Universities play key role in tackling rising sea levels

Singapore, a densely populated island nation of 730 square metres in the middle of the busiest sea lanes in Asia, is threatened in the long term by rising sea levels and local universities are a major part of efforts to study the impacts and plan relevant infrastructure to hold back the water.

Singaporean climate change experts note that research collaboration needs to include universities and organisations in other Southeast Asian countries, as changing conditions throughout the region could have an impact on other countries as well, some of which do not have the resources to adequately study or set up prevention measures.

Singapore has a highly advanced technological base and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. The government has pumped over SG$30 million (US$22 million) into scientific research to protect the country and inform the population about climate change effects.

“Climate change is a long-term problem and universities serve the function of educating the best young minds in the scientific knowledge and skills to tackle the problems of climate change,” noted Singaporean weather and climate scientist Tieh-Yong Koh, an associate professor at Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

In an interview with University World News, he said it is important for universities to impart a sound broad-based scientific education in sustainable development for young people to take the battle against rising sea levels to business and community sectors.

The buzz about climate change dwindled as Singaporeans fought the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, but with some of the highest rainfalls on record in the last two months, and with some flash flooding in a city that has one of the world’s best water management systems, the threats of rising sea levels and their impact on local flooding is returning to the sustainable development agenda.

In his National Day speech in August 2019, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong predicted the city-state would need to spend about SG$100 billion (US$74 billion) over the next 50 to 100 years to protect itself from rising sea levels.

It is, after all, a matter of “life and death”, he said, as Singapore would have nowhere else to relocate.

According to the government’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) website, 30% of Singapore is less than five metres above sea level, and sea levels are predicted to rise by one metre by 2100. It could rise by as much as 4-5 metres above today’s mean sea level if factors such as daily tidal activity, storm surges and land subsidence – the sinking of land caused by tectonic movement – are taken into account.

Earth observatory

Nanyang Technological University has set up the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) to study climate change in the Southeast Asian region. Together with PUB it is working to set up a Centre of Excellence in Adaptation to Climatic Change in the region.

EOS Director Benjamin Horton told University World News the observatory is working with PUB on EOS’s Southeast Asia-Singapore sea level rise programme to integrate instrumental, historical and geological sea level datasets in Southeast Asia with sophisticated modelling capabilities to improve the accuracy of projections of sea level rise and extreme sea levels.

Horton leads a team of 150, including professors, researchers, PhD students and support staff, studying global trends in climatic change and adaptation.

EOS has a large project with Singapore’s department of education worth over SG$10 million to study sea level rise. In addition, they received three grants from the National Sea Level Programme of Singapore’s National Environment Agency.

“We look at how sea levels have changed in the past in Singapore, how tides are changing or being stable, also how climate change will change the tidal currents,” Horton explained. He added: “The sciences the sea level project works on will be able to provide projections for PUB or any of the government agencies that are involved in the security of the nation.”

Singapore has already put in place some measures, including the use of polders – with land that lies below sea level reclaimed by building dykes, drainage canals and pumping stations.

Since 2019, the government has also spent over SG$400 million to upgrade and maintain the island’s extensive drainage system, while SG$10 million is being channelled towards a study of the effects of sea level rise on its infrastructure.

A regional focus is needed

Adapting to a sea level rise should be a long-term obligation, Horton said, adding that Southeast Asia would particularly benefit because large numbers of people live in the region’s low-lying coastal areas.

Last year, the EOS invited people from the region to focus on regional issues.

“Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam – they all came here to learn about best practices on adaptation to sea level rise… we exchange researchers and we also train people in the technologies [relating to sea level change],” Horton said.

Koh at SUSS said Singapore would face flow-on effects from sea level rise in the region. These could include regular flooding due to slower storm discharge into the sea – caused by high tides on higher mean sea level – or the need to move people away from coastal areas.

“One hazard from mean sea level rise comes from increased exposure to flooding during a heavy thunderstorm at high tide. So better infrastructure for drainage and stormwater storage, coupled with the use of advanced meteorological warning systems, will be helpful contributions to the solution,” he noted.

“The [Singapore] government has been working with expertise across various universities in research and development projects meant to improve capability in these technologies. I have personally trained a number of researchers who are now serving at the National Environment Agency,” he said.

Singapore universities are also studying the quality of sea water in the region and monitoring impacts on marine resources such as fishing, important for livelihoods and nutrition for people in Southeast Asia.

National Marine Laboratory

The National University of Singapore has set up a National Marine Laboratory on the small offshore island of St John’s which marked its 20th anniversary this year.

It is currently monitoring the environmental parameters of the sea in the region, including the sea’s salinity, temperature changes and mineral content as waters become warmer and sea levels rise.

Koh believes the research at universities could help to build a calmer mindset among people, “encouraging, more … ‘rational knowledge’ and less … ‘emotional concern’ [that would] allow constructive public response, including support for high expenditure [that would be needed] for infrastructural projects to help reduce the environmental risks posed by climate change”.