Category Archives: Energy, Resources, Environment

Water Woes and Forward Thinking

SIngapore’s thirst 

February was Singapore’s driest month – the longest since 1869. Till date, no rain in sight. Here’s a sobering reminder that if we hadn’t carved out our own future in terms of securing water supplies, a water pact with Malaysia would have expired this week.

Singapore endures driest month since 1869

A water pact with Malaysia upon which Singapore used to depend expired this week. Its end was marked by a cordial handover of a water catchment area in Johor and treatment facilities – a powerful testament of Singapore’s progress towards greater self-sufficiency in water. Insight tells the story of that quest.
Elgin Toh Straits Times 3 Sep 11;A SIMPLE turn of the tap did not guarantee water if you happened to be in Singapore on April 24, 1963.
It was the first day of a water rationing exercise that would last 10 months. An unusually dry spell both in Singapore and in the Tebrau River area in Johor – a primary water source for the island – caused water stocks to plunge dramatically, leaving the authorities with little choice but to impose restrictions.

For four days a week, depending on which area you lived in, you were either deprived of water between 8am and 2pm or between 2pm and 8pm.

People who did not ordinarily read the newspapers or listen to the radio suddenly found themselves having to scan headlines or turn knobs at least once a week – to stay informed about rationing schedules.Those who forgot to store water in pails at home during the allocated timings had to stand in queues to use public taps.

The cost of food went up.

A government advisory that called for the washing of cars and watering of gardens to be ‘kept to a minimum’ clearly did not stop some. A forum letter in The Straits Times on May 3 had one reader wondering ‘why the gentleman living opposite me still finds it necessary to water his lawn non-stop for 14 minutes’ a day.

Eerily, the spying on neighbours went further than that.

Another letter on May 17 read: ‘At a time when the state is facing an acute water shortage, is it proper for a person to bathe three times a day? That is exactly what my neighbour and his six children are doing every day of the week.’

Eventually, the rain returned and the reservoirs filled up. Curbs were finally lifted on Feb 28, 1964 – ironically, on a day when heavy rainfall caused an 11-year- old boy to drown.

Singaporeans who lived through that angsty period learnt a lesson they never forgot: that water, or the lack thereof, was a major source of weakness for the island-state.

This week, a no less momentous milestone in Singapore’s aquatic history was crossed, but with far less public interest. A 50-year water agreement signed in 1961 – one of just two between Singapore and Malaysia – drew to a close.

As a result, a catchment area in Johor more than five times the size of Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve ceased to serve Singapore’s water needs, but with nary an eyebrow raised.

Public indifference, however, can be seen in a positive light. It is arguably a testament to Singapore’s success in overcoming its water vulnerabilities. Continue reading


Singapore through Headlines (And some Arctic Ice)

Interesting read from Remembering Singapore    – while the headlines were largely dominated by some sensational murders (I recall my mother being terrified of me talking the public bus home in the late 80s and early 90s), some give us a sense of our tenuous, checkered history and the palpable threat against our nation in its earlier days.

Here’s another event that seems to have missed the headlines from last year (by-election loss, population white paper, corruption trials, haze, little india riot) –

Polar politics and the melting Arctic

A comparison between use of the North East Route (blue) and an alternative route through the Suez Canal and Singapore (red)

Polar Politics – TODAY Online

Singapore’s recent accession to the Arctic Council as an observer has, understandably, raised eyebrows, given how it is more familiar with monsoons than frost. That said, there is good reason why this city-state at the Equator is casting its eyes so far northwards.

The Republic was one of six countries — the others being China, India, Japan, South Korea and Italy — whose applications for permanent observer status were accepted on May 15, at the annual ministerial meeting in Sweden of the Arctic Council — comprising Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland.

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and melting of the glacial ice has accelerated over the last decade through natural variation, greenhouse gas emissions and other human-induced changes.

According to scientists, the vast majority of ice in the Arctic today is “first-year” ice. The long-term implications of these environmental changes for Singapore, whose highest point is the 163m Bukit Timah Hill, cannot be over-emphasised.


How oreos work like cocaine

Now you know why you can’t stop!

Research made national news this week that the cookies are more addictive than psychoactive drugs. That claim may be exaggerated, but the neuroscience of junk food addiction is nonetheless fascinating and relevant—mentally, physically, and socially.
OCT 17 2013
Joseph Schroeder and student Lauren Cameron, in Schroeder’s lab (Bob MacDonnell/Connecticut College)

“Nothing gets me high as that sandwich cookie does. But I love the filling most. I rub it on my roast, mix it in with my coffee, and spread it on my toast. I love the white stuff, baby. In the middle of an Oreo.”

—Al Yankovic, “The White Stuff,” 1992


The rat stands in a plastic maze. At the end are two rooms, each decorated in its own unmistakably unique, gaudy fashion. The rat knows them both. Inside one room, he has received injections of morphine or cocaine. In the other, he’s gotten injections of a saline placebo. The rat has learned to prefer the drug room.

He even chooses to lounge in the drug room after the injection supplies have dried up. It’s kind of like how you might hang out in the parking lot outside of an old high school, remembering the glory days; or at the apartment of an ex-lover, befriending the new tenants. Your ex-lover is dead, but it still feels good.

This is a paradigm called conditioned place preference. It’s a standard behavioral model used to study the Pavlovian rewarding and aversive effects of drugs. Dr. Joseph Schroeder’s rats are not pioneers.

Schroeder is an associate professor of psychology and director of the behavioral neuroscience program at Connecticut College. Last year, Jamie Honohan was a senior student researcher in Schroeder’s lab and scholar in the college’s Holleran Center, which focuses on social justice issues, public policy, and community action. Honohan was interested in the obesity epidemic—specifically, why there is more obesity in urban, low-socioeconomic-status populations, and the role of a lack of nutritious food.

So Honohan came to Schroeder with an idea for some research based on the rat conditioning model. What’s a thing that both rats and humans like? Sewers, tunneling, hammocks, … Oreos. That’s it. Oreos are also cheap calories, widely available, and contribute to the obesity epidemic. Would feeding Oreos to the rats in this model have the same conditioning effect as giving them drugs?  Continue reading

The Middle Class Goes Global

Published on Feb 24, 2012

PARIS – In the twentieth century, the American dream of a middle-class life inspired the world. Now, in the twenty-first, we are moving at high speed toward a world based on a new geography of growth, with millions of people in the east and the south moving out of extreme poverty to become potentially powerful middle-class consumers. Whether the dreams of this new global middle-class are realised or turn into a nightmare depends on several factors.

In today’s shifting world, with GDP in roughly 80 developing economies rising at twice the rate of per capita growth in the OECD, the club of the world’s richest countries, middle-class citizens paradoxically complain and protest regardless of whether fortunes improve or decline. Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan minister of trade and industry, even warns of a possible ’emerging global war of the middle-classes.’

While anger over pay cuts and unemployment make sense, it is harder to understand the current protests in fast-growing countries like Thailand and Chile, where standards of living are improving. What is going on?

High growth in Asian and southern countries has meant greater export earnings and rents from natural resources. Unfortunately, this blessing can turn into a curse. In China, former Communist leader Deng Xiaoping’s vision – ‘let some people get rich first’ – has led to impressive economic growth and poverty reduction; but it has also undermined the self-proclaimed ‘harmonious society,’ as recent protests and labor conflicts indicate.

Indeed, it is telling that, in the spring of 2011, Beijing’s municipal authorities banned all outdoor luxury-goods advertisements on the grounds that they might contribute to a ‘politically unhealthy environment.’

Rising inequality, lack of civic participation, political apathy, and a dearth of good jobs, particularly for the young, comprise the Achilles heel of emerging-market countries’ current development model. A Gallup poll on subjective well-being in Tunisia and Thailand shows that, while income levels and social conditions in both countries improved between 2006 and 2010, life satisfaction dropped.

Homi Kharas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, defines today’s global middle class as households with daily expenditures of US$10-100 per person (at purchasing power parity). This represents approximately two billion people, split almost evenly between developed and emerging economies. In its Perspectives on Global Development 2012 – Social Cohesion in a Shifting World, the OECD forecasts that, by 2030, the global middle class could total 4.9 billion. Of these, 3.2-3.9 billion will probably live in emerging economies, representing 65-80 per cent of the global population.

These people will demand more and better services, a fairer division of growth’s benefits, and more responsive political institutions. The current wave of protests could be just the beginning of this trend.

So, what should be done? Continue reading

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2011 AQ – parks and green spaces

The AQ is often problematic, not because students cannot evaluate (providing insight – the so what? factor) but because they have no fact base from which to build their claims.

Honestly, there is a difference between extrapolating your evaluation from an authentic knowledge base and generalised ‘fake’ knowledge base – one which rehashes the characteristics of Singapore (small, urban, highly stressed, fast paced)

1. Complete the AQ with any 3 evaluated points (2 in support, 1 as balance). Download AQ – Generalising from factual knowledge:

2. Write a conclusion that sums up your sentiments.

3. Email me the assignment:

You should use the “What will home in 2030 look like” article as one form of knowledge base, others include google-able search terms like:

Singapore Nature Society, green corridor, Nparks, Singapore Green Plan 2012, Park Connector network, Art and Heritage Parks, waterways/riverine parks, names of nature reserves, activities that take place- Shakespeare in the Park, Ballet under the stars, concerts, community events in parks, neighbourhood parks, eco-havens, retail and commercial use of areas like Gardens by the Bay, central catchment zones etc etc

Energy Independence in an Interdependent World

Philip Verleger, a respected energy analyst, argues that, by 2023 , the US will be energy independent in the sense that it will export more energy than it imports. — ST ILLUSTRATION: LEE CHEE CHEW and KAILI LIM

CAMBRIDGE – When President Richard Nixon proclaimed in the early 1970’s that he wanted to secure national energy independence, the United States imported a quarter of its oil. By the decade’s end, after an Arab oil embargo and the Iranian Revolution, domestic production was in decline, Americans were importing half their petroleum needs at 15 times the price, and it was widely believed that the country was running out of natural gas.

Energy shocks contributed to a lethal combination of stagnant economic growth and inflation, and every US president since Nixon likewise has proclaimed energy independence as a goal. But few people took those promises seriously.

Today, energy experts no longer scoff. By the end of this decade, according to the US Energy Information Administration, nearly half of the crude oil that America consumes will be produced at home, while 82 per cent will come from the US side of the Atlantic. Philip Verleger, a respected energy analyst, argues that, by 2023, the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s ‘Project Independence,’ the US will be energy independent in the sense that it will export more energy than it imports.

Verleger argues that energy independence ‘could make this the New American Century by creating an economic environment where the United States enjoys access to energy supplies at much lower cost than other parts of the world.’ Already, Europeans and Asians pay 4-6 times more for their natural gas than Americans do. Continue reading

Inquiry Declares Fukushima Crisis a Man-Made Disaster

International Herald Tribune/NYT Global Edition, 7 Jul 2012

TOKYO — The nuclear accident at Fukushima was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture, a parliamentary inquiry concluded Thursday.

The report, released by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, challenged some of the main story lines that the government and the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant have put forward. Most notably, the report said the plant’s crucial cooling systems might have been damaged in the earthquake on March 11, 2011, not only in the ensuing tsunami. That possibility raises doubts about the safety of all the quake-prone country’s nuclear plants just as they begin to restart after a pause ordered in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

“It was a profoundly man-made disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented,” said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the commission’s chairman, in the report’s introduction. “And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

While assigning widespread blame, the report avoids calling for the censure of specific executives or officials. Some citizens’ groups have demanded that executives of the plant’s operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, be investigated on charges of criminal negligence, a move that Dr. Kurokawa said Thursday was out of his panel’s purview. But criminal prosecution “is a matter for others to pursue,” he said at a news conference after the report’s release.

The very existence of an independent investigating commission — which avoids reliance on self-examination by bureaucracies that might be clouded by self-defense — is a break with precedent in Japan, but follows the pattern followed in the United States after major failures involving combinations of private companies, government oversight and technology issues. Those cases, which were cited by the panel, include the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, the Columbia and Challenger space shuttle disasters in 1986 and 2003 and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The 641-page report criticized Tepco as being too quick to dismiss earthquake damage as a cause of the fuel meltdowns at three of the plant’s six reactors, which overheated when the site lost power. Tepco has contended that the plant withstood the earthquake that rocked eastern Japan, instead placing blame for the disaster on what some experts have called a “once in a millennium” tsunami that followed. Such a rare calamity was beyond the scope of contingency planning, Tepco executives have suggested, and was unlikely to pose a threat to Japan’s other nuclear reactors in the foreseeable future.

The parliamentary report, based on more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people, suggests that Reactor No. 1, in particular, might have suffered earthquake damage, including the possibility that pipes burst from the shaking, leading to a loss of coolant even before the tsunami hit the plant about 30 minutes after the initial earthquake. It emphasized that a full assessment would require better access to the inner workings of the reactors, which may not be possible for years.

“However,” the report said, “it is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami),” the report continued, adding, “and not on the more foreseeable quake.” Continue reading

Criticism against UN’S Rio+20 Summit as “unsustainable nonsense”

Activists pushing an inflatable globe during a ‘Global March’ as part of the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice in Defence of the Commons, a parallel event during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Brazil this week. — PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

IF GEORGE Orwell were alive today, he would be irritated, and then shocked, by the cynical way in which every lobby with an axe to grind and money to burn has hitched its wagon to the alluring phrase ‘sustainable development’. In fact, the UN’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development is about pet projects of all and sundry – many of them tangential to the major environmental issues, such as climate change, that were the principal legacy of the original Rio Earth Summit.

Thus, the International Labour Organisation and trade union lobbies have managed to insert ‘Decent Jobs’ into the seven priority areas at the Rio conference. I would love for everyone, everywhere, to have a decent job. But what does that have to do with either the environment or ‘sustainability’?

No one should pretend that we can magically offer decent jobs to the huge numbers of impoverished but aspiring workers in the informal sector. Such jobs can only be created by adopting appropriate economic policies. Indeed, the really pressing task facing many developing economies is to pursue policies that promote economic opportunities by accelerating growth

The flavour of the week in Rio is ‘sustainability indexing’ for corporations, by way of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Such indexing is being compared to accounting standards. But the latter are ‘technical’ and gain from standardisation while the former are not and must reflect variety instead.

Corporations can, of course, be asked to conform to a ‘don’t’ list – don’t dump mercury into rivers, don’t employ children for hazardous tasks, etc. But what they practise as ‘do’s’ by way of altruism is surely a matter of what they consider virtuous to spend their money on.

The notion that a self-appointed set of activists, in conjunction with some governments and international agencies, can determine what a corporation should do by way of CSR contradicts the liberal notion that we should ask for virtue to be pursued, but not in a particular way. At a time when the world is emphasising the importance of diversity and tolerance, it is effrontery to suggest that corporations should standardise their notion of how they wish to promote good in the world. Continue reading

Bioengineering people to fight global warming: Been there, done that.

A dense urban scene.

The cultural shift to sedentary farming, which lead to urbanization would not have been possible without biological change
Scott Olson/Getty Images.

John Hawks, Slate, Mar 16 2012

Matthew Liao, Rebecca Roache, and Anders Sandberg are philosophers with a modest proposal on climate change: Let’s bioengineer future children for sustainability. We need to reduce carbon emissions, so let’s make people smaller, eat less meat. We need to share sacrifices and work together, so let’s alter our progeny to be more cooperative. It’s not exactly Gattaca; it’s more like Jonathan Swift meets Craig Venter. As Sandburg later hinted to the Guardian, the new white paper might be seen as academic trolling—lobbing a verbal bomb and waiting for the explosion.

Bioengineer people to protect the climate? As an anthropologist, I had a less dramatic reaction. Been there, done that.

You see, there already was a world where people bioengineered their children to stave off global climate catastrophe. You probably don’t know it, but you’re one of their offspring.

The last warming trend—the one that created the race of mutants we are today—happened 10,000 years ago, as a result of the Earth’s natural orbit cycles. Our planet rounds the Sun not in a perfect circle but a slightly squashed one. Plus, it spins all wobbly like a top. The combined squashing and wobbling make for a 100,000-year-long carnival ride that plunges the Earth into long Ice Ages interrupted by short windows of warmth.

For most of our existence, humans have reacted to the climate roller coaster by enjoying the good weather while it’s around and otherwise hiding in the warm tropics. When the climate warmed by several degrees around 8,000 B.C., it must have seemed at first like a wonderful dream. The glaciers melted. The human population grew and grew. There were more people than ever before, using a broader range of resources and eating a broader range of foods, and they invented beautiful and complex cultures.

That’s when these people of the early Holocene did something truly bizarre. They reacted to all this climate change by engineering a new, more sustainable ecology. And they began to foster mutant children who would flourish in an alternate, globally warmed future.

It’s in all the history books. Well, the prehistory books, anyway. You’ve no doubt heard about the birth of agriculture, the dawn of cities, the growth of early civilization. In the years since the Human Genome Project, though, we’ve begun to uncover the massive genetic changes that accompanied these historical events. And many of these natural shifts in the genome correspond to the very modifications that Liao, Sandberg, and Roache would have us insert into our DNA via artificial means.

Consider the philosophers’ first suggestion about how we might bioengineer humanity to cut back on greenhouse emissions. Since meat production belches carbon dioxide and methane, they suggest that the future human race should have a built-in genetic aversion to meat.

Well, that’s nothing compared to what Holocene people accomplished. In Ice Age Europe, 50,000 or so Neandertals subsisted on a diet that was at least 80 percent meat. Most of that came from large mammals like bison, elk, horse, and mammoth. Modern humans later ate the same foods, helping to drive the mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, aurochs, and many other prey animals to extinction.

But hunting big animals to extinction was not the only option. People in Mesopotamia, China, Mexico, and other places invented a new ecology, depending on more sustainable rabbits, birds, and shellfish. They collected grains so intensively that the grasses began to rely on us to disperse and plant them.

These were the first farmers, staying in one place to plant and harvest. Some groups began to domesticate animals and then to milk them. Switching from hunting to a sedentary farming lifestyle generated more calories with fewer carbon emissions, because milk is much more efficient than meat. They weren’t worried about atmospheric greenhouse gases, of course, but their new lifestyle allowed for a more efficient use of Earth’s natural resources.

What do these lifestyle changes have to do with genetic engineering? They wouldn’t have been possible without modifications to human biology. Prehistoric children naturally lost the ability to digest lactose, or milk sugar, as they got older. So in order to create a culture of dairying, which allows for a reduction in meat intake, our ancestors had to undergo some kind of genetic mutation—one that allowed them to consume lactose throughout their lives. We’ve now identified five versions of this shift in the human genome. That means there were five milky X-Men born less than 10,000 years ago, and who today have hundreds of millions of descendants around the world. Continue reading

Still pushing for nuclear in Japan

Japan’s public is squarely against going back to nuclear power. So why is the government pushing so hard to get the country’s nuclear plants back online?

By Nobuo Fukuda, Foreign Policy, Mar 9 2012

One year after the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011, the country looks to be once again back on track as a longtime supporter of nuclear power. Backed by Japan’s mighty power companies, the government seems eager to restart the dozens of nuclear reactors across the country that it has kept shuttered in the wake of the crisis. In December, nine months after the disaster, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared an end to the nuclear crisis, announcing that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s damaged reactors had been cooled down and stabilized. In February, Japan’s nuclear regulators publicly assured the country that two reactors at the Ohi nuclear power plant in Fukui, on Japan’s western coast, could survive a combined earthquake and tsunami as large as the one that caused more than 20,000 deaths in northeast Japan in March of last year. And the government even went so far as to get the international seal of approval: The United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, sent in experts in late January who supported this assessment, as the Japanese regulators had expected. Now Noda is planning to visit Fukui to persuade the prefectural governor and other heads of local communities who have expressed concern about the safety of nuclear power to agree to have the reactors run again before the peak energy-intensive summer months.

But is this the path for recovery that the Japanese people want? Apparently not. In a survey conducted in June of last year, 74 percent of respondents said that Japan should phase out nuclear power with an eventual goal of abandoning it.

The picture on the ground is still grim. Due to high levels of radiation around Fukushima, about 100,000 residents have been forced to evacuate, tearing apart families and communities in what was once a close-knit, largely rural area. Even outside the forced evacuation zone, which extends a 20-kilometer radius from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, residents were ordered to vacate their communities.

Farmers who chose to stay — despite contamination — stack crops and hay on their land in vain, knowing they can neither sell nor destroy their produce because the government prohibits both trade and disposal. Continue reading