim Medinipur.pdf

Henry G. Overman & Anthony J. Venables, 2005. “Cities in the developing world,” LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 19887, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.

Paschim Medinipur District Collectorate. Maps – Paschim Medinipur. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://www.paschimmedinipur.gov.in/maps/index.php

Singh, M. (2013, October 1). Gorakhpur set to have longest railway platform in world – The Times of India. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Gorakhpur-set-to-have-longest-railway-platform-in-world/articleshow/23327791.cms?referral=PM

What Would Goh Keng Swee Do? – The Challenges of Education Reform

The intrinsic value of education renders reform of the system serious business.

Education reform will, by no means, be easy to devise, let alone successfully implement. Any person with the onerous duty of effecting such change would, for the most part, not be in an enviable position in Cabinet. In attempting to envision a new consensus for public institutions and systems post-General Elections 2011, much has been said lately about the need to rethink our current pursuit of meritocratic ideals in Singapore. The desire for reform of the public education system in Singapore is a natural progression from such calls, for meritocracy has been the cornerstone of our education policy for decades. Before anyone should wish to delve into the intricacies of policy, however, we need to take several steps backwards, to come to a common agreement on the desired outcomes of education. What, then, are the purposes of education? Have they changed since then Minister for Education, Dr Goh Keng Swee, published his influential Goh Report in 1979 that helped to cement the framework of our public education system?

 

Surely, a primary objective of the education system is to confer upon young Singaporeans the knowledge, skill sets, experiences and, increasingly, metacognition to equip them with not only satisfaction in studying areas of general and personal interests but also, the distinction of employability ideally in a field of personal interest. Whilst the Government has made efforts over the years in opening up alternative pathways of education to foster holistic education and to bolster the academic competency of one pursuing a route other than the traditional ‘Secondary School (Express Stream)-Junior College-University’ pathway, the persistent pragmatists who are People’s Action Party policymakers will be amongst the first to forewarn that the education system must be able to not merely equip students for jobs in the wider economy but, indeed, to also equip the economy with sufficient manpower for its industries and sectors. This is not without reason. From any government’s perspective, a situation where a few industries host a great deal of competition for jobs amongst young Singaporeans simultaneously exists with one where other industries are undervalued and suffer a shortage of manpower would only exacerbate the manpower problems of the day whilst providing fodder for the argument that more foreign workers will have to be brought in to make up for the shortfall in labour. Hence, an unavoidable point of contention for the Ministry of Education is to decide how they can go about encouraging students to pursue their interests whilst deliberating where to draw the line on related issues such as limiting the number of university vacancies for certain courses, bringing in new degree programmes to cater to the needs of an ageing population and even setting unspoken and unpublished limits on the proportion of degree-holders in the workforce to comfortably support the existing or targeted national employment structure. Perhaps the most pertinent question is if the trade-off between encouraging students to pursue individual interests and meeting economic targets has to matter, let alone exist, in the first place.

 

Another main objective of a good education system is to empower students from across the socio-economic spectrum and our multi-racial society with the promise of the ideal that hard work will always be fairly and fittingly rewarded both during and after their schooling years. Such an ideal is one that is hard to find fault with. Meritocracy and fairness go hand-in-hand and are meant to offer social mobility rather than to intentionally contribute to a widening income gap. In fact, some might go so far as to postulate that meritocracy, first in schools and subsequently in the workplace, is complementary to incorruptibility which Singapore often prides herself on upholding. The idealistic vision of meritocracy is also a central tenet to the democratic socialist philosophy that parties such as the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party would ideologically attest to. Meritocracy, in and by itself, is not the problem our education system faces today. On the contrary, the relentless and mismanaged application of meritocracy is to be blamed for producing an education system too often labelled as unforgiving, stress-inducing and even unhealthy to the common psyche of young Singaporeans. Quite ironically, this has done nothing to close up the divide which exists between those who are academically successful and more likely to enjoy a stable career that affords better remuneration in the future and those who are at risk of falling into the gaping holes between the rungs of the steep academic ladder, left behind to either bloom later or perhaps not at all. Clearly, the apparent pitfalls of meritocracy demand reform of the education system. However, the appropriate answer is nothing short of challenging. How do we make the education system less stressful but more equitable whilst continuing to improve academic standards across the board?  Do we, on the one hand, seek to reduce stratification and create a level playing field through making examinations and streaming easier or even doing away with them entirely at earlier stages of education? Or, should we, on the other hand, introduce a great deal of flexibility to the criteria for admission to secondary schools and post-secondary academic institutions (Junior Colleges, Millennia Institute and the Polytechnics) through an extension of schemes such as Direct School Admission (DSA)? Unfortunately, solely pursued together, both of these policy shifts alone will result in arrangements that are antagonistic to meritocracy. What, then, of the kind of academic excellence one can find in Raffles, Hwa Chong and other top Junior Colleges? What of the progress we have made in ensuring that our syllabi prepare our pre-University students with the best exposure the GCE ‘A’ Levels can offer, the world over? What of the great leaps and bounds made by Polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) over the decades that have made them, in their own right, respectable academic institutions with quality programmes that add diversity to the range of pathways available to students? The idea that a relaxation of examination procedures and admission criteria across the board will lead to a deterioration of academic standards in our best institutions amongst the JCs, Polytechnics and ITE courses is not entirely inconceivable and unwarranted especially with problems such as grade inflation prevalent in countries like the United Kingdom and across the Causeway. Equally, it must be seriously questioned if those who have proven themselves to be academically stronger at a younger age should be the only students deemed fit to enjoy the benefits of alternative methods of instruction and teaching strategies through elite programmes such as the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and the Integrated Programme (IP). Another point worth recognising is that changing the way students are taught without also significantly changing the way they are examined or if they are examined at all in earlier stages of education, will not result in a reduction in the degree of stress our students are subjected to as the race for grades will continue as before, in the classroom and, more worryingly, in the hundreds of tuition centres across the island. Will such approaches truly prevent the academically disadvantaged from falling through the gaps? Certainly not. Moreover, any individual of an honest and sound mind would not be able to concur that ‘Every School is a Good School.’ It cannot be convincingly denied that schools vary in the quality of their academic and non-academic programmes. The challenge of our meritocratic education system, therefore, is to ensure that every school strives to become a good school by delivering programmes that are executed well by teachers who are equally qualified and determined to help their students whilst actively seeking out and guiding those who lag behind. That will be the true test of whether we can make meritocracy with safety nets work.

 

I would venture to add yet another key aim of education that rather nicely sums up its purposes and is derived from its etymology. The term ‘education’ stems from Latin words such as ‘educere’ and ‘eductum,’ which, in turn, are derived from ‘educo’ which translates to mean ‘to lead and to raise.’ Therefore, on hindsight, an overarching objective of the education system is to grow leaders in a myriad of fields out of the permissibly unwitting children each and every one of us starts off as at Primary 1. Holistic education, as the Government is fully aware, is an invaluable instrument in ‘Moulding the Future of Our Nation’. Hence, there has to be a shift in the manner in which students are taught to lead. Providing inspiration and genuine social engagement to students are forms of teaching, just as forced Community Involvement Programmes (CIP) and Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs) governed by points-based systems are. However, policy planners need to realise which type of teaching will produce students who are more motivated to pursue non-academic interests they are passionate about. Education helps us to not merely comprehend the world for what it is but also serves to guide us in understanding the roles we can play in it. This intrinsic value of education renders reform of the system serious business.

 

The multi-faceted nature of the slate of problems presented by the prospect of education reforms will have to be solved in a plurality of areas and by a plurality of means. Firstly, through suitably tweaking testing and admissions. Secondly, through accordingly revamping teaching and learning pedagogies. Thirdly, though rather crucially, re-energising the Teaching Service by reducing bureaucracy without compromising the professionalism of the Service. Moreover, from a practical perspective, appropriate changes to the Ministry of Education’s internal administration and operations will also be required eventually, should reforms ever be carried out. Exactly how reforms in these four areas are to be achieved will be up to future policymakers to decide. MOE is to be congratulated and thanked on a number of counts for attempting to make our education system fairer in recent times. On a note of caution, however, failing to seriously question the very foundations of our education system during the Ministry’s periodic reviews might be costly to future generations of Singaporeans. One cannot help but wonder – what would Goh Keng Swee do?

 

 

 

References:

 

Goh C. B., & Gopinathan, S. (2008).  The development of education in Singapore since 1965.  In S. K. Lee, C. B. Goh,  B. Fredriksen & J. P. Tan (Eds.), Towards a better future: Education and training for economic development in Singapore since 1965 (pp. 12-38).  Washington, DC/Singapore: The World Bank/National Institute of Education.

 

Low, D., & Vadaketh, S. T. (2014). Good Meritocracy, Bad Meritocracy. Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (pp  48-58). Singapore: NUS Press.

 

Ministry of Education. (2010, May 15). Tribute to the late Dr Goh Keng Swee by Ms Ho Peng, Director-General of Education. . Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2010/05/tribute-late-dr-goh-keng-swee.php

 

Ministry of Education. (2012, July 22). The Singapore Education Journey. . Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/landscape/print/sg-education-landscape-print.pdf
 

Seah, C. N. (2011, September 19). ‘A degree is nice, but we need something else’. Yahoo News, Singapore.

 

 

Mapping Our Home, Mapping The House

http://tinyurl.com/lujo6lj

The Republic of Singapore – 87 Constituencies

Pulau Ujong. A name of utter unfamiliarity which would only make you think less than twice about passing it off as another one of those small offshore islands or islets that we would go to ‘war’ to protect our sovereignty over at all costs (and by ‘war’, what I really mean is the International Court of Justice). Ironically, if you’re reading this from the Republic of Singapore, chances are, you’re on it. Pulau Ujong is none other than mainland Singapore. Intrinsically, knowing about the place we inhabit informs us of what it means to be Singaporean for how can we claim to be truly Singaporean if we are unaware of our local environment? Knowing about the spaces we live, play and work in from a geopolitical perspective also affords us several practical benefits in areas such as landuse planning and electioneering.

The political map of Singapore has evolved through the ages, reflecting differences in electoral systems, population densities, infrastructure and land use. The 12th Parliament of Singapore consists of 87 elected MPs, each representing a different constituency. However, with the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system introduced in 1988, most MPs are elected in groups and modern political maps in Singapore usually only show GRCs and a handful of single seats in the existing Single Member Constituencies (SMCs). However, from a practical perspective, knowledge of which individual ward ones lives in is important for the purpose of knowing which MP to visit should one wish to attend a Meet-the-People Session (MPS) and, indeed, for the greater purpose of keeping our elected MPs accountable for their actions (which entails knowing who they are, in the first place!). Currently, a map that shows every ward as if it were a SMC does not exist. However, using information gathered from a variety of sources, I managed to map out the 87 constituencies of Singapore so that everyone can know which district they live in.

Link to map: https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=z7C8bz0UE1gI.ksK88Xfv6Ivg

Each constituency sends 1 MP to the House, either individually (SMCs) or in groups (GRCs).

Each constituency sends 1 MP to the House, either individually (SMCs) or in groups (GRCs).

Diversity within Singapore

Knowing which district we live in affords us a sense of identity. People affix memories and experiences to places and spaces in an intangible manner. A common and easily comprehensible example of this is the sense of identity and belonging people declare when associating themselves with the neighbourhoods in which they spent their childhood, almost as if they feel they have a sense of personal ownership of those areas. From a political perspective, spatial identity is especially signficant in a representative democracy such as ours where our legislators represent constituencies that are demarcated by geographical boundaries. It is, therefore, no wonder that politicians often make it a point to draw a link between their past personal experiences with their constituencies. In the Parliamentary Election of 2011, Jeannette-Chong Aruldoss of the National Solidarity Party referenced her childhood experiences in Mountbatten SMC to highlight her view that the constituency has lost its “idyllic charm…in the seventies” and now reflects a widening socio-economic divide and that Mountbatten is, therefore, a microcosm of the rest of the country. More simplistically, in the Punggol East SMC By-Election of 2013, the People’s Action Party candidate Dr Koh Poh Koon was famously touted as being “the Son of Punggol” while perhaps carelessly forgetting that the seat he was running for was indeed in Sengkang and not actually Punggol. I reckon my map will help Dr Koh get his geography right. In any case, however, both of these examples show that cartography or, at least, the evaluation of local maps is important for our identity.

Political maps also help elucidate patterns of population density and land use. By virtue of the fact that each constituency in Singapore purposely accounts for roughly 20 000 to 30 000 electors, it is easy to infer population densities across the country. For instance, it is quite clear that Yew Tee Constituency is less densely populated than, say, the ward of Teck Ghee, judging from land area. However, this is not to say that the residential areas in Yew Tee are sparsely located as most of the land is used for military purposes. Hence, the map is useful for gauging population density on a constituency-scale in Singapore rather than on a smaller scale. Interestingly, a comparison with older political maps provides supporting evidence for the decentralisation of residences in Singapore over the years. In the 1960’s, when every seat was a SMC, the smaller constituencies were located in the urban core whilst the rural surroundings housed the larger ones (refer to map below). Furthermore, a detailed political map of Singapore also sheds some light on land use. As in the case of Yew Tee and other large cosntituencies such as Zhenghua and Siglap, the areas not used up for residential purposes serve other uses – military, environmental conservation, aviation, etc.

General Election 1968 - Results. Credit: singapore-elections.com

General Election 1968 – Results. Credit: singapore-elections.com

Constituency-based maps also aid in tracking changes in electoral boundaries. Variations in delimitation have been a contentious issue in Singapore’s political system, given the frequent re-drawing of the boundaries of GRCs at every election by the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee (EBRC) which is under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office. The lack of explanatory information in the reports of the EBRC has been cited as further evidence of gerrymandering and partiality. Most recently, the constituency of Aljunied – Hougang which traditionally votes strongly in favour of the Workers’ Party, as it did in the close contest in Aljunied GRC in 2006, was shifted out into Ang Mo Kio GRC and re-named ‘Ang Mo Kio – Hougang’ in 2011. Because of the unpredictability of the electoral map in Singapore, perhaps a single-constituency map will allow political parties to view different agglomerations of wards or potential GRCs in a more accessbile and efficient manner, enabling them to possibly draw out their electoral contingency and campaigning plans more easily in the future.

Methodology and Sources

To derive the boundaries of each constituency, I used information from a variety of sources such as Town Council websites, most of which provide information on almost every individual ward albeit to different degrees. The People’s Association’s constituency tracker which uses postal codes to identify constituencies as well as Community Development Council websites also came in handy. Another crucial source of information was a map on Google Maps published as ‘The Ward Boundary Project 2012/3’, which provided me with the boundaries of many of the wards in the eastern half of Singapore. Where the boundaries were more difficult to differentiate and delineate, I used a list of revised polling districts published by the Elections Department as well as a map of each polling district within each GRC and SMC in Singapore, both of which are documents that specifically pertain to the 2011 Parliamentary Elections. (Note: A ‘polling district’ refers to a smaller group of electors within a constituency. Each ‘polling district’ accounts for one polling station.)

Maps are so much more than what most people take them at face value for. Any able Geographer knows this. It is my earnest hope that this map will be interesting and not solely useful to people who may require reference to it. This concludes yet another one of my Mapped Musings, although in a more literal sense this time.

References:

Government Gazette. Elections Department, (2011). No. 63 – Parliamentary Elections Act (Chapter 218) (Section 9(2)) – Boundaries of Altered Polling Districts. Retrieved from website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/gazette\G_RE2011\Boundaries of Altered Polling District.pdf

Lay, B. (2013, January 27). Three reasons why Dr Koh Poh Koon lost Punggol East. Yahoo! News. Retrieved from http://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/the-flipside/three-reasons-why-dr-koh-poh-koon-lost-230036743.html

National Solidarity Party. (2011). Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss. Retrieved from http://mountbatten.nsp.sg/about-jeannette/

Parliament of Singapore. (2014, February 14). List of Constituencies. Retrieved from http://www.parliament.gov.sg/list-constituencies

Teo, E. (2013, March 19). The Ward Boundary Project 2012/3. Retrieved from https://maps.google.com.sg/maps/ms?msid=201386689841976634251.0004d0404d9abf09208c8&msa=0

The Online Citizen. (2010, April 27). GRCs and Gerrymandering – The Root Causes of Problems: Sylvia Lim. Retrieved from http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2010/04/grcs-and-gerrymandering-the-roots-causes-of-problems-sylvia-lim/

Public Transport – On the Right Track?

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Is public transport on the right track anymore?

In any urban settlement, the issue of transport is very much a public one. To be transported is to traverse the urban jungle that is Singapore. Long removed from our pre-war past when rickshaws, bullock-carts and sampans allowed us to get where we wanted to go, modern Singapore is not so much metropolitan as it a densely-populated urban area characterised by decentralised residences, industries and services surrounding a vibrant Central Business District. Such decentralisation renders incumbent upon the Government the provision of efficient, reliable and affordable transport options to link people to places. Public transport, in particular, is a key way in which the Government does this for it affords us several benefits including a viable, large-scale solution to alleviate congestion on roads in an environmentally-friendly manner. A quote that stands out stringkingly in its attempt to highlight the invaluable nature of pursuing public transport as a key solution to any country’s transport woes is an utterance by Mayor Peñalosa of Bogota, Colombia – “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

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We all agree that public transport is of utmost importance in a country like Singapore where 49.5% of residents aged over 15 years use some form of public transport or other to commute daily from home to work or school. However, the reliability and affordability of public transport have come under strong criticism in recent times due to a spate of breakdowns in the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and Light Rapid Transit (LRT) systems since 2011 as well as the formerly existing situation where several groups of people such as polytechnic students and the disabled were denied transport concession. To add salt to the wound, the advisory Public Transport Council (PTC) in wanting to extend concession to these groups, increased the fares for almost everyone else by 3.2% using the need for more money to drive upgrading and efficiency as a supposedly justified excuse to do so. The PTC announced this in its fare review of January 2014, a month during which thousands of Singaporeans from every corner of the island experienced MRT and LRT train breakdowns – from Kranji and Bukit Panjang in the west, to Ang Mo Kio in the north and Tanah Merah in the east. Rather unexpectedly, people began to ask why the Government intends to allow the fares to be raised when public transport operators such as SMRT and SBS Transit continue to rake in millions of dollars in operating profits annually in the wake of noticeably declining standards.

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The appalling state of affairs of public transport is perhaps most fundamentally affixed to the nature of the administration of this public service in Singapore – that public transport is in fact being operated by private companies such as SMRT and SBS Transit rather than being administered by the Government in the same manner as the successful provision of other public services such as the public education system (through MOE schools), public housing (through HDB) and public healthcare (through Government hospitals). If it is one thing that the system of governance in Singapore is best known for internationally, it is the large-scale provision of essential and accessible public services in a structured and workable manner since Independence. Whilst real challenges continue to exist within each of these Government-controlled systems today, the nationalisation of such services has been a definitve hallmark of our nation’s development.

The pros and cons of the privatisation of public transport operation in Singapore have manifested themselves in the situation we witness today. Higher prices are constantly sought after by the transport operators because of their instinctive economically fuelled ambition to achieve profits to pay their investors and shareholders, regardless of the real standards of transport experienced by commuters. Hence, it was wishful thinking on the part of the Government for assuming that increased profits coupled with economic forces such as demand and supply attributable to the privatisation of public transport operation would haved provided the necessary investments for upgrading and the impetus for greater efficiency and reliability of tansport, ultimately benefiting the consuming commuters. In reality, however, the trickle-down effects of privatisation have evaporated even before commuters could have even harboured the thought of enjoying better and more affordable public transport, leaving us with nothing but a vicious cycle of paying more for expecting a miracle. Furthermore, the intended effect of privatisation in spurring competition and productivity between the public transport operators has not materialised given that SMRT and SBS Transit do indeed have a monopoly on routes since commuters cannot choose which operator’s services to pursue when travelling. Perhaps it would be rather miraculous for us to expect SMRT and SBS Transit to put our interests over those of their investors for, at the end of the day, they are companies involved in a business. Another downfall of the whole idea of privatisation is observable from the way in which the Government has responded to falling standards – that is, to fine SMRT and SBS Transit for breakdowns or other instances of unreliability rather than directly controlling the upgrading of tracks and improvement of services. Once again, the PAP Government of the 21st century assumes that throwing money at an issue (or in this case, taking it) will almost magically make our problems fade away.

The nationalisation of public transport, on the other hand, offers a much more optimistic solution to the transport issues we face today since our experience in other nationalised services provides a useful template for such administration. Rather than using profit as a driving force of standards, direct government involvement in transport operation will allow the Government to regulate it more effectively to ensure that maintenance and upgrading are not put on the backburner so that standards will rise once again while commuters’ interests are put first. After all, public transport has evolved into a neccesity just as healthcare, housing and education are services that all Singaporeans ought to be able to enjoy. Singaporeans who need to work and study, whilst contributing to our economy and, ultimately, our society, simply cannot do without public transport on a daily basis. The challenge of nationalisation will, as usual, be the need to find enough money to fund and subsidise the upkeep of public transport without having to burden taxpayers even more. However, a variety of solutions have been thrown up from various sources such as pegging the salaries of statutory board officials to service standards, ensuring cost-effective use of money from Government coffers for subsidies amongst other methods of cost recovery and investment initiatives such as those used in the subsidising of healthcare and housing. Perhaps we could take a leaf from Hong Kong’s model of transport whereby the investment required for upgrading is derived from competition between private companies involved in infrastructure development rather than the operation of transit. Even if public transport fares increase initially, such an increase would be justified and the taxpayers’ money will be put to good use in the longer term as service standards can be controlled and assured by the Government. Hopefully, this will not have to be the case as before SBS Transit was privatised, it made ‘reasonable profits’, according to a transport policy researcher from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.

While a wholly-privatised or fully nationalised public transport system is hard to perceive as workable and cost-effective, the type of balance to be striked needs to be decided upon to ensure there are marked improvements in the state of public transport in Singapore. Do we wish to continue with the current partially government-funded, privately operated model or switch to a nationalised not-for-profit model? In any case, the unfairness entrenched in the current system that relies on profit-oriented companies for the operation of public transport will need to be addressed by better long-term planning, fiscal responsibility and decisive action by the Government of Singapore which are currently lacking. Hopefully, public transport will once again truly be for the public’s interests, allowing it to properly function as a modern, integrated and useful solution to traffic congestion in our island-nation and other geographical and environmental issues of our time.

References:

LKY SPP (NUS). (2013). The evolution of public transport policies in singapore. Retrieved from http://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Transport-Planning-for-Singapore.pdf

Singapore Department of Statistics. Government of Singapore, (2010). Census of population 2010. Retrieved from website: http://www.singstat.gov.sg/publications/publications_and_papers/cop2010/census_2010_release3/cop2010sr3.pdf

Straits Times. (2014, January 16). Bus and train fare review: Public transport council announces fare increase of 3.2%. . Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/the-big-story/public-transport-fare-review-2013/story/fare-review-public-transport-council-announces

Water for All? – Conserve. Value. Enjoy.

Water for All?

As Singaporeans, we take water for granted. There is hardly any question in that statement, in a country where water is clean enough to drink out from the tap. It is therefore, rather remarkable that in Singapore today, there exists a generation that knows the pains of dehydration and the need to have rationed, scrimped and saved every drop of water they could during a tumultuous world war some 70 years ago. Any reasonably educated student in our country would be aware of the fact that while approximately 71% of the Earth is covered with water, only 2.5% of this water is freshwater while the rest of it is trapped in rather inaccessible stores such as glaciers and groundwater. The constant need for freshwater to support population growth throughout human history has gradually given rise to the demand for technologies to tap on as much water as possible. The extent to which countries of high and low levels of development have been successful in such pursuits, however, has been markedly different.

In landlocked Less Developed Countries (LDCs), reliance on groundwater extraction remains high while access to freshwater from lakes or rivers is declining in reliability. However, the 2012 discovery by the British Geological Survey (Diagram 1) of a vast groundwater network in the aquifers beneath Africa, where 300 million people live in environments where potable water is hardly attainable, points towards the possible amelioration of conditions there. Thanks to technological advancements, the use of magnetic resonance sounding (MRS) can aid in identifying easily accessible aquifers from which groundwater can be extracted for human consumption and agricultural or industrial use. However, the complexity in this water management strategy arises chiefly from the fact that the huge demand for potable water in such areas would surely undermine the sustainability of groundwater resources since the extraction of groundwater can occur at a faster rate than at which it is recharged. Thankfully, strategies such as NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) can help authorities to closely monitor groundwater stores so as to manage them sustainably. Ultimately, the success of such modern technology in aiding LDCs to overcome water scarcity will depend on the financial feasibility of these methods coupled with political willpower on the part of national or regional authorities to manage their water resources pragmatically.

A newly-mapped out view of aquifer productivity in Africa, a sign of groundwater supplies deep under the ground surface.

Diagram 1: A newly-mapped out view of aquifer productivity in Africa, a sign of groundwater supplies deep under the ground surface.

 

In Developed Countries (DCs), water scarcity is usually rarely ever a national issue than it is a regional or a seasonal one. This is attributable to the extensive usage and supply of water through modern irrigation methods and utility services that exist in DCs. This is, of course, largely unsurprising, given that DCs tend to be more financially capable to afford the infrastructure required for the reliable supply of clean water to homes and industries as a basic necessity. Nonetheless, DCs have had to rely on modern technology to solve the issue of water scarcity within their own borders. Singapore is no stranger to this challenge. With the anticipated increase in pressure for water supplies due to the impending expiration of an existing water agreement with Malaysia in 2061, Singapore has had to throttle forth to attain self-sufficiency at a greater pace. This is envisioned to be achieved through the continued development of reverse osmosis (NEWater) as one of the four integral National Taps (Diagram 2) to the extent that it will meet 55% of our water demand, up from the current 30%, by 2060. Simultaneously, an increase in the demand, from 10% today to 25% in 2060, to be met by the use of desalinated water as another National Tap will enable Singapore to make better use of the waters around our island-nation in our quest for self-sufficiency. Hence, while the availability of water in DCs is not as life-threatening as it is in LDCs today, some DCs such as Singapore have to continue to upgrade their diversified water resource usage to maintain self-sufficiency while, in time, other DCs that currently depend on large water bodies as their main sources of water may have to re-evaluate their reliance on these sources as climate change gradually but inevitably makes drying lakes and waning rivers an eventual reality.

Singapore's 4-pronged strategy for water self-sufficiency.

Diagram 2: Singapore’s 4-pronged strategy for water self-sufficiency.

 

Water may be a basic necessity but the demand for water is always increasing. Naturally, we require gargantuan quantities of water for sustenance – for our burgeoning populations, for our growing industries, for the regulation of global atmospheric temperatures amongst other things. Perhaps, the only time we fear water is when it acts as a natural destructive force through crippling floods, hurricanes and drought.  This dualism that exists in the ways in which water affects our survival puts us in a somewhat ironic position as we go about developing ways to conserve as much water as possible in a world that has more than all the water it needs but still needs to water down the challenges preventing people from getting enough of it.

 

 

 

References:

Gleick, P.H., ed. (1993). Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s Freshwater Resources. Oxford University Press. p. 13, Table 2.1 “Water reserves on the earth”.

McGrath, M. (2012, April 20). ‘Huge’ water resource exists under Africa. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17775211

NASA. (2013, April 30). Missions – GRACE. Retrieved from http://science.nasa.gov/missions/grace/

Public Utilities Board (PUB). Government of Singapore, (2013). Our water, our future. Singapore.

World Health Organisation (WHO). United Nations, (2012). Global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking-water (GLAAS).

Cloudy Skies, Floods Arise

mbs infinity pool 2

Singapore has been experiencing a spate of flash floods in the 2010s. From the 2011 Orchard Road flash flood to the one just a few days ago that blocked out the entire width of a major expressway, it is hard to miss the conspicuous increased frequency with which these floods are occurring in our island-nation. Whilst we are beginning to experience just a few of the many negative effects of flooding through these events, it would be worth our while to understand the root cause of these floods.

Firstly, to the hydrologically uninitiated, floods occur because of a variety of reasons. These may include natural reasons such as an increase in precipitation or human factors such as poor drainage in urban areas. Whatever the causative factor, what is certain is that, by definition, a flood occurs when the discharge of a river or channel (yes, this includes longkangs) is higher than bankfull discharge. The result is a channel that is unable to contain water that is flowing in it at a speed and quantity higher than it can handle.

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A Hydrograph depicts the discharge of a river over time after a storm event.

In some ways, floods seem an almost inevitable phenomenon for a country with such a high degree of urbanisation. It is no secret that the more urbanised an area, the more likely floods will occur.  The process brings with it 2 necessary evils – the disappearance of soil cover which promotes infiltration rather than overland flow which is a major flow that contributes to floods as well as the introduction of impervious urban surfaces such as concrete which reduces the time taken for rainfall to end up in a river in the first place. Moreover, to add salt to the wound, studies such as those by NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) have shown that the Urban Heat Island Effect results in urban areas experiencing higher precipitation than rural areas due to higher air temperatures which induce cloud formation and, hence, rain. Surely, in a country that is 100% urban, floods should be a major feature of our weather and climate? In reality, Singapore has been spared of the kind of flash floods that we last saw in the 1960s and ’70s. This can be attributed to the use of an extensive urban drainage network that spreads throughout our island, successfully preventing floods.

Today, the Government’s response to the floods has been to explore the feasibility of engineering in reducing flooding by expanding drainage systems to increase their capacity for water. While they have said that no amount of engineering can prevent floods in Singapore, there are plans already underway in various areas to improve and extend drainage systems. However, there are concerns that this may not suffice in the future.

Floods can be prevented. But high levels of precipitation cannot, for the most part. The Government has been on track in implementing a variety of flood management measures to improve prevention, prediction, preparedness and protection. However, not enough is being done because flash floods continue to occur.

The problem probably lies in the fact that the Government has made fundamental gaps in long-term planning. A key mistake the Government intends to make was outlined in the 2013 Land Use Plan To Support Singapore’s Future Population through the proposal to cut through a stretch of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to accommodate the construction of the Cross-Island MRT Line by 2030. Regardless of whether this may be an overground or underground line, it seems plausible that such construction might put pressure on the nearby MacRitchie Reservoir to contain more overland flow, leading to localised flooding. Thankfully, in response to a report by the Nature Society (Singapore), the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has said that no final decision will be made until an Environmental Impact Assessment has been conducted. Even so, the prospect of even more underground MRT lines popping up in the future raises the question of their impact on the hydrology of Singapore.

Then there’s the question of anthropogenic climate change. Could it be that climate change can be blamed for bringing about unusually higher levels of precipitation in recent years? Why is it that we’ve been experiencing the kind of rainfall we usually receive in November – January (with the onset of the North East Monsoon), earlier? Frankly, at this point in time, it is difficult to substantiate such claims without any empirical data or further research to support them. But if this does indeed bear some truth at all, the Government should consider the possibility that climate change might just bring about higher-intensity or higher-frequency floods in the future when we least expect them to occur according to current weather patterns.

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Singapore’s tropical equatorial climate is characterised by high year-round rainfall. However, certain periods are wetter due to the effect of NE monsoon.

Hence, in the longer term, perhaps these flash floods remind us that Singapore might consider playing a larger role in combating climate change on an international platform while, in the shorter term, the floods remind us that we need to fine-tune our flood management strategies. Above all, they serve as a reminder that human action can have differential degrees of impact on Singapore’s hydrology over various scales of time.

References:

NASA. (2002, June 18). Nasa satellite confirms urban heat islands increase rainfall around cities. Retrieved from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/view.php?id=22473

National Environment Agency (NEA). (2013, June 03). Local climatology – climate of singapore. Retrieved from http://app2.nea.gov.sg/weather-climate/climate-information

Neo, C. (2013, July 19). Nature society proposes alternative route for cross island line. Channel News Asia. Retrieved from http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/nature-society-proposes/749418.html

Public Utilities Board (PUB). (2013, June 03). Flood management strategies. Retrieved from http://www.pub.gov.sg/managingflashfloods/fms/Pages/default.aspx

Divide and Rule

AP

Technically speaking, my ethnolinguistic identity is a concoction of different ancestral roots for I am mostly Tamil and partially Telugu. Although it is with slight disappointment that I admit my incompetence in what may, for lack of a better linguistic term, be called my ‘minor’ Mother Tongue at all, it was with avid interest that I read about the fate of the Telugu-speaking state in India. Andhra Pradesh is a state of 84.6 million people in the south of India, east of the Deccan plateau, famous for being a hub of cultural activity and for religious tourism at its ancient temples. However, today, due to differences in political and economic prospects, the state is set to be split into 2 new states, albeit with great resistance due to legislative gridlock.

The ruling Congress Party and its coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, have heeded the call from a sizeable number of Andhra Pradesh politicians in both the national and state governments to kick-start the process of breaking up the 3 regions of Andhra Pradesh into 2 states – Telangana and Andhra. Proponents of the separation cite the fact that an unequal distribution of economic resources within Andhra Pradesh have resulted in unfavourable prospects for the Telangana region as compared to Coastal Andhra. Historically, Coastal Andhra was more prosperous primarily because of its thriving agricultural sector which benefited more from the Green Revolution than the other parts of the state, providing a further impetus for growth. Another point worth noting is that the Telangana region has a higher percentage of people constitutionally classified under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, explaining their unfair predisposition towards being stuck on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Hence, the first noticeable trend in the economic geography of Andhra Pradesh is its widening income and development gaps between regions that differ in the nature of their main industrial activities as well as socio-economic demography.

However, what is so uniquely fascinating about the case of Andhra Pradesh is the fact that the state capital, Hyderabad, is located within the Telangana region itself. Shouldn’t the most developed city in the state bring about positive economic influence for the region in which it lies? After all, Hyderabad is India’s 4th largest credit centre, with 90% of the urban workforce employed in the service sector. It also boasts of a wide array of transnational corporations (TNCs) in the IT sector, including big names such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook, that have set up research and development (R&D) centres there. However, the concentration of economic resources and generation of revenue in Hyderabad has been successful to the extent that peripheral districts in the Telangana region have not reaped many benefits from their geographical proximity to the core of the state. Coastal Andhra, on the other hand, has received what many argue is more than its fair share of investment from the state government despite being located further away. Hence, the case of Andhra Pradesh reflects that there is a limitation to the notion that economic resources and money flow to regions that are spatially closer to the core as government intervention comes into play, channelling these resources elsewhere instead.

The geopolitical implications of such a major division in the map of India are multi-faceted. Those who support separation have adopted the argument that Telangana will be better institutionally suited to deal with its own development problems by having its own state legislature that can have its own say in resource distribution and economic restructuring. But will this really be the case even with the Congress Party proposing an unconventional policy to make Hyderabad the capital of both the new states for 10 years (during which the newly reconstituted Andhra state will have time to establish a new capital possibly in Visakhapatnam)? In any case, the division will certainly alter the urban dynamics in present-day Andhra Pradesh and perhaps even the way we perceive solutions to the problem of uneven regional development within a country.

For now, although the Government of India has decided not to introduce the planned legislation to initiate the separation during the upcoming (and rather aptly named) Monsoon Session of the Indian Parliament, there are plans to do so within the next 6 to 8 months. When the Government of India decides to invoke the States Reorganisation Act, together with the approval of the state and national legislatures against a backdrop of public protests and political resignations the world’s largest democracy will prove, once again, that demography is dynamic.

Map%20telangana

In any case, the division will certainly alter the urban dynamics in present-day Andhra Pradesh and perhaps even the way we perceive solutions to the problem of uneven regional development within a country.

References:

Joshi, S. (2013, August 01). Telangana bill not coming in monsoon session. The Hindu. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/andhra-pradesh/telangana-bill-not-coming-in-monsoon-session/article4978082.ece

Reddy, A., & Bantilan, M. (2013). Regional disparities in andhra pradesh, india. Local Economy, 28(1), 123-135. Retrieved from http://oar.icrisat.org/6224/7/reddy_Bantilan-26_11_11.pdf

Hazy Days

hdb clouds

 

Geography has been in the news again. Singapore has been, in recent days, experiencing its worst haze in two decades due to forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia. The haze is a prime example of how Geography has an impact on public health that is not always easy to alleviate quickly, especially when not many contingency plans exist on the part of the Government. This, in turn, has led people to call for policy planners to place greater emphasis on preparing for foreseeable environmental problems such as the annual transboundary haze.

The haze, itself, is a result of a combination of atmospheric conditions involving the South Westerlies (surface winds caused by the deflective effect of the Coriolis force and other forces during the South West Monsoon season). Moreover, the orographic effect provided by the Sumatran highlands has brought about anomalous dry conditions in Singapore, permitting the haze to persist.

Much has been said about who is to blame and the public seems to be obsessed with being aware of the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) levels on an hourly basis. While the government has pledged to find long-term solutions to the issue of the haze, not many concrete policies have been announced yet.

The following is a letter that I wrote last year in JC2 with two of my classmates in Temasek Junior College as part of a General Paper assignment on the transboundary haze. We were tasked to write a letter to a minister to suggest and evaluate solutions to the haze. The letter, of course, was never sent as that was not a requirement of the assignment. Here it goes:

 

Tan Si En

Yap Zhi Jiun

Yudhishthra Nathan

Temasek Junior College

22 Bedok South Road

Singapore 469278

 

16th July 2012

 

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan

Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources
40 Scotts Road
#24-00 Environment Building
Singapore 228231

 

RE: Mitigating Indonesian Forest Fires

Dear Sir,

We refer to your reply in Parliament to a question tabled by Nominated Member of Parliament Mr Nicholas Fang on the 14th of May 2012 regarding the outlook for the haze situation in Singapore and Southeast Asia, caused by the forest fires in Indonesia. While we commend the Government’s existing efforts in tackling the problem, we would like to suggest other ways in which the Ministry could go about addressing the haze issue arising from the annual Indonesian forest fires. It is our belief that a two-pronged approach would be the best way in which problems such as the haze can be nipped in the bud. On the one hand, prevention of the forest fires altogether would likely prove to be a worthwhile cause in the long-term as this would eliminate the source of the haze. This may be done by discouraging slash-and-burn techniques employed by farmers and timber companies. On the other hand, however, we recognise taking measures to contain the fires would additionally reduce our susceptibility to being affected by the haze. Hence, all stakeholders, from the companies to the individuals that cause the fires, need to be engaged in our efforts to improve environmental conditions while maintaining a good diplomatic relationship with Indonesia.

Companies carrying out their operations in Indonesia have a significant role in contributing to the clearing of the Indonesian forests through the forest fires. Since Singapore is Indonesia’s third largest trading partner and many of those companies have their headquarters based in Singapore, Singapore could review trading regulations such that the timber companies are discouraged to carry out their activities through ecologically unfriendly methods, especially the clearing of forests by burning. Singapore could reduce corporation and import taxes for timber companies which are able to provide evidence of programmes that they have implemented to prevent the burning of the forests. Through such incentives, companies such as Cargill with palm operations in Indonesia would make an effort to use methods other than burning to clear the forests. These new regulations could reduce the occurrence of forest fires set by companies, ultimately reducing possibilities of haze affecting Singapore, hence reducing tension between Singapore and Indonesia due to its non-confrontational approach. The potential loss in revenue from the taxes is a worthwhile sacrifice in exchange for the improvement of environmental conditions.

In the case where preventive measures are not as successful as expected and the conflict between Singapore and Indonesia worsens, mediation should be one of the approaches to relieve the tension between the two countries. A mediation programme should be set up by ASEAN whereby all ASEAN member countries will be required to attend mediation sessions when conflicts arise due to differing opinions on matters regarding haze, forest fires and other environment-related issues. This mediation programme would be complementary to the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement where all nations are required to reduce haze pollution as well as the ASEAN Vision 2020 towards a cleaner and greener ASEAN. Mediation is important in maintaining the relationships of countries within ASEAN since it is also a non-confrontational approach and may not significantly affect or worsen relationships between the countries. Furthermore, ASEAN can be resourceful in gathering solutions from all member countries so that the problem of haze and forest fires within the region may be effectively resolved. However, mediation does not solve the haze problems in the short term as it is a slow and bureaucratic process, especially if some nations are uncooperative. As such, even though mediation can be used to solve conflicts that arise due to haze problems, other more direct approaches on handling the matter should be implemented as well.

Besides mitigating forest fires through the use of bilateral and regional platforms, international Non-Government Organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) could be an excellent platform in raising awareness on the effect of forest fires among the poor subsistence farmers in Indonesia. The Ministry of Environment and Water Resources in Singapore could collaborate with the Indonesian Ministry of Environment to initiate programmes to train volunteers from these NGOs in educating farmers. Such an education programme would entail teaching the farmers about the control and management of forest fires to prevent their spread, the suitable period of burning if they have no choice but to continue burning as well as the dangers of dumping flammable materials in the forests. NGOs could also designate a week in the year to be an Anti-Forest Fire Week – which can they can slowly expand over months, perhaps – to curb forest fires. Besides this, NGOs could join hands with the local farmers in an effort to carry out afforestation. Since these subsistence farmers have been carrying out slash-and-burn when their previous farmland had been deemed infertile after prolong cultivation of crops, NGOs could encourage farmers to fallow their land by ploughing and leaving the land unseeded and uncultivated for a season or more. During the period of fallowing, farmers could take up other jobs such as helping in afforestation efforts. This will not only reduce the occurrence of forest fires but also inculcate responsibility and good environmental values in the farmers. Even though the actions of poor subsistence farmers account for only 5% of the forest fires annually, it is of utmost importance to raise their awareness of the negative effects that forest fires can have regionally.

In conclusion, it would be beneficial to recognise that there are several ways in which the issue of forest fires can be dealt with in a sustainable manner that will not cause conflict between Singapore and Indonesia. By assuring Indonesia that the Government of Singapore is prepared to render assistance to them in various ways, our strategic partnership with Indonesia can only be strengthened. We hope that you will seriously consider our proposals and we look forward to receiving a favourable reply.

Thank you!

 

Yours sincerely,

Tan Si En

Yap Zhi Jiun

Yudhishthra Nathan

(Civics Group 25/11 of Temasek Junior College)

To all prospective Presidents of Singapore…

istana

Presidential Elections in Singapore are special for more than a few reasons. The infrequency with which they have been conducted, the exorbitant election deposits involved and unusually stringent eligibility criteria are amongst just a few of these reasons. However, something about Presidential Elections in Singapore distinguishes them from Parliamentary ones in that they are the only type of elections where, seemingly, the region where you live and the district where you vote do not matter – the nation votes as a single entity and the candidates with the largest number of votes wins, in the best fashion of First Past The Post. So, surely, it would make sense for candidates vying to be President to campaign on national issues rather than fighting it out in different parts of the country? After all, there is no electoral college of some sort or other as there is in the United States of America, no “red” GRCs” and “blue GRCs”, no difference between Bedok and Bishan. But is this truly the case?

In reality, a spatial voting pattern does indeed exist across the island. This has been elucidated only in recent elections because of the phenomenon of ‘micropolling’. In the past, the only source of results was the official one on state-controlled media. While this remains the most popular source of results, as evidenced by the elevation of a humble Returning Officer to an instant internet sensation in Mr Yam Ah Mee, the alternative platform of micropolling has given us new clues as to how Singaporeans living in different places vote. Micropolling essentially involves the use of new social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to broadcast results from each counting centre online. These results, which have never been officially published before, reflect the votes of electors in each polling district.

On the night of the 2011 Presidential Elections, it was revealed by online sources that Tan Cheng Bock had performed well in the western areas of Singapore such as Jurong West while Tony Tan won the districts in Sembawang decisively. In fact, in one counting centre in Fuhua Secondary School (in Jurong GRC), Tan Cheng Bock won a whopping 46.8% of the valid votes whilst the eventual winner of the election, Tony Tan, captured a mere 28.9% of votes. Over at Punggol East SMC which would later oust the People’s Action Party in favour of a Workers’ Party MP in the 2013 By-Election, out of 5 polling districts surveyed, 3 had given their support to Tan Cheng Bock. Admittedly, Tony Tan had purportedly bagged a considerable number of districts in affluent areas of Tanjong Pagar GRC as well. And so, the scrutiny of micropolling data certainly must be overshadowed by the observation of a number of possible trends:

  • Previous political affiliation with an area gives candidates a considerable edge through familiarity – Tan Cheng Bock used to be the Member for Ayer Rajah and Tony Tan represented Sembawang in the House.
  • Political attitudes in General Elections tend to stick during Presidential Elections – Punggol East voters rejected the government-backed candidate, Tony Tan, just as they did more apparently and vociferously in the by-election later on.
  • Socio-economic status and age may play a part too – some observers may claim that more affluent residents or, equally, more elderly residents in Tanglin-Cairnhill constituency and other areas in Tanjong Pagar GRC continued to support the government-backed candidate just as they probably have done so for years in national elections.

The significance of micropolling is also worth noting. The use of technology has given voters a certain degree of independence in finding out election results through helpful counting agents tweeting away results as they stream in, rather than from the mainstream media. Thus, micropolling has arguably helped to improve transparency in the political process, a quality that one should never take for granted even in the most politically mature of nations. So long as legislation does not get introduced to limit or prevent this practice, micropolling will be here to stay. This is especially important given that existing laws in Singapore prohibit the conduct of opinion polls during the campaign period and, unsurprisingly, exit polls during the polling period.

However, micropolling has revealed something about Presidential Elections that needs to be highlighted if future Presidential hopefuls want to campaign more effectively to reach out to voters. Whilst it is true that Presidential candidates can only go so far in campaigning on local issues given the ghastly limited authority they would have in executive issues in the first place, regional campaigning can strengthen their chances of winning as having a solid comprehension of voter preferences in different parts of Singapore would allow candidates to properly divide their resources and time in focusing on garnering more support in areas where they are predisposed to not perform as successfully as in other areas. Such predispositions are indicative of the diversity that exists in our political landscape which is easy to undermine.

Micropolling has helped propel the development of political analysis in Singapore and will continue to do so if independents running for the office of President are willing to take a closer look at the geographical aspect of local politics. In the meantime, those wishing to become MPs, too, have something to gain from this new way in which modern technology has impacted politics in our island-nation which will definitely be one step closer to becoming a more mature democracy as a result of this innovation.

“Some people still ask whether my long previous association with the PAP will stop me from acting independently. The answer is no. My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so”

– Ong Teng Cheong, the 1st Elected President of Singapore

Source of data:

Ngiam, S. T. (2011, August 29). Micropolling results of presidential elections 2011. Retrieved from http://stngiam.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/flash-results-micropolling-results-of-presidential-elections-2011/