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Sustainability Lesson from Singapore in Preventing Floods

One of the most common problems shared with many countries in the tropical region is flooding. Come the monsoon season, many urban dwellers in the flood-prone regions anxiously await for the unwanted annual occurrence, flooding.  It is the biggest headache-causing event, and in the face of rapid urbanization , problem like this will only be worsened if no proper planning and holistic approach are being implemented.

Singapore, arguably the most developed city in Southeast Asian region, is not completely exempted of flooding. An embarrassingly rather serious flooding that took place in the heart of the swankiest shopping district of the island, Orchard road, took many Singaporeans by surprise. The pictures of half-submerged luxury brand outlets in the area captured by onlookers circulated throughout many social media platforms. The pictures generated smirk from neighboring countries whose politicians and urban authorities not so discreetly patted themselves in the shoulders consoling themselves with the fact that even Singapore has flooding problem too. Constantly criticized by public due to their incapabilities of solving persistent flooding,  in the wake of Singapore's flood, they quickly stated  their well-rehearsed rhetoric that flooding is in fact a result of global warming and has very little to do with human errors.

While flooding can be a result of natural weather events such as heavy rainfall, prolonged rainfall, thunderstorm or high tide, flooding is often a result of many human-related factors. Lack of maintenance of sewer networks, drainage networks, and watercourses can result in flooding. Lack of proper urban planning in the face of rapid building in urban areas can lead to inappropriate development of flood plains; badly channeled rainwater runoff; or a poor flood defence system, all of which can also result in flooding.

Natural river returns (image by D.Tunas for GAF)

Natural river returns (image by D.Tunas for GAF)

The latest edition in the ever-changing Singapore's urban landscape, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park should be applauded as a showcase of sustainably inclined creative way to tackle flooding problem. After undergoing nearly three years of upgrades, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park was opened last year in 2012. Designed by Atelier Dreitseitl, the project basically transformed a 2.7km long concrete drainage channel to become a 3km long meandering natural river which function as flood plains. The project is a part of ABC Waters which stands for Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters, a programme of the Public Utilities board in Singapore, which manages the country's water supply and drainage – a long-term initiative to transform the country's water bodies beyond their functions of drainage and water supply, into vibrant, new spaces for community bonding and recreation.

Image by D.Tunas for GAF

Image by D.Tunas for GAF

The concrete drainage channel used to be once a part of 10km long Kallang River that runs from Lower Peirce Reservoir toward Marina Reservoir. It was converted into a stretch of concrete drainage channel to alleviate flooding problem around 60's and 70's. In 2009, it was decided that the drainage channel needed an improvement to increase its capacity and the public open space that ran along its banks needed to be upgraded. In the course of creating a natural river, not only do the planners tackle the flooding issue, they are bringing back a natural ecosystem and boosting community spirits along the water way. The concrete drainage use to be an element that separated several housing estates that are located along the channel, in its place the river becomes a unifying element. Along the river a sixty-two hectares park space has been redesigned to accommodate various kind of recreational activities. People comes to river side to do jogging, brisk walking, playing football, flying kites, cycling or even to wind down while watching sun goes down. Families come with their little children to splash around in the water playground whose water is fed from a nearby rainwater runoff filtration pond where  anti-bacterial filtration system is in placed.

As in the case of natural river, the river takes on a dynamic process. At some points, the river takes form as a trickling shallow creek that people can get to the other side by walking through stepping stones. At other point to river runs deep and wider. The volume of the river water is ever-changing, it is calm during drier days and it is gushing during rainy days.  True to Singapore's style, the seemingly natural element for the uninformed, is well monitored and regulated. A sophisticated safety measure is in placed complete with river monitoring, warning system with water level sensors, warning lights, sirens and audio announcement to  inform people when not to go near the water. Numerous life buoys, warning signs and red markers are placed along the river together with CCTV's and 24-hours patrol surveillance. In a recent presentation during a conference that took place in NUS, Mr. Leonard Ng from Atelier Dreitseitl said that such measure is important after all, along with all modern progress people seems to be losing touch with nature and need to be reeducate on how to behave near nature.

Bishan -Ang Mo Kio Park sets a new benchmark in flooding prevention efforts, it is a sophisticated showcase of a holistic approach where several issues can be tackled at the same time. With a new river, a new way of community bonding is created and natural ecosystem is back. This is a truly sustainable way, ecologically and socially speaking to solve flooding problem.

By: Devisanthi Tunas

(The project won a landscape prize category in 2012 World Architecture Festival)