Remnants of a lost forest

9 10 2014

The first Sunday in October had me paddling a kayak through what turned out to be a surprisingly area of mangroves in a part of Singapore where nature has long abandoned. Described by the Nature Society (Singapore) as “the most extensive mangrove forest in the southern coastline of mainland Singapore”, the mangroves line the banks of a stretch of Sungei Pandan where the industrial march that has all but conquered Singapore’s once wild southwest is quite clearly evident.

Kayaking through the Sungei Pandan mangroves.

Kayaking through the Sungei Pandan mangroves.

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The Sungei Pandan mangroves, found along the stretch of river that lies between the Pandan Tidal Gates and the Sungei Pandan Bridge, is perhaps the last remnants of the lush mangrove forest that had once lined much of the banks of the Pandan and Jurong Rivers that had been offered protection as the Pandan Forest Reserve. The reserve covered an area of 542 acres or 219 ha. in 1966 and may have covered an even larger area before that – a newspaper article from 1928 had put the area of the reserve at 639 acres or 259 ha. and had been one of 15 forest areas that was protected under the Forest Ordinance enacted in 1908, and later, the 1951 Nature Reserves Ordinance.

The Pandan Tidal Gates.

The Pandan Tidal Gates.

A 1945 Map showing the extent of the Pandan Forest Reserve.

A 1945 Map showing the extent of the Pandan Forest Reserve.

The death knell for the mangrove reserve was sounded in the 1960s when land was needed for the expansion of Jurong Industrial Estate. An amendment to the Nature Reserves Ordinance in 1966 saw it lose the 186 acres (75 ha.) on the west bank of Jurong River and that was filled up to create much needed land for the fast expanding industrial zone. The reserve was to lose its status altogether in 1968 when a further amendment to the Ordinance removed the reserve from its schedule of protected forest areas to allow what was described as the “rapid growth of Jurong Industrial Estate”.

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The mangrove forest, besides being home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna, also hosted human inhabitants, many of whom were fishermen who depended on cast net prawn farming in the vicinity of the river mouths and the islands for a livelihood. One of the isolated villages that was found at the edge of the watery forest, was Kampong Teban, described in an article from The Singapore Free Press dated 13 January 1958 as “a village of 135 people living in 27 cottages, some built on stilts over the ooze and slime on the river bank”. The villagers were to see their lives altered by developments n the early 1960s, when part of the area was given to prawn farming.

Kampong Teban, 1958 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

Kampong Teban, 1958 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

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The original mouth of Sungei Pandan, was where the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club (RSYC), then the Royal Singapore Yacht Club, moved its premises to, on land reclaimed from the mangroves, in 1965. The club, which traces its origins to 1826, moved in 1999 sometime after it lost its seafront to land reclamation. Its former clubhouse is now occupied by the Singapore Rowing Association – close to where the kayaking trip started.

The entrance to the grounds of the Singapore Rowing Association, formerly the site of the RSYC.

The entrance to the grounds of the Singapore Rowing Association, formerly the site of the RSYC.

The start point for the kayak trip.

The start point for the kayak trip.

Paddling through the greenery offered by the mangroves, nipah palms and mangrove ferns, the sounds of tree lizards and birds were most evident. Beyond the distinct calls belonging to the ashy tailorbird and the pied fantail – birds that often are heard before they are seen, the likes of grey and striated herons, and white-bellied sea eagles gave their presence away flying overhead. A special treat came in the form of an Asian paradise flycather – a particularly beautiful avian resident of the watery forest, dancing across the mangrove branches. Besides the lizards and the birds, the forest is also plays host to fauna such as mud lobsters, mudskippers, horseshoe crabs, mangrove snails and the dog-faced water snake.

The dance of the Asian paradise flycatcher...

The dance of the Asian paradise flycatcher…

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A grey heron in flight.

A grey heron in flight.

Another grey heron in flight.

Another grey heron in flight.

A striated heron perched on a fallen trunk.

A striated heron perched on a fallen trunk.

The Sungei Pandan mangroves is all that remains of a once rich mangrove forest. What the crystal ball that is the URA Master Plan tells us is that the area in which it is situated has been designated as a park space. It would be nice to see that the mangroves remain untouched, not just to remind us of the lost forest, but more importantly to protect an area that despite its location and size, is a joyously green space teeming with life.

Minister of State Desmond Lee - an avid bird watcher.

One of the kayakers was Minister of State Desmond Lee, who is an avid bird watcher.

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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.