29 September 2008

Full text of parliamentary discussion on rising sea levels and impact on Singapore

Questions on a 140cm sea level rise and building dykes were also raised. These were not mentioned in earlier media reports on the parliamentary discussion.

Rising Sea Levels
(Measures to monitor effects and impact on Singapore)

from Hansard (Singapore Parliament Reports) on the Singapore Parliament website
5. Dr Lam Pin Min asked the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources in view of the rising sea levels due to climate change, what long term measures are contemplated to protect Singapore's coastline and to avoid major catastrophes.

6. Mr Low Thia Khiang asked the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources whether his Ministry has assessed the recent findings that the Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than expected and what impact, if any, would these findings have on Singapore.

7. Mr Low Thia Khiang asked the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources whether the Government is prepared for a possible rise in sea level and, if so, what measures have been planned in response.

Assoc. Prof. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim: Mr Speaker, Sir, with your permission, can I take Question Nos. 5, 6 and 7 together please?

Mr Speaker: Yes.

The Minister for the Environment and Water Resources (Assoc. Prof. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim): Sir, climate change is a global challenge. The direct effects of climate change include shifts in temperature, rainfall patterns, storm surges, and many others. In recent years, many countries have experienced more frequent occurrences of extreme weather events, such as the Hurricane Katrina in the US, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and episodes of severe floods in India and China.

The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected in its Fourth Assessment Report, which was released last year, that climate change could result in sea level rises of between 18 cm and 59 cm by the year 2100. This does not factor in the rapid melting of Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets, as the understanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise. Scientists are currently working to better understand and project the rate at which the ice sheets may melt, as well as the resulting impacts.

As a relatively low-lying, densely populated island in the tropics, Singapore is vulnerable to climate change effects like sea level rises, which can lead to inland flooding. However, as a result of our environmental and developmental planning in the past, we already have existing measures in place that significantly reduce our exposure to the risks.

Since 1991, all new reclamation projects have to be built to a level 125 cm above the highest recorded tide level. This requirement is 66 cm more than the IPCC's projected highest sea level rise of 59 cm by the end of the 21st century in the worst case scenario. Singapore is as such well prepared for any further increases in sea level arising from climate change within the range of over one metre.

The development of drainage infrastructure in Singapore over the last 30 years has also reduced flood-prone areas from 3,200 ha in the 1970s to 98 ha today. PUB will reduce it to less than 48 ha by 2011 through the development and improvement of drainage infrastructure in Singapore, such as the widening and the deepening of drains and canals. While the objective of this is to reduce the flood-prone areas and alleviate flooding today, the overall enhancement in the drainage system helps to reduce the possibility of upstream flooding when heavy rain coincides with high tide or sea level rise due to climate change. The completion of the Marina Barrage project has also enhanced our flood alleviation capabilities.

However, we cannot be complacent in our efforts. It is important that we continue improving our understanding of the specific effects and impacts of climate change on Singapore. I announced last year that NEA, in consultation with other Government agencies, has commissioned a two-year study to understand the specific implications of climate change in Singapore, based on the IPCC studies. These include sea level and temperature changes, flooding and coastal erosion.

This study into Singapore's vulnerability to climate change is expected to be completed next year. It will help us better understand how Singapore will be affected and what needs to be done to protect Singapore and ensure that we are able to adapt to these impacts. We also continue to monitor closely the developments in scientific understanding of the melting of ice sheets and its impacts. Our study will give us modelling capability to factor in any new scientific findings to assess the localised effects on Singapore. This information will help in reviewing the adequacy of the existing adaptation measures and whether further enhancements are needed.

Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong (Tampines): Sir, given that Singapore is a low-lying island, can I ask the Minister whether there are further moves to study from the Dutch about building dykes, given that we are very vulnerable to flooding?

Assoc. Prof. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim: Sir, there is an inter-agency task force led by MND to review existing infrastructure adaptation measures as part of the overall Government's response to climate change. This task force will look at measures for Singapore to adapt to the sea-level rise through the protection of foreshore and coastal areas.

But as I have mentioned earlier, our reclaimed land today is well above the highest recorded tide, so this will provide some protection against any sea-level rise due to global warming. But this is based on current information. So the task force, when they review their adaptation measures, will consider the findings from the vulnerability study which I have mentioned earlier. The study is not over yet. Once it is over, we will look at it and see whether we need to enhance existing measures or introduce new ones. At the moment, I think the task force is looking at all options.

Dr Lily Neo (Jalan Besar): Mr Speaker, Sir, may I have two supplementary questions please? May I ask the Minister how does he protect Singapore shores against a rising sea-level of 140 cm, a possible figure, according to one international study, and the same figure I posed to him at last year's COS debate on the same issue.

Secondly, the Minister said last year at the COS debate that they have commissioned a study to better understand the possible long term effects and the impacts of climate change on Singapore. He did say that he will get the preliminary reports after one year and, therefore, may I ask him after one year, what are these preliminary reports?

Assoc. Prof. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim: Sir, we have to go by the best available report, and in this case, the IPCC. So I am not sure where the Member has got the figure of the 140 cm, but we will be most happy to receive that particular report from her and study it.

We have to go by the IPCC because IPCC is a collection of experts across the world looking at various scenarios and the best estimate in the report, as I have mentioned in my reply, is between 18 cm and 59 cm. But having said that, we will continue to study any further scientific reports, including the one that was reported earlier, which is the question filed by Mr Low and Dr Lam, and we will study all these as part of the vulnerability study.

On her second point as to whether we have completed the interim study, the answer is yes. The findings are preliminary in nature because this is a long-term study. It will take us two years as we need to drill down the IPCC report to our context in Singapore which is located near the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea. From what we can understand, the preliminary findings show that the projection for sea-level rise is between 4 cm and 5 cm per century, and the sea level will increase over the global mean projection of 21 cm to 48 cm.

So based on the preliminary finding, our requirement of 125 cm above the highest recorded tide-level is sufficient to deal with the estimates given by the preliminary findings. With that, we are now going into the second phase of the study where we are going even deeper into some other aspects of the effects of climate change on Singapore.

Mr Speaker: Dr Neo, last question.

Dr Lily Neo: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was asked on where I got my report. I just want to say that this report came from Global Research on Oceans Warming and Rising by International Federation of Environmental Journalists and is done by using data from US National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA by a German professor.

This is possibly the report referred to by Dr Lily Neo:

Oceans Warming and Rising
World Business Council for Sustainable Development website
IPS, 21 December 2006 - Ocean levels will rise faster than expected if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, a leading German researcher warns.

Using data from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of physics of the oceans at the University of Potsdam near Berlin estimates that sea level could rise 140 cm by 2100.

Rahmstorf, member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, is considered a leading European researcher on global warming and its effect on oceans.

"The semi-empirical model we used to process NASA data showed a proportional constant sea level rise of 3.4 mm per year per degree Celsius," Rahmstorf told IPS. "Then we applied this constant proportionality to future earth surface warming scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), and came to estimate that by the year 2100, sea level could rise between 50 and 140 cm above the level measured in 1990."

Through the 20th century, global warming led to an average 20cm rise in sea level. But most computer models of climate change used at present significantly underestimate sea level rise, Rahmstorf said. "Future projections of sea level based on these climate models are therefore unreliable."

Currently, sea level is rising at three cm per decade, faster than projected in the scenarios of the IPCC Third Assessment Report, Rahmstorf added.

The IPCC, an intergovernmental team of scientists carrying out a wide range of research related to climate change, was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environmental Programme. The IPCC aims to assess scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for understanding of climate change, its potential impact, and options for adaptation and mitigation.

Scientific research has found that industrial activities have produced greenhouse gas emissions considerably higher than levels observed before the industrial revolution.

Concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most potent of greenhouse gases, has risen from about 280 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere in the year 1750 to about 380 ppm today.

This rise is primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels, and to a lesser extent, deforestation. Scientists estimate that if the present emissions trend continues, the atmosphere could heat up by about five 5 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Studies by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research suggest that this would roughly be the temperature difference between an ice age and a warm stage. But while the rise of average temperatures by some five degrees between the last great ice age and today took 5,000 years, the new global warming would need only 100 years.

Rahmstorf acknowledged that forecasts of global warming and its effects on sea levels continue to be marked by uncertainty. "The fact that we get such different estimates using different methods shows how uncertain our sea level forecasts still are," Rahmstorf told IPS.

A major reason for the uncertainty is the behaviour of the large ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

A likely consequence of a massive melting of the ice masses on the North Pole could be the breakdown of the North Atlantic Current (NAC). The NAC is the northern extension of the Gulf Stream, and constitutes a warm water current flowing between Britain and Iceland. This has considerable impact in moderating the North European and Scandinavian climate.

"One critical factor for the continuation of this current is the amount of fresh water that enters the Northern Atlantic region in the future," Rahmstorf said. "This will depend in large part on the speed at which Greenland's ice sheet melts."

Rahmstorf, who earlier this year co-authored a research paper titled 'The Future Oceans -- Warming Up, Rising High, Turning Sour' said that reliable prediction on the risk of a total stoppage of deepwater formation in the Northern Atlantic is not possible given present knowledge.

But he pointed out that experts have evaluated that risk at more than 50 percent if global warming is between three and five degrees.

Rahmstorf said greenhouse gases emissions are also increasing the acidity of oceans. "In the atmosphere carbon dioxide does not react with other gases, but in the ocean it dissolves, contributing to the acidification of seawater," Rahmstorf said. This acidity is a serious threat to marine biodiversity.

"There is a good chance to avoid such dangerous climate change if global warming caused by human activities is limited to two degrees in the coming decades," Rahmstorf said.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS - Inter Press Service and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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