"A landfill is often a filthy and malodorous place, but in squeaky clean Singapore even its sole working landfill smells of roses - well, a fresh sea breeze to be more exact.
The Pulau Semakau landfill is basically the city-state's rubbish bin. Yet it's also a rich biodiversified land of checkerboard lagoons around which fish and mangrove birds thrive. In spite of hundreds of tonnes of ash and rubbish being dumped there every day, Pulau Semakau is a sanctuary for once- widespread marine organisms.
And the world's first offshore landfill is now open for nature-related recreational activities such as bird-watching, sport-fishing and seashores walks. "The reclamation work could have adversely affected the ecosystem, but that hasn't been the case,Ó says Wang Luan Keng from the National University of Singapore's Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, which will start conducting the walks next month.
"The majority of the coral reef on the west coast, which could have been destroyed by sedimentation, is still intact and the fauna and flora is actually thriving. It's been an ecologically sound project."
Located 8km south of Singapore's main island, the landfill was created by enclosing the bigger island of Pulau Semakau and the smaller Pulau Sakeng with a 7km perimeter rock bund, lined with an impermeable membrane and a layer of marine clay. Each day, about 1,600 tonnes of ash from Singapore's four incineration plants (about 91 per cent of waste collected is incinerated) and a further 700 tonnes of waste that can't be burned are dumped into the lagoon, which is divided into several ponds.
Five of the 11cells in the first phase of the landfill programme have been filled to about two metres above sea level. These were covered by a layer of good earth and turfed, and have since attracted a bird population, says Ong Chong Peng, the landfill's general manager.
Eventually, the "new island" could rise to 20-30 metres above the sea and be landscaped for recreational use, Ong says. The landfill is expected to meet Singapore's needs until 2045.
The project hasn't been without controversy. Some nature lovers say part of the environment has been destroyed forever. "Nobody should deny the landfill has destroyed some ecosystem, part of the inter-tidal life, some of the mangroves,Ó says Ho Hua Chew, head of the Nature Society's conservation committee.
"It's a good place to watch birds. There are a lot of shore and mangrove birds. But if people start to believe that a landfill brings biodiversity, that's wrong. You can never replace what's been lost."
Wang says 13 hectares of destroyed mangroves were replanted in 1999. The trees are now more than four metres tall. "Of course some things have given way, but they have done a very good job of replacing what was lost and keeping the majority of the habitat intact," she says.
"Semakau never had a lot of birds because it was rather small. But it's home to a few endangered birds in Singapore such as the great-billed heron and the Pacific reef egret Ð and they're still there."
Biologists recently conducted a survey of the island and uncovered rich wildlife in the inter-tidal area and a vast sea-grass lagoon. The meadow of tape seagrass stretches for kilometres and shelters creatures such as the swimming crab and pipefish
not seen elsewhere in Singapore [incorrect]."
A significant human and environmental cost was and is paid during development; Pulau Semakau and Pulau Sakeng are recent and relatively well documented cases that allowed a younger generation a first hand look at the process.
However, this case is unique - the effort by the Ministry of the Environment to protect the coral reefs in the west of Pulau Semakau from sedimentation, and the effort to replace the area of mangroves lost is unparalled in Singapore. If only similar effort had been attempted elsewhere!