Pulau Hantu - A celebration of marine life

Secret lives and secret worlds hidden in Singapore's most popular coral reef.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

NSS Conservation Chat discusses Project NOAH

"Let's hear them out": (standing, from left) Stephen Beng, Howard Shaw, Sydney Chew, and Dr. Ho Hua Chew.

A week after the Project NOAH team held its press conference at ONEdegree15, for the first time, grassroots members meet the stakeholders to discuss the project which stands for "Nurturing Our Aquatic Heritage".

Thanks to NSS committee members Vilma D'Rozario and Dr. Ho Hua Chew for facilitating this meeting.

Members of NOAH present at the session were Stephen Beng (SUF under-secretary), Howard Shaw (SEC), and Sydney Chew (Aquos Pte Ltd). NOAH members absent included William Ong (SUF consultative scientific officer), and Spencer Lewis (Aquos Pte Ltd).

The Blue Water Volunteers, WildSingapore, HantuBlog, as well as several members of NSS attended the nearly 3 hour-long dialogue that saw several concerns being raised, and questions being posed, but having all gone unanswered.

The HantuBlog met with NOAH members nearly half a year prior to hear their plans for the project. However, due to an embargo, information could not be disseminated on the Blog. I also attended the press conference, however as a member of the press. The HantuBlog and BWV were not invited nor informed of the conference (press release to be made available online soon!).

Having been in dialogue with NOAH members on significant occasions, attending their press conference, and now this session at NSS has raised several inconsistencies with regards to plans for the project, that are worth noting. I have decided to list them below.

IDENTITY: OWNERSHIP OF PROJECT NOAH

One-on-one meetings: Project NOAH is introduced as a collective effort of the SUF, SEC, and Aquos Pte Ltd.

Press conference: Project NOAH is introduced as a effort spearheaded by SUF, and supported by SEC. Aquos Pte Ltd is not mentioned.

NSS chat session: SUF says they have no involvement (read: no control or responsibility) in the project but have been approached to manage and lend voluntary capacity. SEC is introduced as a supporter of the project. Aquos Pte Ltd is not mentioned.

Consequential question: If SUF is no longer spearheading the project, first-of-all an errata should be released to the press. If neither SUF nor SEC are responsible, it is crucial that Aquos be formally introduced as Chew seems the only party to have ownership of the project, and details of his company (unlike organisations like SEC and SUF) are not heard of. Clarifying the owner of the project is important as public feedback and project representation will be difficult if possible. Already the SUF has suggested that concerns regarding the project should be addressed to the appropriate party. But which party is this? When asked by naturalist Joseph Lai who was at the NSS chat, to introduce himself and his company, Chew replied "I am in the construction business".

PLANS FOR HANTU LAGOON AND CORAL RELOCATION

One-on-one meetings: Chew describes plans to dredge Hantu lagoon and filter sediment from sea water to create a "clear-water sanctuary" that will house corals from outside of Hantu that are alleged by him to almost certainly face deterioration or destruction due to Singapore's relentless land reclamation activites. (Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan commented at a meeting with NParks that there are no forseeable reclamation plans for the next 10 years.)

Press conference: Chew describes plans to create a "natural barrier" that will house corals relocated from other sites in Singapore "ear-marked for destruction by land reclamation activities". Lewis tells the media that "Hantu has been chosen for its popularity amongst divers as well as for its familarity" however, he added that "if [the public] has any recommendations, he is open to considering other sites for the project."

NSS chat session: Shaw explains "they have no intentions to relocate coral". Shortly after which Chew adds that "after Phase 1, they may consider plans [for a clear-water sanctuary and relocating corals into the lagoon," which are in my opinion, "intentions" nonetheless.

Consequential question: It is concerning to note that such a intricate project could be open considerations of other sites. Are we even looking at Hantu then? Should we be talking about other islands/reefs? And if there are no intentions to relocate corals, why was it announced to the press? Another errata should be released. Is the plan to reloate or not? To enclose the lagoon or not? A plan as crucial as this should be decided by now if this project has taken (as described by Chew) "10 years of conception." If it is, then there are weighty issues that should be discussed before proceeding, such as the effects of the lagoon's intertidal ecosystem, the sustainability of coral relocation, the cost of building and maintaining such a facility, ownership (who pays), etc. Otherwise, let's move on to discuss other things that are more concrete, such as Phase 1: The Census...

PHASE 1: THE CENSUS

One-on-one meetings: Ong describes plans to map Hantu's reefs and inhabitats. A timeline was presented that began February 2006 for a period of 6 months. Objectives for the census were not clear.

Press conference: Lewis explains that a census of Hantu's reef is important as this will be a first (note: the NUS marine lab has been conducting census of Hantu's reef since 1986).

NSS chat session: Shaw was asked to clearly define the objectives of the census, its methods, and reasons why existing censuses were not applicable. He failed to answer the question, but referred to existing data as "fragmented."

Consequential question: This Phase 1 census is going to consume a ballpark budget of SGD100,000, and will require around 400 dives (as stated at the Press Conference). Surely NOAH members must be aware of its objectives and methods? This seems the only concete phase amongst several phases of the project, yet it cannot be defined. If volunteers are to be recruited for this program, is it not essential for them to be aware of their purpose and what their contributions are mounting to? Objectives and methods should also be clear so existing data can be shared (since the data from 1986 is not appropriate) if not sourced for to make the Phase 1 census effective. Skilled parties will also be aware of how they can effectively contribute to the census if a clear objective is described. Methods of the 1986-present census adhere to an international method and standard that allow for trends, baselines, and information to be shared across international platforms. If there is a new, more effective method, should it not be disclosed?

HANTU FOR THE COMMUNITY

One-on-one meetings: Chew explains divers will finally be able to dive in clear waters. Non-divers will also be able to appreciate the reef because now they don't have to dive to see it as clear waters allow them to observe the reef from the surface.

Press conference: Chew explains the clear water sanctuary will be for divers and non-divers alike. ONEdegree15 will facilitate transport to the island, making it accessible to everyone.

NSS chat session: Chew describes need to bring "drones of people" to Hantu.

Consequential question: What plans are underway to make Hantu more accessible and surely, affordable, for "drones of people"? Reefwalks conducted by the BWV are phenomenally popular, and free. The water isn't crystal but non-divers are able to appreciate marine life. Departing from an exclusive marina must be costly, but if there are special plans put aside, let's hear them; it could be an opportunity to work with ONEdegree15 if they are willing to contribute exclusive services to environmental groups. The public would also be eager to learn of how they can now visit Hantu. What is this method? Is "clear-water" truly the factor to amended? We've seen how from season to season, our waters clear up for amazing visibility. They are not impossible to dive. What is it we are fixing here? Does anything need fixing? Will clear-waters be the root factor to attracting drones of people to Hantu?

***

This NSS Conservation Chat saw a massive turnout, and several other questions were raised which this Blog will in time share with you. That there were several concerned parties, organisations, individuals that voiced their concerns, is reflective of the effect of such a project on our community, that they are passionate, and feel they have a place enough in it to try and influence decisions. Our community doesn't have to become involved. It already is. There are movements, projects and plans that exist, gaining critical mass. New individuals come to join these movements, contribute in whichever means they can. 2 years ago, I was just a journalist, unfamiliar with local marine conservation movements. Today, I'm a part of it. There are several ways we can contribute, and it is without doubt that we all have a responsibility. This responsibility requires decisiveness, transparency, an open-mind, passion, committment, and alot of action in all small or mighty ways. At best, it should also be nurturing, focused, and always, sustainable.

This Blog exists because you read it. I believe you read it because you are concerned. Please let your voice be heard at this crucial point in Hantu's progress.

Send an email to the relative parties stating your concerns:

Howard Shaw
Executive Director, SEC

Sydney Chew
Managing Director, Aquos Pte Ltd

Mavis Kuek
General Manager, External Affairs
Shell Eastern Petroleum (Pte) Ltd

Arthur Tay
Chairman, ONEdegree15 Marina Club

***
The NSS chat session concluded that the phases, details, methods, and other plans for Project NOAH should be made transparent and available to the public on a website. We await an update from SEC and/or SUF.

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