NDR 2019: Protecting Singapore from rising sea levels in the long-term could cost at least $100B

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
A container ship plies along a hazy western straits of Singapore on 6 August, 2019. (AFP via Getty Images file photo)

SINGAPORE — The long-term costs of protecting Singapore from the effects of rising sea levels could cost more than $100 billion over the next 50-100 years, warned Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his annual National Day Rally (NDR) speech on Sunday (18 August).

Speaking during the English portion of his 16th NDR speech, Lee compared the fight against climate change to the imperative of military defence. “Both the SAF and climate change defences are existential for us. These are life and death matters,” said the 67-year-old.

“We should treat climate change defences like we treat the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) – with utmost seriousness. Work steadily at it, maintain a stable budget year after year, keep your eye on the target, and do it over many years and several generations. That way, we can afford it, and when we need it, we will have it ready.”

He added, “With the SAF, we hope never to go to war. But with climate change, we know for sure sea levels will rise.”

In possibly his most comprehensive remarks on climate change to date, Lee stressed, “Because we are a low-lying island, Singapore is especially vulnerable to one grave threat, and that is rising sea levels.”

He noted that large parts of Singapore are low-lying, including a long stretch on the East Coast from Changi to the city.

“Not only will property values be affected, but safety and liveability. And it will affect not only these particular areas, but the whole city,” said Lee, noting that the areas include hospitals, schools and workplaces. This means coastal defences are needed to protect entire areas.

Prepping coastal defences in Singapore

Coastal defences will be needed to protect areas such as Changi Beach, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. (PHOTO: Ministry of Communications and Information)

Lee revealed that the authorities have studied the Republic’s coastline at length, and divided it into different segments, with some more vulnerable than others. The more critical segments are located at City-East Coast and Jurong Island.

In this regard, the work has already begun - the Marina Reservoir and Marina Barrage protect the city area. And while many Singaporeans enjoy visiting the Barrage to picnic and fly kites on top of the Pump House, “PUB did not build the Pump House for kite flying,” quipped Lee.

“Its real purpose is to house seven giant pumps. When it rains heavily during high tide, they pump water out of Marina Reservoir into the sea, to protect the city from flooding.”

He added that when sea levels rise, a second pump house will need to be built on the opposite end of the Barrage. “PUB has planned for this.”

Polders and windmills

The PM also revealed that Singapore has taken inspiration from the Netherlands, where half the country is at most 1m above sea level. One quarter of it is even below sea level: this is land that is reclaimed from the sea, or polders.

This is done by building a seawall in the sea, then continuously pumping out the water behind the seawall to create dry land. “The Dutch are famous for their windmills. But do you know why the Dutch originally built windmills? It wasn’t to take tourist pictures. It was to pump water out from polders and keep the land dry,” said Lee.

The authorities are already building a small polder at Pulau Tekong, in order to gain experience of operating one. This will eventually enable them to build polders and dykes along the eastern coastline, said Lee. “Polders are a serious option for us... to protect our eastern coastline. They will not only protect existing low-lying areas, but at the same time let us reclaim new land from the sea.”

Another alternative, said Lee, is to reclaim a series of islands offshore, from Marina East to Changi. “Connect them up with barrages, and create a freshwater reservoir, similar to Marina Reservoir. PUB will like this solution, because it will enhance our water resilience.”

Protecting new developments like MRT stations, terminals, ports

Local measures to protect individual buildings and developments have also been taken. For example, MRT stations are built with elevated entrances as a means of flood protection.

“Now, for new developments, instead of building 3m above mean sea level like before, we require them to be built at least 4m above mean sea level,” said Lee, noting that the threshold for critical infrastructure like Changi Airport Terminal 5 and Tuas Port is at least 5m.

Lee added, “But local measures will not be enough. We have many older buildings. These cannot simply be lifted up, or transported to higher ground.”

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