26 October 2020

Changes to EIA framework announced, Oct 2020

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is done to identify potential impacts of developments on nature, and outline way to avoid or mitigate such impacts. In Singapore, an EIA framework was set up in 2008.
Sentosa: reclamation of reef
Reclamation on Sentosa for Resorts World Sentosa, Jul 2007.

The recent changes enacted to the framework:
  • Common standards for consultants to follow
  • Greater transparency on when EIAs must be done
  • All EIAs to published online by developers
  • The planning process - and not just the development work itself - to be more sensitive to Singapore's natural environment. This will be done through earlier engagement with nature groups in the planning and development process, and through the introduction of a course on basic ecology and the EIA process for planners from development agencies. 
Massive reclamation on Jurong Island
seen from (and impacting?) Cyrene Reef, Sep 2020.
These changes to the framework are NOT officially codified in an EIA law. Instead, the Ministry of National Development (MND) says it will, for instance, use the recently amended Wildlife Act which enables NParks to take direct enforcement action against developers that fail to comply with required measures.
Forest City reclamation in Johor from Tuas Merawang
Tuas Merawang Beacon: our last western reef - reclaimed in 2015.
On the horizon, reclamation of 'Forest City' in Johor.
"Development works in Singapore to be more sensitive to wildlife under changes to EIA framework" Audrey Tan, Straits Times 25 Oct 2020

While Singapore may be a densely built-up city, it still has green spaces that are home to rich and diverse wildlife.

SINGAPORE - Development in Singapore will be done in a way that is more sensitive to wildlife and the natural environment, under sweeping changes made to the existing environmental impact assessment (EIA) framework.

Three key changes will be made to the framework, which was first introduced in 2008, The Straits Times has learnt.

One change involves the introduction of biodiversity impact assessment guidelines, which were developed by the National Parks Board (NParks) in consultation with experts here. The guidelines, similar to those already in place for noise or pollution control at worksites, will ensure that consultants assessing sites marked for development have a set of standards to follow.

Another change will see the transparency of environmental studies enhanced, with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) spelling out on its website the circumstances under which such studies must be done. For example, an environmental study must be done if the development works are located close to an area of ecological significance, such as the nature reserves.

And with the exception of reports that contain sensitive information, such as those with security considerations, all environmental study reports will now be published online by developers, and the links will be made available on the website of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

The third change to the framework will see the planning process - and not just the development work itself - become more sensitive to Singapore's natural environment.

This will be done through earlier engagement with nature groups in the planning and development process, and through the introduction of a course on basic ecology and the EIA process for planners from development agencies.

The course will be rolled out by the end of next year, and will be conducted by NParks.

While these changes to the framework are not officially codified in an EIA law, it still has regulatory teeth, the Ministry of National Development (MND) told The Straits Times earlier this week.

For instance, the recently amended Wildlife Act, which came into force on June 1 this year, empowers NParks to issue wildlife-related requirements as formal directions to developers and enables NParks to take direct enforcement action against developers that fail to comply with the required measures.

Striking a balance

While Singapore may be a densely built-up city, it still has green spaces that are home to rich and diverse wildlife, including globally critically endangered species like the Sunda pangolin, the Raffles' banded langur and the straw-headed bulbul.

But as a small nation with just 720 sq km of land, Singapore has always had to strike a balance between development and conservation, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee, who had championed the changes to the EIA framework, in an e-mail to ST.

"We must protect and enhance our natural capital. At the same time, we must house a nation, develop industry, create jobs, provide amenities and safeguard land for future generations - this is why it is critical that we consider the trade-offs we are making carefully with regard to land use, in the spirit of achieving a balance," he said earlier last week.

"We outlined our plans for a City in Nature earlier this year, and recognise that our planning processes must be enhanced in tandem to support this vision."

In 2017, Mr Lee said in his first interview as full minister that the Government wants to strengthen the EIA process, learning from lessons of earlier projects, and improving them. That year, his ministry embarked on a review of the EIA framework in collaboration with the nature community and government agencies that was completed earlier this year.

Nature groups respond

Members of the nature community approached by ST welcomed the changes to the EIA framework, saying they put Singapore on the right track in achieving its City in Nature vision.

Mr Sankar Ananthanarayanan, co-founder of nature group Herpetological Society of Singapore that studies reptiles and amphibians, and Dr Siti Maryam Yaakub from the TeamSeagrass volunteer group, said they were glad to see efforts to make EIA reports more transparent.

"Previously, getting information was very difficult and a lot of the engagement was done behind closed doors. Making the information more accessible could boost discussion on the findings. It's a big step forward," said Mr Sankar.

Access to earlier EIA reports, such as the one done for the Cross Island MRT Line, had initially been relatively limited, as people had to make an appointment to view a physical copy of the roughly 1,000-page report. The Land Transport Authority later put the document online after people complained about the inconvenience.

Dr Siti added: "The move towards greater transparency in approaches is especially important. The move towards earlier stakeholder engagement is also a welcome move, and nature groups like TeamSeagrass are looking forward to engaging with developers and developing agencies to ensure we safeguard our natural heritage."

For Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society (Singapore), the changes to the EIA framework were significant not just in terms of the new initiatives, but also in what they represented - increasing awareness of native biodiversity not just for individual projects, but at a national level as well.

"EIAs done for each project may be thorough, and mitigation measures could help safeguard biodiversity within the project site. But their effectiveness may be reduced if you consider the development around it," said Dr Lum.

Take for instance the new Tengah town, which will be built on secondary forest. HDB had catered for a forest corridor to run through the development to allow animals to cross between the western catchment forests and the central nature reserves. But last October, ST reported that part of the green highway in the plot next to Tengah was levelled for a HDB Build-To-Order project.

Said Dr Lum: "Such incidents are not the fault of the developer. So raising the standards of the industry, such as having ecology lessons for the planners, could help reduce such events from occurring."

"New biodiversity impact assessment guidelines introduced as part of EIA review", Audrey Tan, Straits Times 25 Oct 2020

The new biodiversity impact assessment guidelines will set out the methodologies that can be used in conducting wildlife surveys in an area marked for development.

SINGAPORE - New guidelines for assessing the impact of development works on local flora and fauna have been introduced, under changes to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) framework.

This will render such impact assessments - which previously differed between consultants - less subjective.

The new biodiversity impact assessment guidelines will also set out the methodologies that can be used in conducting wildlife surveys in an area marked for development.

The guidelines are similar to those already in place for noise or pollution control at worksites, and will ensure that consultants assessing sites marked for development have a set of standards to follow during an EIA.

Previously, there was no locally standardised methodology in the EIA process for how such surveys should be conducted.

Quantifying the impact of development works on wildlife was also less transparent.

For example, when the Land Transport Authority revealed the results of the first phase of the EIA for the Cross Island MRT Line, which had looked at the impact of tests to determine the soil and rock profile under the nature reserve, the EIA had considered the impact of soil works as being "moderate", if mitigating measures were strictly enforced.

But it was not clear then what "moderate" meant.

The new guidelines, developed by the National Parks Board (NParks) in consultation with experts, will provide greater clarity when it comes to using such terms.

For instance, they set out three different impact assessment methodologies and recommendations for when they should be used.

One method is considered more comprehensive and recommended for EIAs, while the other two are recommended for preliminary studies.

The method NParks recommends for EIAs involves the assignment of an "environmental score" that takes into consideration factors such as the permanence of the change and the importance of the species, meaning whether it is locally or globally endangered.

These scores are then pegged to a band and labelled using such terms as "moderate negative change" or "major positive change".

A spokesman for consultancy Camphora explained that every EIA has three components.

They include the establishment of a baseline, which means detailing the plants and animals in an area, for instance through surveys; an assessment of how the works could impact the wildlife; and provide recommendations for environmental management and monitoring plans.

While the methodologies set out in the new guidelines could still be subjective, the spokesman said NParks had addressed this by spelling out minimum baseline efforts for EIAs.

They include detailing of the animal groups to be included in baseline surveys and the type of equipment that should be used , such as camera traps.

"Hydrology, a key compliment to biodiversity assessments especially in areas where there are water bodies, has also been included when before it was optional," he told The Straits Times.

"With a more reflective baseline, the margin of subjective assessments bias towards development can be reduced," he said.

Local context

EIAs are done before a new development is built.

They are a tool used around the world to inform decisions on how to modify development activity to reduce environmental impact.

But context is important.

The new biodiversity impact guidelines will ensure that Singapore's unique circumstances are taken into account when consultants assess the conservation value of a site.

For example, the 89-page document seen by The Straits Times sets out descriptors for main habitat types in Singapore, from primary forest to abandoned kampungs (villages) and plantations.

Explaining the rationale for this, NParks said much of Singapore's original forest was cleared during the colonial period for various land uses including plantations and settlements. These lands may have regenerated as secondary forests dominated by native or exotic plant species.

"Despite these being relatively recent regrown forest patches, they can harbour some native biodiversity," said NParks.

The guidelines also set out the criteria that consultants can use to identify sites of high conservation priority.

They include considerations of whether the area is home to locally and globally endangered species and whether it supports globally significant concentrations of migratory species.

Some examples of species that are globally common but endangered locally include the leopard cat, the Malayan porcupine and the Malayan horned frog.

These concerns follow previous environmental studies whose findings were disputed.

For example, the Nature Society (Singapore) had disputed the findings on the Mandai project and called the conclusion of the EIA commissioned by Mandai Park Holdings "highly questionable".

Another environmental study commissioned by the Housing Board, which had concluded that the secondary forests on which the new Tengah town will be built are of "low conservation significance" and relatively young, also came under fire from the community.

Mr Matthew Jury, director of projects at consultancy DHI Water and Environment, said the guidelines were a "great step" towards ensuring a more consistent and transparent assessment of biodiversity impacts in Singapore.

"Unfortunately there is a wide range of current practices, and not all of them meet the minimum standards expected by the authorities or the public," he said.

The guidelines capture current best practices, he said, citing the use of quantitative methods to more accurately predict potential impacts.

"Applying a simple and transparent impact assessment tool... is also an excellent way to provide an overview of the range of potential impacts from a development, identify the key concerns and focus the mitigation efforts on avoiding or minimising those," he said.

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