Will Singapore Sink? Examining Threats and Responses to the Nation’s Long-Term Viability

Goh Jun Cheng

The proverbial question “Will Singapore sink?” conveys concerns over the long-term sustainability of the low-lying island nation. Some envision an existential threat from rising sea levels engulfing the country.

However, the reality is more complex. While Singapore faces geographical vulnerabilities as a small maritime state, it has also demonstrated robust resilience. In this article, I examine the multi-faceted challenges shaping Singapore’s future viability and its strategy to overcome them.

Ultimately, Singapore is poised not to sink, but to swim – with ingenious urban systems to thrive amidst environmental shifts.

The Looming Threat of Rising Seas

The most direct threat to Singapore’s national longevity comes from rising sea levels triggered by climate change. Its maximum elevation is only 64 metres, with 40% of the island under 15 metres.

As a tropical island, Singapore already experiences monsoon flooding annually. Sea level rise will exacerbate such inundation. By 2050, Singapore projects a mean sea level rise of 0.25 metres, and 0.76 metres by 2100.

This will permanently submerge many coastal regions, potentially including assets like Changi Airport. Singapore’s very existence could be jeopardised if levels exceed 2 metres. While relocation options like floating infrastructure have been considered, total loss of the island remains an alarming possibility.

Industrialisation Choking the Waters

Beyond climate impacts, Singapore also faces threats to its surrounding waters which are existential for trade and resource needs. Decades of extensive land reclamation have already diminished its natural shores. But more concerning is toxic pollution.

Singapore’s past industrialisation poured chemicals and trash into coastal waters. While controls today are stricter, Singapore’s waters still receive cross-border waste from neighbouring regions with laxer standards. These toxins damage marine ecosystems by creating algal blooms and dead zones lacking oxygen.

With fisheries and aquaculture at risk, Singapore must prevent its waters from being choked into extinction.

Over-Stressed Water Resources

Providing adequate drinking water is a third geographical challenge for Singapore. It lacks natural aquifers and faces scarce rainfall. Four ‘National Taps’ meet its water needs: imported water, catchment water, NEWater reclamation and desalination.

But climate change threatens to destabilise cross-border water agreements while also shrinking local rainfall. Rising consumption adds pressure, almost doubling demand over the past 40 years.

While Singapore is lauded for its exemplary water recycling systems, long-term sustainability requires curbing excessive usage. Pricing reforms must balance affordable access for all while disincentivising overuse.

Energy Insecurity Fuelled by Growth

Singapore also relies heavily on imported fossil fuels, leaving it vulnerable to global oil shocks. With limited renewable energy options as a dense high-rise city, Singapore remains 95% dependent on piped natural gas for electricity.

Diversifying its energy sources will prove difficult without more regional cooperation. Meanwhile, surging energy consumption from economic and population growth inflates Singapore’s carbon footprint.

Finding green solutions that balance development and sustainability will be critical to its energy security. Regional energy grids, nuclear power, and domestic solar energy are among options being explored.

Unbridled Urbanisation Feeding Sprawl

Although just 710 square kilometres in size, Singapore adopts development approaches of boundless urban sprawl. The ideal of landed property also spurs urban creep into surrounding wilderness areas. But unrestrained construction encroaches on mangrove, nature and agricultural land.

An ecocentric smart growth model emphasising quality over quantity and integrating green spaces is essential to control urbanisation. Singapore must tread cautiously to avoid trampling its ecological foundations.

Diminishing Social Cohesion from Inequality

Beyond geographical constraints, Singapore also faces the hurdle of maintaining social cohesion as inequalities widen. Among developed countries, Singapore suffers one of the largest rich-poor divides. Billionaire numbers are soaring, but elderly cardboard collectors are also increasingly visible.

Stark public housing stratification pits the aspirational against the poor. Xenophobia towards immigrants raise tensions. Such polarisation threatens the social compact essential for survival as an ethnically diverse country. Singapore must nurture a spirit of egalitarianism and empathy between groups and classes to stay united.

Ageing Population and Declining Birth Rates

Singapore’s rapidly ageing populace and low fertility rates create a demographic timebomb. With the world’s average life expectancy rising, one in six citizens will be seniors by 2030. This raises old-age social security demands.

But Singapore’s low birth rates of only 1.05 children per woman imply a shrinking local workforce. Ageing and low reproduction will dent Singapore’s competitive advantage.Boosting marriage, parenthood incentives and immigration helps temporarily but not sustainably. Enabling active ageing and equal gender partnership is vital for demographic resilience.

Strategic Alignment with Sustainability Goals

Facing these daunting existential risks, Singapore has articulated a long-term blueprint for survival. Its ‘Sustainable Singapore Blueprint’ outlines mitigation and adaptation policies across water, energy, waste, nature and transport for a greener future.

Goals include cutting emissions by 36%, raising public transport modal split to 75%, and recycling 70% of trash by 2030. To track progress, Singapore introduced a national carbon tax and sustainable development indicators. But critics argue its growth-first approach still eclipses environmental aims.

Engineering Innovative Water Systems

Perhaps Singapore’s greatest sustainability feat isfashioning an exemplary urban water cycle that is climate-resilient. Its integrated water management synergises catchment, treatment, recycling and desalination processes. Water loops circulate used water between industries.

Major drainage improvements reduced flood-prone areas. Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters programmes rejuvenate rivers and reservoirs into scenic blue-green corridors. With these innovative water systems, Singapore aims to become water self-sufficient by 2061 despite uncertain climate disruptions.

Expanding Solar Energy

To secure stable energy supply, Singapore also ambitiously ventured into solar power. After long shunning solar due to land constraints, it overcame this with novel off-shore floating panel farms. Today 1.5% of its energy comes from the sun, but the Sun Initiative targets at least 2 gigawatt-peak solar capacity by 2030.

Solar panels integrated into building facades through research at the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS) will exponentially expand solar infrastructure despite limited rooftops. With further upgrades to its power grid, Singapore is illuminating an eco-friendly energy future.

Turning Trash into Treasure

Waste management is another sustainability gap Singapore is working to plug. It generates 1.76 million tonnes of rubbish annually, with only 35% recycled currently. Under the Zero Waste Masterplan, Singapore targets raising its recycling rate to 70% by 2030.

It is exploring new waste streams like e-waste and food waste. Smart bins track waste disposal patterns. Incineration plants convert trash into energy. By maximising value recovery from discards while reducing waste volumes, Singapore aims to eliminate the need for landfills.

Building up the Biophilic City in Nature

Expanding green spaces is also prioritised as Singapore gears up to be a biophilic city immersed in nature. Its City in Nature vision aims to enhanced naturalness across the urban landscape. Parks, rooftop greenery, vertical forests and more connect citizens to biodiversity. Nature-based climate mitigation initiatives like mangrove restoration also aid carbon sequestration.

However, nature efforts will need to accelerate from the current 8% green cover to the target of 50% greening by 2050. More bold re-wilding of urban spaces can root Singapore in the ecology that sustains it.

Strengthening Social Security Nets

On the social front, Singapore seeks to uplift citizens at risk through expanded welfare programmes like Workfare Income Supplements, Medifund medical subsidies and rental housing grants. Its social security roadmap aims to provide comprehensive support from health to home for the disadvantaged.

Though still modest compared to Nordic-style welfare states, such investments in human and social capital aim to reduce inequality and nurture stronger communal bonds. This fosters the kampung spirit of collective social responsibility Singapore needs to survive trying times.

Conclusion: Singapore Must Sustain Both Nature and Society to Endure

Singapore’s viability faces multiple jeopardies from climate change, demographics, energy, inequality and uncontrolled urbanisation. However, it is responding systematically to these long-term threats through strategies focused on sustainability, technology innovation and social development.

Pragmatic policies to secure renewable supplies of water and energy address geographical constraints. Engineering breakthroughs expand liveability in dense urban quarters. Building up social capital and welfare tackle demographic stresses. Synthesis between all three pillars of environment, economy and society is Singapore’s recipe for lasting national resilience.

Therefore, by safeguarding both its natural and human habitat, Singapore stands poised not to sink but to swim sturdily far into its third century and beyond.

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