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Tue 18 Apr 2006

12 Apr 2006 - Project NOAH discussed at an open session at the Nature Society (Singapore)

Category : marine

When is news of a conservation project not greeted with open arms by the biodiversity community? Project NOAH certainly seems to becoming a case study: a lack of consultation with stake-holders actively engaged in conservation and public education, dreams passed off (or misconstrued) as projects, unclear agendas and $100,000. It seems an old lesson has been repeated, albeit at a smaller scale - a lack of transparency.

When Project NOAH was announced on 30 Mar 2006 (See the media reports), an active discussion started the same evening in the natural history community. Unusual for such a project announcement, no one stepped up to congratulate a seemingly good idea.

Jeffrey Low responded to a request I made in the Nature Singapore mailing list with a long list of issues and struggled to be diplomatic but other young 'uns, however, were scathing in the remarks:

Was there any reason to doubt? The press briefing and its apparently inadequate Q & A session, raised many critical questions. Wild Singapore rounded up some of the questions into a summary page: "Plans to 'build a reef' at Hantu: some issues" causing Mr Budak to ponder, "Lagoon Blues: A Reef in Double Jeopardy." The annotated budak, 12 April 2006.

The discussion continued offline in the marine community. However, the press, or rather just one alert reporter, tried and failed to get any remarks from anyone. It appeared most wanted to first find out more or at least talk to the project leaders. No webpage exists for Project NOAH and only the inadequate media reports were available.

So Vilma D'Rozario and Ho Hua Chew of the Nature Society Singapore invited stake-holders to a briefing and discussion at the regular NSS Conservation Group Chat Session at the NSS office on 12th April 2006 at 7.30pm. In attendance were some of the relevant individuals.

The discussion seems to have raised many more questions and a flurry of blog reports are emerging:

Project NOAH presented and discussed at Nature Society (Singapore),
12 April 2006

By November Tan, 13 April 2006
On special assignment for Habitatnews

In response to the concerns raised over statements at the the recent press conference by the Singapore Environment Council and the Singapore Underwater Federation on Project NOAH (Nurture our Aquatic Heritage), the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS) Conservation Group held a "Chat on the Southern Islands" on Wednesday 12 April, 7pm at NSS' headquarters, The Sunflower. Thanks to NSS Committee Members Vilma D'Rozario and Ho Hua Chew for hosting the dialogue.

The venue was quickly filled with at least 50 people. Besides NSS members, in attendance were groups already actively working to promote and conserve the southern islands' coral reefs. Ria Tan of WildSingapore distributed informative flyers, ran a powerpoint slideshow and WildFilms played video clips of marine life and reef walk activities from the Southern Islands. Also in attendance were Debby Ng of Pulau Hantu Blog and most of the executive members of Blue Water Volunteers, including The Blue Tempeh.

The meeting, chaired by Ho Hua Chew of NSS saw three presentations - the first one was made by the Marine Conservation Group on the reclamation to join Pulau Bukom and Pulau Ular and about the relocation of corals by the project consultants, DHI Water and Environment, from Terembu Bayan. The second presentation was made by Howard Shaw, the Executive Director of SEC, who gave the history and progress of NOAH. Third to speak was SUF member Sydney Chew who conceived the project; he repeated the presentation from the press conference of 30th March 2006.

Also in attendance was Stephen Beng (SUF under-secretary) who was absent at the press conference. Notable absentees from the dialogue at NSS included William Ong (SUF's consultative scientific officer), and Spencer Lewis (Aquos Pte Ltd). Geh Min of NSS was unable to attend the meeting.

The Q&A saw a rapid fire of questions from the floor, which went mostly unanswered. Key issues include:

1) ARTIFICIAL REEF? CORAL RELOCATION?

Howard Shaw of SEC maintained that throughout the whole press conference, there was never any mention of an artificial reef. The press had been mistaken in their reports. Howard Shaw further declared they had no intention of coral relocation.

"As for dredging of the lagoon and coral transplantation, SEC has no intention of carrying those out, and wishes to understand what's out there instead." - from minutes of meeting at BWV webpage.

However, Debby Ng who was present at the press conference of 30th March 2006 pointed out that coral relocation had been stated as one of their key objectives in their press briefing.

There was no clear idea about the filter for clear water conditions at Pulau Hantu.

Note that a copy of the press release will soon be made available online.

2) CONSULTATION?

The following groups were said to have been consulted about the project: Blue Water Volunteers (BWV), Raffles Museum of Biodversity Research at the National University of Singapore (RMBR, NUS), National Parks Board (NParks), Topical Marine Science Institute, NUS (TMSI), Department of Civil Engineering, NUS (DCE), SUF, SEC and NSS.

After the meeting, members of some of these organisations were approached and denied having been consulted. [Ed's note - NUS' Raffles Museum was not consulted.]

More than one group were asked to attend closed-door presentations and asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. They had put forward queries and did not receive any response. In their opinion, this could not be passed off as consultation.

3) PROJECT OBJECTIVES?

Why was a press conference held without a well thought-out plan?

Howard Shaw suggested there was "time pressure" which drove them. Queried, they responded that it was because of the closure of the north reef of Pulau Hantu to divers. However their press conference was held on 30th March 2006, some two months after the closure.

Unable to provide a clear program objective, they then surprised the audience by asking all present to suggest ideas! The disbelieving audience offered that this should have been done prior to the press conference.

4) FOR GOODNESS SAKES, THERE ARE MORE THAN TWO DIVE SITES IN SINGAPORE!

Sydney Chew claimed that local divers only have access to two dive sites in Singapore - Pulau Jong and Pulau Hantu. Thus Pulau Hantu was picked as the ideal place for a marine sanctuary. Sisters Islands, he claimed, was closed.

The audience responded with an outcry - Sisters Islands are open to divers. Other islands are also open to diving - Lazarus Island, St John's Island, Kusu Island and Pulau Salu. In fact, reef walks are even conducted at Kusu Island, and are overbooked for months.

Some objected to the suggestion of St. John's Island as a dive site due to the presence of strong currents there. However divers in the room dismissed this argument - tide tables provide predictive information about tidal streams. This is a basic tool used to avoid diving during strong currents.

It was further countered that Pulau Jong, a reef Sydney suggested as a dive site, is in fact host to the strongest currents in our waters.

5) COMMUNITY PROJECT?

A refrain during the meeting was for the audience to join NOAH as volunteers. However, individuals had learnt through the papers that they would have to join SUF as members. This was not a partnership.

Sydney Chew did not appear to know members of this very small community, all of whom know each other. He provided the room with much amusement when he mistook Anand Sundaram Balan for N. Sivasothi of NUS' Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research! Sydney Chew also was unable to recognise Ria Tan and Joseph Lai. This ignorance of key community players was surprising in light of his claims to have initiated a community project.

Sydney Chew also mentioned the need for a site where "we can engage the public" as this has not been done. It was pointed out that there are active programmes in existence including Chek Jawa, Semakau and Reef Walk programme, conducted for both adults and children. These were initiated between 2002-2005. Reefwalk for example has been active for 18 months, exposing close to 1,000 members of the public of all ages to the intertidal habitat at Kusu Island.

6) WITHOUT A QUESTION, WHY DO A CENSUS?

There have been on-going census by NUS Marine Biology Lab since 1986, and this data accessible for free online, e.g. see data for Pulau Hantu. This existing data has not reviewed by Project NOAH.

Howard Shaw did emphasise that they were aware of existing census efforts. However, they were unable to provide an objective for their proposed census, and thus the method they intended to employ for the census. This was compounded by the fact that it had been reported that $100,000 was now needed to cover the same ground. Oddly enough, the previous census had ben conducted without the need for such large funds.

There was some suggestion that the new census would encompass all marine life on the reef unlike the precious projects which focused only on corals, fish and selected invertebrates. However scientists limit their scope as observation and identification are extremely time-consuming and near impossible for many groups of invertebrates. Hence a limited, targeted approach is commonly used.

If however NOAH intends to survey all organisms on Hantu reefs, the six month projection may be optimistic.

7) WHOSE PROJECT IS NOAH?

In a surprising turn of events, it was revealed that the project was neither SUF's nor SEC's! SUF clarified that they were signed on to provide/facilitate volunteer manpower. SEC meanwhile, claims they are only acting as the facilitator and coordinating body.

So who does NOAH belong to? Who is responsible for it?

It appears that Sydney Chew is the main driving force behind the venture.

Ho Hua Chew called the meeting to a premature end at 9 pm amidst much protests. None of the questions had yet been answered. While everybody agrees that the dream of a marine reserve in Singapore is something we agree about, this episode highlights the need for proper plans and transparency.

18 Apr 2006: Hua Chew dropped me a note about the meeting closure and explained that - "Howard & Sydney were consulted as to whether they would like to continue. They said they have to go. If they were agreeable, I would certainly let the meeting go on beyond 9.00pm. As a matter of courtesy to our NSS guests I have to accede to their wishes."

I know Hua Chew has the stamina for a longer meeting, and you can't fault him for being a good host; this sort of session has to be handled as fairly as possible.

The guests may not have realised they would have to entertain so many questions from a community of active naturalists. Still, enough had emerged by then to suggest that more time would not have helped revealed any more information.

It is healthy to see such thoughts finally emerge for scrutiny. All of these posts are by young people. And Joseph Lai would later remark of a young lad sitting next to him, "So young and so interested in the welfare of Nature". It certainly is an antidote to fears of apathy amongst our youth! The question then begs, why was the mainstream media so easily taken in? It did not take really tough questions to highlight ambiguity.

At the end of the meeting, one positive thing emerged - the reassurance by Howard Shaw of Singapore Environment Council that any plan would be non-destructive. He is also keen for a constructive reassessment and to see that the reef survey is conducted, and that it builds on existing information. A second meeting will be called with stake-holders.

Conservation depends on the contributions of individuals, organisations, agencies, corporations and the government, i.e. stakeholders. This is a group with varied needs and outlook. For any progress to be made in such an arena, trust and credibility are very important commodities. Very little of either appear to have been achieved last night.

18 Apr 2006 - Update: I'm called a ugly, dirty Frito and I feel good. Wonder why? Read Joseph Lai's amusing account, "The Farside of Fritos." Eart-h.com, 14 Apr 2006.

Posted at 3:59AM UTC by N. Sivasothi | permalink | email | Raffles Museum news