By JUDY GOH, National University of Singapore student, major in Environmental Studies, member of BES Drongos

Feb 26, 2016

Recently, I’ve seen Facebook posts about the Cross Island Line from those outside of my usual echo chamber of environmentally-conscious, nature-loving friends. They and others are talking about the impact of building an MRT line through a forest in our “City in a Garden”. Some are recognising the irony of this conflict.

This discussion is not new. The Cross Island MRT Line, to link the residential district in the north-east to the industrial hub in the west of Singapore by passing through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, was first announced two years ago as part of the 2013 Population White Paper.

Then, there was a lively conversation — a petition from a concerned individual made its rounds, the issue was discussed at the Singapore Future Sustainability Symposium, and nature groups that were conducting public walks in the MacRitchie nature reserve incorporated the topic in their trails. The Nature Society Singapore proposed an alternate route in a position paper submitted to the government. But within a few months, the conversation died down.

What’s new?

On 5 February, the Land Transport Authority released an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that assessed the potential effects of site investigation works for the Cross Island Line. It found that even if the works were carried out in the nature reserve with mitigating measures and controlled access, there would be “moderate” impact on the reserve’s ecology and biodiversity, surface and groundwater resources and ambient noise levels.

Environmental groups and journalists say that implementing mitigating measures and controlled access to reduce impact would be challenging. They add that the EIA is designed to focus on environmental impact without covering other pertinent questions. For instance, is there is a need to go through a section of primary and secondary forest, which is rich in biodiversity and natural heritage? And does it makes sense for 4km of the 50km MRT line to pass through an unpopulated area, rather thanskirting round the nature reserve to serve residents who live on its southern edges in Thomson, Lornie and Adam roads?

Those who have written to the Forum section of our newspapers have weighed in on how this debate shows the challenge inbalancing the agendas of preservation and conservation with development. One writer says building the MRT line across the forest could give the young a “warped idea of what Singapore’s priorities are”. Another calls for pragmatism in the face of land scarcity in Singapore.

What we know from the EIA

  1. This is the first time such a report has been released online. The report was originally available for viewing only at the Land Transport Authority’s office by appointment. On 19 February, in response to public interest in the report, the LTA released the EIA report online, the first time that the government has done so. This move sets a precedent for public scrutiny and public engagement to be part of the process in Singapore’s future development plans.
  2. The report has seven chapters and is over 1,000 pages. This makes it as dense as it is comprehensive. It is also difficult reading for those without engineering or environmental science backgrounds. Green groups and the media have tried tomake sense of some of it for readers.
  3. In short, there are two options:

Option 1 looks at constructing the underground Cross-Island Line through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, and presents particular concerns on the risks and impacts of site investigation works. It recommends an Environmental Mitigation and Monitoring Programme to reduce almost all impacts to acceptable levels of “minor to moderate” or “negligible”. However, there still remains the possibility of accidental events. Uncontrolled site runoff, spills from construction fluids, road-kill and damage to vegetation from vehicle movement could all occur.

Option 2 looks at building the line to bypass the reserve altogether, by skirting around it. This alternative is said to have “negligible” impacts on most aspects studied, except for a “moderate” impact of annoyance to humans due to elevated noise levels from drilling works. (This same impact is also present in Option 1).

According to the report, the LTA will determine if further studies into the Central Catchment Nature Reserve are needed. Notably, this is the first phase of the EIA, ahead of another EIA study later this year that will assess the impact of the construction and operation of underground train tunnels.

Screenshot at Feb 26 11-31-38
Photo from

Caption: Option 1 (Green): 1.8km route cuts across MacRitchie/CCNR from the Singapore Island Country Club (SICC) to the Pan Island Expressway (PIE)

Option 2 (Blue): 9km route skirts around it MacRitchie/CCNR from the southeast of SICC, beneath to Lornie Road and parallel to the PIE

What the EIA doesn’t tell us

What the EIA report doesn’t cover in terms of environmental issues central to the ongoing debate include:

1) The Central Catchment Nature Reserve is the largest nature reserve in Singapore. While it is gazetted by law, it has not been accorded blanket protection.

2) The biodiversity and habitats found in MacRitchie are unparalleled and scarce. Flora and fauna species like the Sunda leaf fish (Nandus nebulosus) and Malayan slit-faced bat (Nycteris tragata) are already locally endangered and cannot be found elsewhere, while the high urban cover of Singapore has reduced primary and secondary forests to these few remaining patches in our nature reserves.

3) Forest fragmentation could occur as a result of the construction, reducing the genetic viability of species.

What’s the cost-benefit analysis?

The Land Transport Authority places the costs of picking Option 2, the route that skirts around the reserve, at an additional $2 billion. This will go to the costs of construction of the longer tunnel and extra ventilation facilities, and land and home acquisitions for this route.

It is not known whether other costs are included in this number. For instance, the social costs of increased travel time for commuters, or the cost of including an additional train station along this route to boost connectivity. Residents who live in the area affected by Option 2 route remain divided — some are worried about having the disruptions that will come with construction of the line. Others are concerned about the nostalgia of losing their family home and the trauma of moving.

But what about the benefits of picking Option 2? What is the value of ecosystem services provided by an intact forest, which could include the provision of clean drinking water and habitat for biological creatures? What about the cultural and educational value of keeping the forest intact? Future generations of Singaporeans can feel that sense of wonder and inspiration from being in a forest just minutes away from the city, residents and foreign tourists can use MacRitchie forest as a recreation site, and students can continue learning from the terrestrial ecosystem in the forest.

This is not the first time that environmental concerns have been pitched against development efforts in Singapore. But it seems like the first in which all options are still on the table, with environmental and cultural heritage concerns being seriously considered in the decision-making process. A concerted move by environmental groups to push for a “zero-impact policy as a starting point to avoid long-lasting impacts on the environment” is making itself visible and vocal on social media platforms, garnering support from the masses with each share and like. The Love Our MacRitchie Forest movement, fronted by theToddycats, the BES Drongos, and the Herpetological Society of Singapore, is putting pedal to the metal — or in this case, boots on the ground. A series of guided tours, known as March for MacRitchie will take place next month to drum up interest and awareness of the nature reserve.

The jury is still out on whether the Cross Island Line will skirt round or cut through the forest. But from young environmentalists like me, a heartfelt plea would be for the former so that we can endeavour to bring the impact of the Cross-Island Line towards zero. This is not unachievable given that the option already exists — in the form of a thinner (and hence detailing fewer impacts) report: the alternate Lornie Road route that is Option 2.

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