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Landfill island or island landfill? 10 May 2007

Posted by cat64fish in Land-lubber stories.
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An article in the New Scientist caught my eye, entitled “Garbage of Eden” (14 April 2007).

Catchy title …. but, upon further reading, I noticed that the author seemed to have this misconception that Semakau was “created” because of the landfill, and that the biodiversity there was “attracted” to the island. Wrong and wrong, I thought … could the author have not visited the island at all in writing this paper? Who knows?

What I know of Pulau Semakau is that it is one of the largest islands in the south of Singapore. This pear-shaped island now has the Semakau Landfill “attached” to the eastern side of the it like cancerous outgrowth.

The landfill is the result of Singapore’s affluent society, which generates about 2.5 million tons of rubbish yearly. About 80% of this is incinerated and disposed of at the landfill.

Pulau Semakau, the Landfill and the patch reefs surrounding it.

The landfill covers over 350 hectares, and was built over what was Pulau Sakeng, a few patch reefs, and anchored to Pulau Semakau. In the process, part of the Semakau mangroves was lost, but were replanted to the north and to the south of where the landfill is anchored to Semakau.

Singaporeans have only just began to “rediscover” Semakau’s riches, but in as early as 1990, after extensive surveys in the southern islands, the Reef Survey and Conservation Project proposed the western half of the island and its surrounding reefs as a Marine Nature Area. This was one of four that were included in the 1992 Singapore Green Plan.

The island houses three major coastal ecosystems, namely:

In the southeast and northeast, adjacent to the Landfill, remnants of the original mangrove, and the newly replanted mangrove patches;

In the western inter-tidal zone, a seagrass meadow that is the largest known in Singapore, covering about 70ha. At least 6 species of seagrass occur here, besides the dominant Enhalus acoroides, Halophila ovalis and the rare Syringodium isoetifolium have been recorded.

At the outer edges of this large inter-tidal area, the corals begin to dominate, until the seagrasses are edged out. Corals continue to grow in relative health – along the almost 1km-long reef, hard coral cover is between 40 and 60% (see Coral Reefs of Singapore). Almost all the genera of corals (about 55 of them) known to exist in Singapore can be found along Semakau’s reefs.

Even in the murky depths (the seabed is at about 15m depth), seafans and other invertebrate fauna irk out a tenuous existence. In some places, once vibrant patches of the seabed are now covered in silt. Where this silt comes from is still somewhat of a mystery. All that is known is that somewhere along the way, surveying of the deeper transects at one of the sites was no longer possible because of the silt build up. Some of the seabed experiments (conducted by NUS) with gravel beds also “disappeared” under layers of choking silt.

The misconception that the wildlife is there because of the landfill is one that I would like to dispell. It is important to understand that the landfill and the island are two separate entities.

While I do not dispute that there is wildlife in the landfill, many of the wonders reported in articles have always been there, even before the landfill was even built. That the wildlife can co-exist with the landfill points to the good work put in during the concept and design of the landfill, but we should not forget that a large portion of our marine and cultural heritage was lost to build it, including our only remaining coastal village on Pulau Sekang, as were the mudflats and mangroves on the eastern side of Pulau Semakau – a favourite haunt of the few bajou from Indonesia who traveled to our shores (presumably by rowing!) to irk out a merge living fishing in our waters!

What will become of this island paradise in the face of an ever-increasing population that demands more and more land, and generates more and more rubbish? The landfill is expected to last till 2070, and a new landfill will probably need to constructed some time before that. What other reef will we be sacrificing for our “progress”?

Other resources on Semakau:
Blue Water Volunteers
The Blue Tempeh
Wild Singapore