Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Closing 2008 and welcoming 2009

Today is the last day of 2008 so this will be a good time to review all that has been done this year and to preview what is to come in 2009.

Our water quality monitoring activities have finally ended for 2008. With much data to sort through, it is fortuitous that the next round of monitoring will only start in April 2009.

Within this short reprieve, the current data will be analysed as they are, as well as compared against data from previous years. This can be tedious but it is a labour of love. If feasible, data will be published through suitable media (this means more writing and thinking).

These are the areas monitored in 2008:
  1. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (BTNR)
  2. Bukit Timah area - Binjai
  3. Bukit Timah area - King Albert Park
  4. Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR)
  5. Sungei Mandai Besar
  6. Nee Soon Freshwater Swamp
In addition, a one-off water quality survey was done in Mandai Training Area, deep inside Mindef territory.
For 2009, besides monitoring the nature reserves - BTNR, SBWR and Nee Soon, some new and exciting initiatives are lined up. We are planning to work with Team Seagrass and Nparks to complement their seagrass monitoring with our water quality monitoring. Imagine the benefit of having a more comprehensive picture of what is happening around when we can cross-reference each other's data.
Also in the works, we will try out water quality modelling of selected streams/canals. This is immensely useful for making predictions of water quality and determining the critical loading points of the stream/canal.
Education wise, we have successfully conducted a workshop on water quality monitoring for secondary school teachers. Another run is scheduled in June 2009. Also planned are at least 2 enrichement modules on water quality for secondary schools in 2009. Besides the usual classroom lessons, the students will be exposed to field work and laboratory work.
Happy New Year to all and may 2009 be more enriching and exciting.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Finally... some decent bugs (macroinvertebrates) found in a local pond (17 Dec 2008)

It is amazing how nature can be around you and yet you have no idea that it exists. Case in point. A forest stands opposite my workplace and I have never wanted to check it out since it looks rather small and there is no clear path going in. This is until I stumbled upon this blog describing this interesting patch of forest filled with a rich variety of fauna. The rest is history.

The most relevant discovery is a nice, tranquil and best of all, natural pond within the forest. This is especially useful for conducting my water quality workshops without the need to travel far from campus. At first glance, the pond appeared to be a muddy pool of water with the mud probably caused by run-off from an adjacent construction site. This doesn't look good for finding a healthy community of aquatic bugs.

Refusing to be deterred, I made a second trip here with Esther and gang. Upon closer look, the pond is filled with hydrilla and bubbles are constantly bursting at the surface. Perhaps, the dissolved oxygen level is better than expected. (Forgive me for not bringing along my DO meter.)

After some digging around at the bottom and sweeping in whatever gets dug up, were we surprised at what we found. Mayflies, dragonflies, damsel flies, water stick insect (first time I saw a live one!), leech (first time I saw one in Singapore!), chironomids, sludge worms (lots of them), beetle larva and pond skaters on the surface. Did I mention mayflies? Yes, the water quality must be better than it seemed.

The best thing about field work is you see living things living, moving and in their original colours. Do you know that mayflies and damsel flies can be green? Nothing beats seeing live, red bloodworms (chironomids). Live ones are far more exciting than the boring and uniformly white or brown specimens (dead by the way) in collection jars in the lab.

Figures (L-R, T-B): Pandan grows abundantly around the pond, someone mentioned that these are potent mosquito repellents. I am skeptical; beetle larva attached to a dead leaf in the pond; damsel fly (top) and water stick insect (bottom); Albizia trees crowd the sky; Seemingly muddy and lifeless pond; aquatic leech attached to underwater hydrilla, doesn't seem to feed on human blood; aggressive predator - dragonfly, and some snail shells.

Monday, December 15, 2008

NUS-LKYSPP Climate Change Essay Competition

15 Dec 2008

To: All Tertiary Institution Council for Environment (TICE) members

NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) jointly present
Climate Change Essay Competition

Theme: Climate Change: Implications for Singapore

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that anthropogenic climate change is now unequivocal, citing evidence from rising global average sea levels, global average air and ocean temperatures and widespread melting of snow and ice. In response to the IPCC scientific consensus on climate change, Singapore released its National Climate Change Strategy in late Feb 2008 to address various aspects of climate change from vulnerability, adaptation, mitigation and competency building to international participation. At the same time, the government announced the formation of an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development to formulate a clear, national framework and strategy for Singapore's sustainable development in the context of emerging global and domestic challenges, especially if the current international negotiations on climate change culminate in a post-2012 agreement that results in a carbon constrained world.

As a small island state, Singapore faces several domestic constraints including limited natural resources, geographical constraints which prevent the effective deployment of renewable energy, and an open economy that relies heavily on fossil fuels. Given these domestic challenges and that international negotiations on climate change are still evolving, what are the implications for Singapore's economy, governance and society?

NUS Office of Environmental Sustainability and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy cordially invite you to take part in our climate change essay competition. We are seeking essays that:

      a. Critically assess and provide insights to Singapore's climate change policy.
      b. Provide innovative solutions that address both the global climate challenge and the country's domestic concerns.

All students studying at Singapore's tertiary institutions (universities and polytechnics) are eligible to apply for the competition.

All essays should not exceed 2000 words (excluding tables, charts and references) and should be accompanied by a 200 word abstract (included in word count). Each essay can have up to 3 authors. Essays should observe 1.5 spacing and Times New Roman font size 12. Normal academic standards regarding footnotes, references, etc. apply.

1st prize: cash prize of S$1000 and certificate
2nd prize: cash prize of S$500 and certificate
3RD prize: cash prize of $300 and certificate
The top 3 winners of the competition will present at the National Sustainability Conference 2009 on 20, 21 and 22 February, which is hosted by NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan. Essays will be judged by two professors from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The deadline for submission is 16 January 2009. Send a softcopy addressed to Mr Loo Deliang at Please provide authors' names, institution of study, email addresses and contact details.

IPCC Fourth Assessment Report,
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),
National Climate Change Strategy,
Sustainable Singapore,

For enquiries, please contact Mr Loo Deliang at or at 6516 1983.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

What does a water quality laboratory look like?

Some time back, I have a query asking about the facilities I use for my water quality monitoring activities. I guess it is time to have a short preview.

This is the Environmental Technology Lab in SP where most of the lab work is done. Unlike the universities or research institutions, we do not have the luxury of being assigned a research lab so the photo below shows the lab as it is most often used - normal day-to-day teaching of practical skills to our full-time students. We do our microbiological work in another lab while hazardous work is done in a fume hood in yet another lab.

The next query that came in - what are your most sophisticated (implying expensive)instruments? Here they and they do sound a mouthful: (L) inductively coupled plasma - optical emission spectrometer (ICP-OES); (R) gas chromatograph - mass spectrometer (GC-MS). The ICP-OES is capable of detecting minute quantities of heavy metals e.g. lead, chromium in water while the GC-MS can identify and quantify minute quantities of organic compounds e.g. pesticides, even melamine.

In reality, the routine water quality tests are less elaborate ones which function as our workhorses e.g. pH, DO, COD, coliform. They can give a reasonable overview of the water quality in a short time, allowing any unusual occurences to be flagged out. Because of the hassle and costs, the high-end equipment are used for advanced monitoring when special pollutants are suspected to be present.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Research interests of our top secondary school students - Science Mentorship Programme (SMP)

Please refer to this link to MOE for more details.

SMP is a platform for gifted secondary school students to propose a research project which will be matched to a suitable mentor in a tertiary institution.

A quick summary of the proposed projects:
* Some projects are classified into more than 1 category.

A quick glance will indicate that there are no projects on conservation/ nature/ biodiversity.
Even the one project on botany deals with molecular biology.
The one project on environmental science deals with purification of water which has commercial value and is of interest to national security.
Not unexpectedly, medicine and health takes top place. Besides the publicity given by the government and media, it really is something close to everyone's heart.

Mystery of crocs' mass die-off: gharials in India

Another example to illustrate the importance of good water quality to ecology. Hey, these gharials don't even stay in the water all the time but they are still exposed to the effects of water pollution and poor water quality. This piece of news also shows that such effects need not be localised or even confined to downstream of a pollution event. (The crocs are actually staying in a clean tributary upstream but because they feed in polluted waters downstream, they become implicated.)

via wildsingapore news by (ria) on 12/2/08

BBC News 2 Dec 08; Measuring up to 6m long, with elongated narrow snouts, gharials are one of the world's most distinctive-looking crocodilians. Just 100 years ago, these fish-eating reptiles were prevalent throughout the Indian subcontinent; but by 2007, there were just 200 breeding adults found in only a handful of rivers in India and Nepal. Last winter, this already critically endangered species was dealt another cruel blow. Over the space of just five months, more than 100 of the creatures washed up dead on the banks of India's Chambal river - and nobody knew why. For the past year,...

this is a summary, for the full version visit the wild news blog

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Pesticide triggers a food chain cascade

More often than not, an environmental disturbance spreads its effects throughout the ecosystem, affecting many inhabitants in unexpected and usually adverse ways. My favourite phrase in these instances will be, "everything is linked to everything else."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bug hunting in Singapore Polytechnic (SP) (19 Nov 2008)

This time, I turned my attention to my very own campus to find out just how well established are the bug populations in our ponds.

The first pond is a relatively long one (~ 20m) well stocked with Koi and other large fishes. It stretches along the boundary of the campus along Commonwealth Avenue West. This is a really cool idea as it acts as a fence without installing a fence. With Esther's help, we combed through the bed at a few spots for bugs with the now familiar net. Besides lots of floating green algae, the whole place is a desert devoid of bugs. Oh, did I mention that the bed is made of an artificial stone? This, plus few aquatic plants and the presence of swarms of hungry fishes probably account for the bug free environment.

We next checked out the pond at the Eco-garden. "Eco-garden" sounds like an nice place to find a balance ecology. This is a smaller pond with nice landscaped waterfalls. Apparently, the name can be deceptive. With feet stamping on the bed of big rocks and net vigorously sweeping through the water, nothing turned up. (Is this a surprise or what?) The only "bug" we found was a snail shell (sans the snail) attached to an underwater rock.

Overall, SP has been a disappointment in its bug population. I guess that is what comes from making everything artificial.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Water Quality Monitoring in Bukit Timah Area: Ngee Ann Stream (18 Sep 2008)

We headed to this nice natural looking stream (affectionately termed "Ngee Ann Stream" due to its proximity to Ngee Ann Polytechnic) right after checking out Binjai Stream (see post below). But do not be mistaken about its naturalness... this stream will soon flow through a concrete tunnel before ending up in Ulu Pandan Canal.

At the first sampling point, we managed to net a big (~ 3cm length) damselfly nymph hidden in a bunch of waterside grasses and it is ALIVE! (We found a discarded exoskeleton earlier.) Regrettably, my camera is not good at capturing small objects so the pic is not posted here. However, other than the clearly irritated damselfly, no other macroinvert was netted though there were lots of hydrilla crowding one another out.
We tried our luck at bagging some macroinvertebrates at the second sampling point. No luck! We only found some gastropods (snails) firmly attached to underwater rocks. The other bug of interest is a cute looking, whitish Collembola (Springtail) inching its way across a rock surface.

It appears that our waters in Singapore are not exactly teeming with macroinverts. Do we have a problem here?
Figures (L - R): The scenic and natural open country freshwater stream that is Ngee Ann Stream; searching for bugs at the second sampling point; the naturalness giving way to stone and concrete; a surprising find - belukar (secondary forest) hidden next to the stream

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Water Quality Monitoring in Bukit Timah Area: Binjai Stream (18 Sep 2008)

I had the honour of being attached to the Marine Biology Lab in NUS for a week. During this period, I learned more about the use of macroinvertebrates in water quality monitoring. The attachment was made more interesting with a field trip to one of my favourite haunts for recreation and water quality monitoring.

Binjai Stream is located in the Binjai area of Bukit Timah. Casual trekkers are not likely to stumber upon the entrance to this stream as it involves wading through a long, dark tunnel under an expressway. The occasional inhabitants of the tunnels, swifts of some kind, fiercely demonstrated their displeasure at our intrusion by playing touch-and-go near our faces.

This can qualify as one of the cleanest streams we have monitored. Forests surround the stream and the clear waters are occupied by numerous pond skaters. Unfortunately, the area further upstream is subject to land slides, especially after heavy rains. This really messes up the water quality as the stream water quickly becomes "kopi susu" with high levels of suspended sediments.

Yet despite the clear and clean (indicated by water quality tests) water, the benthic macroinvertebrate population was surprisingly disappointing. Kick sampling with a net yielded little macroinverts. Most were surface insects such as pond skaters.

Is this a normal trend in our waters? Or could this imply something unpleasant festering in the background? We do not have the answer at this point.

Figures (L - R): A freshwater crab deftly scoped up; numerous pond skaters; Esther working on the net to score some macroinverts; typical habitat of Binjai Stream

Monday, November 10, 2008

Water Quality Monitoring at Nee Soon Freshwater Swamp (6 Oct 08)

(Updated on 20/2/13: Nee Soon Swamp Forest is a highly sensitive area that is off limits to the general public as the biodiversity may not be able to handle the visitor load. Special permission from Nparks must be obtained prior to entering the area.)

What is a freshwater swamp? I have always imagined what it would be like since I heard of this term many years ago.

Though I already have the answer a few years back when I explored the Nee Soon Freshwater Swamp some years back, I only get to know this place better in 2007 when I started my water quality monitoring programme there.

True to most accounts, the swamp water is really acidic, hovering around a pH of 3 - 4. Contrary to popular belief, many fishes can be observed in this acidic water. Whether they are acid stressed or truly adapted to the waters, I do not know. But most textbooks (from Western countries) will tell you that waters of such acidity will kill a fish really fast. Perhaps, the authors have yet to visit a freshwater swamp.

Other than the acidity, the water is really clean (visually, physicallly and chemically), as to be expected of a forest reserve with little human activity. Despite occurences of high colifom count (in 2007) and high chloride content (Oct 2008), these by themselves do not indicate pollution as natural factors could also have given rise to such occurences.

If you have not been to this place, I strongly urge you to give it a try as it is the "only" freshwater swamp in Singapore. (Please take note of the update at the head of this post. I am an advocate of natural conservation so in no way should you act irresponsibly towards the environment and the biodiversity there.)  (I believe the highly restricted Western Catchment has some more.) It is definitely a welcome change from the conventional primary and secondary forests that you may have gone before.

Figures: Water pipelines. As the name "swamp" implies, part of the forest is always flooded. The water level may reach up to your knees or higher so please be prepared physically, if not at least mentally.

World Water Monitoring Day (WWMD) 2008 in Singapore Polytechnic

There really is a day for everything in this world, or so they say. Perhaps I should not be so surprised when I learned that there is such a day for water quality monitoring. It is organised by International Water Association (IWA) and Water Environment Federation (WEF) n USA. The coordinators in Singapore are Public Utilities Board (PUB) and Waterways Watch, Singapore (WWS). The main participants here are schools and polytechnics.

You can check them out here:


The actual day is supposed to be 18 Sep but the monitoring can be done anytime from 18 Sep to 18 Oct. This year, I have decided to submit my water quality data as part of our national effort.

As WWMD is more about raising awareness on the importance of water quality, its requirements are very basic. Simply perform your water quality monitoring in the stipulated period based on 4 parameters - temperature, pH, turbidity, dissolved oxygen (DO), in any water body of your choice. However, you may want to check with PUB or WWS to "reserve" your favourite site.

My data were collected from Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR), Sungei Mandai Besar and Nee Soon Freshwater Swamp. However, my data also include E. coli count, chemical oxygen demand (COD), nitrate, phosphate, ammonia, electrical conductivity since these are part of my normal water quality monitoring programme.

Parties interested in future WWMD activities may contact PUB or WWD or email me for the contact.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The future of water quality monitoring in Singapore: bugs, macroinvertebrates and biotic indices

Bugs... If you think bugs are yucky, think again as Singapore will be incorporating bug sorting and counting as a tool in water quality monitoring in the future. Lots of developed countries are already doing it e.g. USA, UK, Australia. Even Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have gone ahead much further than us in this area. These countries have established biotic indices and protocols (to various extents) relevant to their environments.

And what are we doing?

We have employed a handful of expatriates researching on our very own local aquatic bugs. There is a group working on streams and canals while another group is working on our reservoirs.

As expected, lots of work has to be done in the identification and quatitation of local bugs before any useful index or protocol can be created. Of course, this also means that there is much potential in the study of aquatic macroinvertebrates (insects, worms, crustaceans, molluscs, zooplankton etc.).

Ultimately, our current physical, chemical and microbiological monitoring will be coupled to biological monitoring to provide a complete picture of our waters' health. Meanwhile, you can start to love bugs more or better still, learn about them and how they serve as useful environmental indicators.

Our beautiful bugs (L-R): Dragonfly nymph (O. Odonata, S.O. Anisoptera, F. Libelluidae), Non-biting midge larva (O. Diptera, F. Chironomidae), Mayfly nymph (O. Ephemeroptera, F. Caenidae)

Friday, October 31, 2008

AEM: Water Quality and Pollution for Bukit Panjang

My AEM on Water Quality and Pollution for Bukit Panjang cluster of secondary schools (West Spring Sec, Bt Panjang Govt High, Kranji Sec, CCK Sec, Tech Whye Sec) is scheduled to run in Jun 2009.

How I wish there is more manpower to run this AEM for more schools. I sincerely believe that the experiential and outdoors learning inherent in this AEM is beneficial to our youth. I also believe that such a learning approach will bring out the creativity in our participants when they find that unlike in a classroom or lab, many things do not happen in a controlled manner in Nature. Even the best plan may go into the chute when a sudden downpour crashes overhead as they work on their water sampling They will then be forced to figure out alternatives or perhaps sacrifices to accomplish their objectives.

* However, safety is always of paramount importance. It will in no way be compromised throughout the module.

Singapore Polytechnic's official webpage for my AEM:

Figure: AEM students at work in the lab

AEM: Water Quality and Pollution for FMSS

My AEM on Water Quality and Pollution for Fairfield Methodist Secondary School is scheduled to run in Mar-Apr 2009.

It has indeed been hectic as teaching materials have to be developed, manpower and logistics have to be arranged and venues (incl. outdoor ones) have to be booked. There is still quite a bit more to be done and confirmed.

Nevertheless, it has been a fun experience especially the development of teaching materials. This module for secondary schools is quite different from our normal polytechnic modules since there is much room for experiential learning viz outdoor activities and indoor games. The pedagogy is quite different from the normal lecture, tutorial, practical arrangement. I am quite keen to find out how successful this kind of pedagogy will be.

In our fast paced and "efficient" society, outdoors learning has been forsaken for "mass production" methods in teaching - lectures and tutorials. Unfortunately, this produces a generation of youth with little connection to our natural heritage. It will indeed be difficult if they are tasked to protect the environment and Nature when they have no idea how the environment and Nature look like. In fact, they may even feel that we humans are disconnected from Nature, and thus see no need for its protection and conservation.

Some of us may even be surprised that Nature still exists in Singapore. Yes, it is still surviving but development, apathy and blatant disregard have always been threats to its existence. I hope that a hundred years from now, there is still natural greenery left in this tropical country.

Singapore Polytechnic's official webpage for my AEM:

Figures: AEM students performing reflux in the lab

MOE short course: My forest is DYING and the role of water quality (4 Jun 09)

My above short course on the theoretical and practical aspects of water quality monitoring in Nature is scheduled to run on 4 Jun 2009 (Thu).

A writeup of the previous run may be found here.

As per normal, MOE teachers may enrol for the course in Traisi once the system administrator has keyed into the course details.

SSBMB Pre-University Essay Competition 2008

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Water Quality Monitoring at Mindef/SAF Mandai Training Area (10 Sep 08)

An apparently small and isolated ditch. However, it is actually the end-point for several streams which flow around the area. Depth is about the height of a landrover's tyre. Bottom appears sandy and silty.
A very large pond. Bottom appears rocky. Indiscernible depth.
Our very large pond is heavily infested with Ditch Moss. This restricts the depth to less than 1m in areas overgrown by this fairly common flowering plant.

Our water monitoring team busy at work.

IMPORTANT: You need to apply for clearance from Mindef before you can conduct any scientific activities in Mandai Training Area or any other protected area in Singapore. Advanced planning is critical since it may take 1.5 - 2 months for approval.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Asian Geographic photojournalism competition 2008

For those environmental types out there, this competition has biodiveristy as one of the three themes.