A paddle through the magical watery woods

30 07 2014

The process of acquainting myself with the shores of Singapore for a project I am working on, Points of Departure, has provided me with some incredible experiences. One that I was especially grateful to have had was the experience of paddling through a green watery space that is almost magical in its beauty. Set in the relatively unspoilt lower reaches of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, one of Singapore’s last un-dammed rivers, the space is one that seems far out of place in the Singapore of today and holds in and around its many estuarine channels, one of the largest concentration of mangroves east of the Causeway along the island’s northern coast.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

Paddling through the watery forest at Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The much misunderstood mangrove forest, is very much a part of Singapore’s natural heritage. The watery forests, had for long, dominated much of Singapore’s coastal and estuarine areas, accounting for as much as an estimated 13% of Singapore’s land area at the time of the arrival of the British. Much has since been lost through development and reclamation and today, the area mangrove forests occupy amount to less that 1% of Singapore’s expanded land area. It is in such forests that we find a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Mangroves, importantly, also serve as nurseries for aquatic life as well as act as natural barriers that help protect our shorelines from erosion.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

Khatib Bongsu is a watery but very green world.

The island’s northern coast was especially rich in mangrove forests. Much has however, been cleared through the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, with large tracts being lost during the construction of the airbase at Seletar and the naval base at Sembawang in the early 1900s. The mangroves of the north, spread along the coast as well as inland through its many estuaries, along with those found across the strait in Johor, were once the domain of the Orang Seletar. A nomadic group of boat dwellers, the Orang Seletar had for long, featured in the Johor or Tebrau Strait, living off the sea and the mangroves; finding safe harbour in bad weather within the relatively sheltered mangrove lined estuaries.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Mangrove forests had once dominated much of coastal Singapore.

Boat dwelling Orang Seletar families could apparently be found along Singapore’s northern coast until as recently as the 1970s. While the Orang Seletar in Singapore have, over the course of time, largely been assimilated into the wider Malay community, the are still communities of Orang Seletar across the strait in Johor. Clinging on to their Orang Seletar identity, the nine communities there live no longer on the water, but on the land in houses close to the water.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

Safe harbour in the watery woods.

It is the labyrinth of tree shaded channels and the remnants of its more recent prawn farming past that makes the side of the right bank of Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s lower reaches an especially interesting area to kayak through. Much has since been reclaimed by the mangrove forest and although there still is evidence of human activity in the area, it is a wonderfully green and peaceful space that brings much joy to to the rower.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The canalised upper part of Sungei Khatib Bongsu.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

The area around Sungei Khatib Bongsu today, as seen on Google Maps.

Paddling through the network of channels and bund encircled former prawn ponds – accessible through the concrete channels that once were their sluice gates, the sounds that are heard are mostly of the mangrove’s many avian residents. It was however the shrill call of one of the mangrove’s more diminutive winged creatures, the Ashy Tailorbird, that seemed to dominate, a call that could in the not too distant future, be drowned out by the noise of the fast advancing human world.  It is just north of Yishun Avenue 6, where the frontier seems now to be, that we see a wide barren patch. The patch is one cleared of its greenery so that a major road – an extension of Admiralty Road East, can be built; a sign that time may soon be called on an oasis that for long has been a sanctuary for a rich and diverse avian population.

The walk into the mangroves.

The walk into the mangroves.

The beginnings of a new road.

The beginnings of a new road.

The Sungei Khatib Bongsu mangroves, lies in an area between Sungei Khatib Bongsu and the left bank of Sungei Seletar at its mouth that lies beyond the Lower Seletar Dam that has been designated as South Simpang; at the southern area of a large plot of land reserved for public housing that will become the future Simpang New Town. The area is one that is especially rich in bird life, attracting a mix of  resident and migratory species and was a major breeding site for Black-crowned Night Herons, a herony that has fallen victim to mosquito fogging. While there is little to suggest that the herons will return to breed, the area is still one where many rare and endangered species of birds continue to be sighted and while kayaking through, what possibly was a critically endangered Great-billed Heron made a graceful appearance.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Evidence of the former prawn ponds.

Kayaking into the ponds.

Kayaking into the former ponds.

It is for the area’s rich biodiversity that the Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS has long campaigned for its preservation and a proposal for its conservation was submitted by the NSS as far back as in 1993. This did seem to have some initial success and the area, now used as a military training area into which access is largely restricted, was identified as a nature area for conservation, as was reflected in the first issue of the Singapore Green Plan. Its protection as a nature area seemed once again confirmed by the then Acting Minister for National Development, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, during the budget debate on 18 March 1994 (see: Singapore Parliament Reports), with the Minister saying: “We have acceded to their (NSS) request in priorities and we have conserved Sungei Buloh Bird Sanctuary and Khatib Bongsu“. 

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Unfortunately, the area has failed to make a reappearance in subsequently releases of the list of nature area for conservation, an omission that was also seen in subsequent editions of the Singapore Green Plan. What we now see consistently reflected in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plans (see: Master Plan), is that as part of a larger reserve area for the future Simpang, the area’s shoreline stands to be altered by the reclamation of land. Along with land reclamation, plans the Public Utilities Board (PUB) appears to have for Sungei Khatib Bongsu’s conversion into a reservoir that will also include the neighbouring Sungei Simpang under Phase 2 of the Seletar-Serangoon Scheme (SRSS), does mean that the future of the mangroves is rather uncertain.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

A resident that faces an uncertain future.

Phase 2 of the SRSS involves the impounding of Sungei Khatib Bongsu, Sungei Simpang and Sungei Seletar to create the Coastal Seletar Reservoir. Based on the 2008 State of the Environment Report, this was to be carried out in tandem with land reclamation along the Simpang and Sembawang coast. The reclamation could commence as early as next year, 2015 (see State of the Environment 2008 Report Chapter 3: Water).

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In the meantime, the NSS does continue with its efforts to bring to the attention of the various agencies involved in urban planning of the importance of the survival of the mangroves at Khatib Bongsu. Providing feedback to the URA on its Draft Master Plan in 2013 (see Feedback on the Updated URA Master Plan, November 2013), the NSS highlights the following:

Present here is the endangered mangrove tree species, Lumnitzera racemosa, listed in the Singapore Red Data Book (RDB). Growing plentifully by the edge and on the mangrove is the Hoya diversifolia. On the whole the mangrove here is extensive and healthy, with thicker stretches along Sg Khatib Bongsu and the estuary of Sg Seletar. 

A total of 185 species of birds, resident and migratory, have been recorded at the Khatib Bongsu  area. This comes to 49 % of the total number of bird species in Singapore (376, Pocket Checklist 2011, unpublished  )  – almost comparable to that at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. 13 bird species found here are listed in the RDB  and among these are:  Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Straw-headed Bulbul, Ruddy Kingfisher, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, White-chested Babbler, etc. The Grey-headed Fish Eagle  and the Changeable Hawk eagle are nesting in the Albizia woodlands in this area.

The mangrove dependent species present are : Crab-eating Frog, Dog-faced Water Snake & Malaysian Wood Rat. The Malaysian Wood Rat is regarded is locally uncommon.   In 2000, Banded Krait (RDB species) was found here near the edge mangrove. Otters, probably the Smooth Otter, have been sighted by fishermen and birdwatchers in the abandoned fish ponds and the Khatib Bongsu river. 

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

URA Master Plan 2014, showing the reserve area at Simpang.

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It will certainly be a great loss to Singapore should the PUB and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) proceed with their plans for the area. What we stand to lose is not just another regenerated green patch, but a part of our natural heritage that as a habitat for the diverse array of plant and animals many of which are at risk of disappearing altogether from our shores, is one that can never be replaced.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The present shoreline at Simpang, threatened by possible future land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.

The white sands at Tanjong Irau, another shoreline under threat of the possible future Simpang-Sembawang land reclamation.





Worshiping the sun in a place on which the sun has set

23 06 2014

The view across the Tebrau Strait at 7 am on 21 June 2014, as seen from the seawall at Kampong Wak Hassan, an area that hosted a village by the sea , on which the sun has long set.

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Early light over the strait

8 06 2014

Another long exposure. This time to capture the early light over the Straits of Johor through another rain coloured morning, at 6.22 am on 7 June 2014.

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Colours of dawn 31 May 2014

31 05 2014

Colours of dawn, 6.31 am, 31 May 2014, as seen at the unmanicured beach of Kampong Wak Hassan.

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Dawn by the strait

26 05 2014

The colours of the dawn, at 6.35 am on 25 May 2014, seen painting the lightening sky over the Johor Strait (or Tebrau Strait). The area by the sea where the former Kampong Wak Hassan had once been, looks east towards the Pasir Gudang area of Johor across the channel, does make it an ideal location to catch the spectacle that often comes with the dawn of the new day.

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The last rubber tree

17 04 2014

It is in a part of Singapore struggling to hold on to times the modern world has discarded that we find a remnant of forgotten days – a tree, said to be the last of the rubber trees, which is one of what were many more on the huge Bukit Sembawang plantation that had once dominated the area.

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There is much mystery that surrounds the tree, which towers over a mosque, described as be the “last kampung mosque in Singapore” – itself a remnant of a forgotten world. The 60 to 70-year-old tree is believed to have resisted all attempts to have it cut down – it is said that those who have attempted to cut it down had been struck ill in a fashion similar to many other trees found across the island that are believed to be inhabited by spirits.

On this, another story from the area does come to mind. The story is one that takes us back to the days when the huge King George IV graving dock  was being constructed – one that also involved a rubber tree that needed to be cleared to level the ground to build the dock. Workers had feared chopping the tree down for similar reasons, resulting in a delay in the construction. That tree did eventually get removed and act that was thought to be responsible for the deaths of several people involved in its removal that were to follow. More on this story can be found in a previous post, Last Post Standing.

Like the mosque beside it – which operates on a Temporary Occupation License, the tree is on State land and does face an uncertain future. While the area close to the mosque has so far been spared from development, the redevelopment of the area does seem to be gaining momentum. Not far away, we already see an area that once belonged to those who lived off the sea, given to those who in modern Singapore, are can pay the price it costs now to afford the luxury of living by the sea. It does seem to only be a matter of time before the brave new world does arrive in the area. Until then, we do for now, have the story of the tree to listen to, as well as the wealth of stories of times past that will be lost when the new world does eventually arrive.





Colours of April: The Hindu festival of Panguni Uthiram

13 04 2014

A colourful Sembawang tradition that goes back to the days of the Naval Base, is the commemoration of the Hindu festival of Panguni Uthiram by the Holy Tree Sri Balasubramaniar Temple. While much of the landscape through which the procession of kavadis that is associated with the festival has been altered by the move of the temple away from its original premises with its route not only changed, but also shortened over the years; it is good to see that it is celebrated with as much fervour as it was when my first encounters with it back in the 1980s.

A view through a kavadi.

A view through a kavadi at today’s Panguni Uthitam.

This route of the procession of this year’s festival, which is celebrated on the full moon of the month of Panguni, took devotees from the empty plot of land off Canberra Drive , down Canberra Lane and Canberra Link to the temple’s premises at Yishun Industrial Park A. More information on the festival and previous Panguni Uthiram celebrations can be found in several previous posts and at the temple’s website:

A walk into the light. Devotees carrying milk pots along the procession route at sunrise.

A walk into the light. Devotees carrying milk pots along the procession route at sunrise.

The tent erected at the start point where preparations are made.

The tent erected at the start point where preparations are made.

Sugarcane is used by couples who have prayed for the blessing of a baby to carry the baby along the route as an offering of gratitude.

Sugarcane is used by couples who have prayed for the blessing of a baby to carry the baby along the route as an offering of gratitude.

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More photographs from Panguni Uthiram 2014

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