Oh, for a dip in Orchard River

July 25, 2010
Singapore Democrats

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Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

Floods are hitting the city with increased regularity since the last serious one in memory three decades ago, raising conjectures that range from climate change to a Singapore sinking under its own weight.

A Western tourist pulled off his shirt for a little dip in the middle of flood-engulfed Orchard Road, something no others have done.

Flashing a V-sign at reporters, he repeatedly dived into the city’s most famous road then lying under water.

That was a month ago. Last week, a Singaporean model put on a bikini for a similar spot of fun in her flooded kitchen.

These were the lighter side of a traumatic story as Singaporeans geared for a future of flash floods that they only read about in cities like Bangkok and Jakarta – albeit much less seriously.

For three decades, serious floods have been rare in this city, the last being in 1978.

During the past month, they have repeatedly covered some prime areas with a blanket of yellowish knee-high water, submerging wealthy homes (as well as a Lamborghini) and shopping malls.

The strong rains and floods – an almost weekly occurrence during the past month – struck with an intensity that was unseen for 30 years.

It was the worst since the disastrous 1978 monsoon floods, which caused seven deaths and hundreds to be evacuated. One man died when an uprooted tree fell on his car, and several people were injured.

Floods had taken place occasionally, but nothing like the recent scale, because the government had designed a good drainage system.

(However, the population had more than doubled from 2.23 million in 1978 to 5 million now. This means more high-rise buildings disgorging used water into the drainage system.)

No one is sure what caused them or whether they will be permanent, but feels they will not go away. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has said that no engineering work can prevent them.

The first flood, like a notice served by nature, happened last November. It left and came back with sustained force.

Between mid-June and mid-July, flash floods wreaked havoc among an unprepared population, over-flowing reservoirs and canals.

The worst hit was low-lying parts of northern, eastern and central Singapore, including Orchard Road, Newton and Bukit Timah, where some of the rich and famous live.

“Singapore is looking like a third world country,” said a citizen reporter as he filmed flooded Orchard Road, cynically renamed “Orchard River”.

Some surfers began tracking floods and warning others. “Heavy rains now in Balestier, move your cars to high ground,” one advised.

So what brought back these floods after such a long absence?

Apart from saying they were caused by storms, the authorities gave no other explanations.

It has revisited a discussion that Singapore may be sinking – like neighbouring Bangkok and Jakarta.

In a Yahoo forum discussion of the subject “Is Singapore Island sinking?” a writer implied that it had already caused Bukit Timah hill to be shorter by three metres – from 166 metres – over the years.

He opined that more buildings had been built that created a heavy load on the land. At the same time, Singapore had constructed more subway systems and created more holes in the ground.

“More buildings create a heavy load. Can the island withstand such heavy loads?” he asked.

Others dismiss the “sinking” theory, but say the sea level is continually rising because of global warming. Singapore, they say, cannot escape the impact.

Another writer, fins and wings, believes there is nothing to worry about.

“It would probably take a century for the sea to rise by half a metre, depending on the rate of global warming,” he said.

No officials have talked of a possible connection between increasing flash floods in Singapore and global warming.

On the recent floods, Peter Su wrote: “Damage to public property, private residences and expensive cars in this prime district are beyond imagination.”

He said that offices, restaurants and businesses have lost a lot of income due to the flood, without compensation.

“Is this an act of nature or the Environment Ministry’s negligence?” he asked, reflecting a general public question.

Among the many thousands of victims were rich Singaporeans, including highly-paid Cabinet ministers and Parliamentarians, and expatriate executives who are unused to getting their feet wet this way.

“Some frustrated households at Gentle Reflections have moved to hotels and serviced apartments for S$700 to S$1,000 a night,” reported TODAY newspaper.

The reporter said South African Adre Volschenk had had enough and planned to move out of his luxurious townhouse at Gentle Road, off Dunearn Road, once his lawyer had settled the lease agreement.

“He lost two cars and S$15,000 worth of personal items when the flood waters came on Saturday,” it reported.

Volschenk said he had to pull his maid to safety from the rising water.

An Asian Development Bank (ADB) study in 2009 gave an indication of how climate change and rising sea levels could aggravate flash floods.

Flood water eventually flows back into the sea, and all is well again, wrote Lee Poh Onn, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

However, as sea levels are rising flash floods cannot be dissipated easily, he wrote in Asian Tribune.

A worried Singapore has been exploring the possibility of building dikes to protect parts of the island, especially the south, which is the heart of the republic, housing the bulk of the Istana, the Courts, Parlia­ment and various ministries, as well as banks and the stock exchange.

If serious floods become a regular feature – a distant supposition – they could drive down some of the astronomical prices of some of Singapore’s most luxurious properties.

http://thestar.com.my/columnists/story.asp?col=insightdownsouth&file=/2010/7/24/columnists/insightdownsouth/6717827&sec=Insight%20Down%20South