Why we need to talk about the birds and the bees

Doesn’t Singapore’s green heart looks nice and healthy in Google Maps’ terrain view?

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That’s a fairy tale, really, to look at when you feel depressed. Reality is a click away in the gritty satellite view which reveals every scar in lovely detail – well Google tries to keep up, but we are ever so eager to change that view, aren’t we, Singapore?

One person, exploring our tiny island, zoomed in to one spot in the forest and saw this:

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That “Holy Cow!” moment had @joeljoshuagoh asking on twitter, and @eisen retweeted. What were these structures in the Upper Peirce forest?

Well, these water storage tanks have been around for over a decade but our access to Google Earth was not always this handy. I have not thought about this site perhaps since I last visited in 1998 on a long walk though our forests with botanists Adrian Loo, Evelyn Seah and Ian Turner. We knew the site was to go by then, to give way to what would be called the Central Service Reservoir.

It’s fascinating what we can learn by simply looking at a map and I am really grateful that today, I can call up such detail via Google Maps on my handphone!.

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Central Service Reservoir (top left), Central Catchment Nature Reserve
and that historically scarred area across the water is SICC


The BBR Holding(s) Ltd page about the project reveals that the Public Utilities Board’s Central Service Reservoir was constructed over 33 months between 1999 to 2001.

The five water tanks are three with a diameter of 95m and a height of 13m and two smaller ones of a diameter of 82m and a height of 13m. These were constructed in the forest along Upper Peirce Reservoir for a contract sum of $6.18 million.

And before all that construction, NParks removed and replanted a Dracaena maingayi which you can see in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

“Water tanks being built in forest.” The Sunday Times, 23 August 1998. An area of protected forest the size of 14 football fields has been sacrificed by the authorities in order to build five giant water storage tanks.

“The tanks, large enough to hold one-quarter of Singapore’s daily water needs, are being built in nature reserve land. The site selected is a hill overlooking Upper Peirce Reservoir, which is off Old Upper Thomson Road.

The $66-million project will occupy 11 ha of land. Known as the central service reservoir, the above-ground concrete tanks will hold 318,000 cu m.

The project is the latest in a string of Government initiatives to ensure Singapore’s long-term water security.

Mrs Choo Wai Chan, public relations manager of the Public Utilities Board (PUB), told The Sunday Times that the covered tanks were required to store treated water destined for the northern and eastern parts of Singapore, including Woodlands, Yishun, Punggol, Sengkang, Pasir Ris and Tampines towns. Construction should be completed by 2001.

She said the tanks had to be constructed on high ground to ensure that peak demands were met with adequate water pressure.

The location was picked after close consultation with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the National Parks Board (NParks), the official guardian of Singapore’s nature areas.

The choice of a site gazetted as nature reserve land has, however, raised some environmental concerns.

NParks public affairs manager Karen Bartholomeusz explained that no site outside the reserves met the requirements for the project. “Only those projects that are essential, of national importance, and where no other alternative sites are suitable, will be considered to be located in the reserves. The central service reservoir is one such project.”

Singapore is really a petri dish for the region! Well, that 11ha was a painful loss but discussions within government had deemed this critical. And by the time it trickled down, this was accomplished, and we learnt that it was an issue about water. Once the neighbours are involved, local environmentalists have always put their cudgels down.

Similar issues with forest patches in various other places around Singapore would emerge over the years, repeatedly as urbanisation got under way. Not all were discussed or publicised, some consultation went on behind closed doors and not all engagements moderated impact. Some for sure, actually did and this should be remembered.

Still, Dominic Nathan would later write that “In land-scare Singapore, flora and fauna do not hold freehold tenure over any spot, even protected nature reserve land.”

Well, we need imaginative people in government and the private sector, thinking about better and more sustainable ideas in the design and management of cities and their needs. It’s difficult to restore loss of this sort, which does not occur in isolation but is accompanied with extensive ramification. And we’ll need an increasingly active community, aware of the issues and willing to engage. And, energetic enough to do so.

This is happening somewhat, because it is a fundamental need if our state is to persist. And some smart ideas have emerged. But we are always in need of new ideas and one hopes, thinkers who come with an adequate exposure or are able to learn very quickly on the job.

This is probably why the naturalist community, which in any generation has experienced tremendous change and loss, pay a great premium to education and engagement with the public. The field comes with an immediate sense of urgency and it becomes a second nature to many to learn, share, organise and motivate. So they have been talking for decades.

A quick peek into Wild Happenings will astound you with diversity and number of offerings in Singapore.


Recently, the community got together as a Biodiversity Roundtable, to talk, for we rarely sit down to do so,s and to plan. Mostly about wrestling with difficult conversations in the meetings ahead. But this indefatigable group also decided to mount an exercise in education and engagement – this time in the form of a central, and hopefully annual, Festival of Biodiversity in May.

We are not yet ready to announce this yet, but the partners are preparing, recruiting volunteers and clearing calendars. We need to be present in enough numbers to engage the bus loads who will be coming to the Singapore Botanic Gardens in celebration of our natural heritage.

This community keeps going, because they feel everyone needs to know about our animals and plants, forests and seas. Find a space for them in our hearts, and we will find a space for them in our land. And in the process, give those who come after us, a cause for celebration.