16 May 2012

Loving Chek Jawa to death?

The official response to the spraying for mosquitoes on Chek Jawa has got me thinking.
Now that the exhausting field trips are done, I've had some time to put my thoughts down.

Loving Chek Jawa to Death by Lydia Lim, the Straits Times, 29 Dec 01 was among the first media articles on Chek Jawa after plans to reclaim it was deferred on 20 Dec 2001. At that time, the worry was that Chek Jawa was going to be trampled to death because too many people were visiting. Among the measures taken to manage this, the number of visitors and tour route were controlled.

In 2007, the Chek Jawa boardwalk was completed, allowing lots of people to visit Chek Jawa without trampling on it.

Now it seems, even people on the boardwalk can threaten to love Chek Jawa to death.

It appears that "the large number of visitors including tourists from malaria endemic countries and residents to the island" has led NEA to conduct a regime of spraying at Chek Jawa. They spray bacterial solutions (Bti) and mosquito oil which "cuts off the oxygen to the mosquito larvae" (and ostensibly any other oxygen-breathing organisms in the water). This, NEA says, is because "the population of Anopheles mosquitoes on Pulau Ubin makes it a malaria receptive area". NEA does not consider these measures to constitute use of chemicals at Chek Jawa.

I continue to worry that prolonged use of Bti may impact the biodiversity on Chek Jawa, and possibly make the mosquito problem worse. Some studies suggest that continuous application of Bti over a period of 2-3 years to wetlands may result in an overall decrease of biodiversity. Other have highlighted that Bti may persist in the environment, thus increasing the risk of resistance in mosquitoes, and of a negative impact on non-target insects.

Despite these concerns about Bti, I can understand the authorities feeling forced to take such action at Chek Jawa. I do realise that it is not easy to manage a wild place, juggling biodiversity concerns, the demands to visit and appreciate nature, and myriad issues arising from the wide range of visitors to the area.

Nevertheless, I had the following epiphany resulting from this incident:

Regular scientific biodiversity monitoring is important

To me it seems sensible to have regular scientific biodiversity monitoring for areas which are regularly accessed by large numbers of people and impacted by management measures such as mosquito control. This can potentially give early warning of unexpected 'side effects', and allow tweaks and adjustments to be made before unwanted outcomes are irreversible.

We should not love our best wild places to death

I firmly believe that the public needs to be able to visit and appreciate some of our wild places. This is important because a love for nature is best nurtured through field trips, guided walks and a direct experience. Boardwalks are a great way to allow ordinary people easy access. As a volunteer with the Naked Hermit Crabs, I've personally seen how children (and adults) light up with delight when exploring nature at the boardwalks at Chek Jawa and Pasir Ris. I believe such experiences can help inspire more Singaporeans to appreciate and protect our wild places.

However, large numbers of visitors, as the spraying incident highlights, does seem to lead to inevitable management action that impact the very biodiversity that the boardwalk intends to showcase: like spraying for mosquitoes and other efforts to 'enhance cleanliness'.

Building boardwalks can also have unintended consequences. These facilities make our wild shores more accessible for people who may not know how to interact positively with nature. People who fish irresponsibly, use traps and nets, and litter. Here's some letters from the public about such behaviour on the boardwalks at Berlayar Creek, Changi and Punggol. My experiences is that such behaviour is not as rampant on the boardwalks at Chek Jawa and Sungei Buloh probably because these are regularly patrolled by NParks.

I feel these impacts should be considered when deciding which areas to open to the public, and how the facilities will be managed after they are built. It seems counterproductive to build access and leave their use uncontrolled, resulting in damage to the biodiversity that they are intended to showcase. The Changi Boardwalk is one example. While I know that it was built by URA, I don't seem to be able to find out who is managing it now.

I feel it's also ideal if the best parts of our forests, shores and other wild places be reserved for the wildlife. Otherwise, there is a danger that we will literally love all our wild places to death.

In my opinion, incorporating these principles may help better manage our wild places, and protect them for generations to come. I do hope the authorities will consider these issues.

I have sent a link to this post as a reply to NEA and NParks.

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