Much Ado About Nothing? Intricacies of the Cross-Island Line

This article was written in collaboration with Tembusu Wildlife Association (tWild), an Interest Group (IG) at Tembusu that champions for wildlife conservation.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and no shame if you have), you might have come across several news reports about the Cross-Island Line and the government’s decision to go ahead with the construction of the railway, which is done directly under the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR). Now, before we start pointing fingers, let’s first explore the situation and better understand what is at stake in the controversy behind the Cross-Island line.

Proposed in 2013, the Cross-Island Line was meant to connect Jurong and Changi via key transport hubs to improve the connectivity and reliability of our public transportation framework. Unfortunately, due to Singapore’s size, constructing such a massive railway would mean that the route has a high chance of cutting through nature reserves, which in this case is the CCNR. Home to the largest nature reserve in Singapore, the CCNR is a valuable asset to Singapore’s biodiversity scene. It even houses the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and the River Safari, places you may have visited in the past! 

As a Protected Area, cutting through the CCNR not only places our native biodiversity at risk, it sends a message about the government’s priorities – and unfortunately for nature lovers, biodiversity might not come out on top. Needless to say, this decision sparked much protest from nature and conservation groups in Singapore, which resulted in the government’s decision to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to evaluate the impacts of constructing and operating the Cross-Island Line.

After six years of consulting with various experts and stakeholders, the government has finally settled on its decision to tunnel directly across the Central Catchment area, much to the dismay of nature lovers and environmentalists. As a member of BES Drongos and an environmental studies major, I can’t deny that I feel disappointment at our government’s ultimate decision but let’s delve deeper into this before we jump to conclusions. What’s the big hoo hah anyway, you might ask? Surely, the government must have done their homework and determined that this project is safe to proceed! Well, the government did do their homework but nature isn’t always so simple.

Look at the sky above you. I’m sure almost everyone has heard of how we nearly eradicated the ozone layer and with it, the rest of humanity. Thankfully, our quick thinking saved us as the Montreal Protocol, arguably the most crucial decision humanity has ever made, was what allowed the ozone layer to recover and life as we know it to continue existing. But before we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done and praise our leaders for making the right decisions, did you know that the Montreal Protocol was a shot in the dark?

During 1987, there was no way that scientists and policymakers had sufficient evidence to conclude that banning chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) would allow the ozone layer to recover. Yet, our world’s leaders took a leap of faith and went ahead with it, saving our future and preventing catastrophe. You might think that this is some luck we’ve had but what we’ve witnessed was the application of the Precautionary Principle (PP).

Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration 1992 states that: “in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall be not used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Simply put, the PP states that in the face of uncertainty, you should always take the safer option to prevent causing any irreversible damage given the complexities of a situation.

Applying this concept to the Cross-Island Line, there is a need to revisit the certainty behind the EIA and how this can impact the native wildlife. In a position paper published by Nature Society Singapore (NSS), several key concerns regarding the construction of the line were highlighted, namely: soil stability, hydrology, slope stability, vibrations, work site conditions and other unforeseen eventualities.  

Without going into too much of the Science and Geography, the main controversy lies in how we are unable to fully predict, control or limit the damage onto nature that might result from the construction and operation of the Cross-Island Line. Even to the layman, tunnelling underneath a nature reserve seems like it could be a bad idea, right?

In light of this, do you think the government should have continued with this project? Nature conservationists argued that we should err on the safe side and stay away from the CCNR by skirting around the region (Skirting alignment), but this does not come cheap. Skirting around the region adds an additional 1.7 – 2.1 km to the line, which could add incur an additional $2 billion to the project – money that could be channelled to other uses. That was one of the main reasons why the government decided to opt for the direct alignment method in the construction of the Cross-Island Line. In a statement by LTA, it states that:

After in-depth studies of both alignment options, the Government has decided to adopt direct alignment for the stretch of the Cross Island Line in the vicinity of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR). In reaching this decision, the Government has considered various factors, including the concerns expressed by all stakeholders and the findings of the comprehensive two-phased Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

However, that’s not to say that the government has thrown our native biodiversity under the bus. In the direct alignment method, the MRT tunnel will be built 70m underground in an effort to reduce its impact on our wildlife. Doing so will reduce the likelihood of noise and vibrations affecting our native wildlife. The Cross-Island Line will also be constructed entirely in hard granite bedrock, with no surface-level construction projects to reduce the likelihood of affecting the composition and stability of the soil in the CCNR and to reduce any spill-over effect of worksites onto natural areas. Extra studies were conducted to ensure that vibrations from the tunnelling work is localised and transient, with findings that most vibrations caused by tunnel boring will not exceed ambient levels.

The LTA even commissioned an extra study by Dr Andie Ang, a primatologist by training and president of the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore) to identify the potential problems faced by the Raffles’ Banded Langur – a critically endangered species native to the CCNR – and propose solutions that will minimise the disruption to their habitats.

Raffles’ banded langur in Singapore, by Andie Ang from Wikimedia Commons.

By constructing the tunnel 70 metres underground and giving a promise of no surface-level construction, the LTA has taken many precautionary measures to ensure that the direct alignment will minimise damage to the CCNR. However, if that’s the case, you might be wondering why the skirting alignment was widely supported in the first place since it costs more money and when the direct alignment is now a cheaper and more viable alternative. If you have had that thought, you’re not alone. While you’re not getting any money by saving the rainforests, their value and importance to Singapore can’t be emphasized enough.

Rainforests such as those in the CCNR provide us with many ecosystem services. In the ecosystem services concept, it argues that the CCNR is worth conserving even in traditional economics. Monetising of these ecosystem services, a move common in research and policy making, makes it easy to see how the CCNR is worth the extra $2 billion to preserve the integrity and function of the rainforest as it provides long lasting, valuable services to society. Some of these include:

  • Provisioning Services (tangible products);
  • Cultural Services (intangibles);
  • Regulatory Services (reducing environmental change); and
  • Supporting Services (underpins all other ecosystem services)

The CCNR, being one of the last rainforests in Singapore, serves many purposes. It houses four of our nation’s reservoirs and plays a key role in controlling water quality by acting as a filter for sediments and pollutants that might threaten our water supply. This vital provisioning service alone should already be sufficient to prove the importance of the CCNR and why we should leave it untouched. Apart from the recreational and educational activities that it provides, the CCNR is home to a wide array of species that make up our local biodiversity. Some of these include the Sunda Pangolin and the Raffles Banded Langur (mentioned above). How do you place a price on guaranteeing their continued existence?

Sunda Pangolin, by Frendi Apen Irawan from Wikimedia Commons.

While some argue that the monetisation of nature disregards its intrinsic value and is a slippery slope towards the commodification of nature, let it be clear that we are only using this concept to emphasise the value of our rainforests, particularly in a society that is fixated on the bottom line.

Hence this also begs the question: Are citizens prepared to support, through their taxes, the extra costs that comes from the construction of a longer railway? Are we able to accept longer travelling times in order to preserve nature?

In this scenario, with much controversy over the potential impacts of the Cross-Island Line and its accompanying uncertainties and complexities, is such a risk worth taking? Given that an alternative solution exists, shouldn’t the government exercise the precautionary principle wisely to eliminate any possibility of serious or irreversible damage to the environment, especially since Singapore can afford it? What would be your choice be? 

Feature and header image by Drew Tarvin from Flickr.

About the author

Willis Lau is a Year 2 Environmental Studies Major (BES) that is interested in examining the way we interact with nature and the environment. An advocate of conservation, he is a part of Tembusu Wildlife Association (tWild) and BES Drongos and hopes to use writing to influence the way we look at the environment and issues around us.