Thursday, December 10, 2009

"Water quality in natural habitats" course for Jurong Junior College (4 Dec 09) - field trip to Ngee Ann Stream

Junior colleges are now getting into the act of water quality monitoring too. After all, this activity neatly ties up many disciplines such as geography, chemistry, physics and biology, allowing the students to appreciate how science works in the real world (which may not resemble anything like the theories in books).

Reality check - we were into the month of December within the period of the Northeast Monsoon. Rain was expected but expecting it did not make things any easier. Heck, this field trip was the wettest I have ever led since the rain started before, lasted during and ended after the whole trip.

Frankly, I was really relieved when I saw that the students were prepared for rain. To their credit, this was one of the best bunches of participants I ever had.

One common problem, whether raining or not, was someone's shoe(s) being totalled (i.e. sole came off) in the mud and rough terrain. See below for the end result. Thankfully, the hapless victim was resourceful enough to tie up the mess into a walkable vessel using a shoe lace.

True to rumours, the area adjacent to The Sterling (a condominium) was cleared bare. There goes the nice forest setting. This makes me wonder how long Ngee Ann Stream can endure before it is gone for good. The machines were still clearing up remnants of the forest. (More condos coming up?) The delineation between cleared area and vegetation is shown below (the stream is to the right).

Major obstacle. Because of the downpour, the canal was flooded to waist level with rapid flow. The bottom of this canal would have been 2 of my sampling stations. Worse, we need to walk along this canal to reach our rendezvous with our transport back to campus. In view of the risks, we took an alternative route back to the starting point and had to forgo trying our luck in the rapid waters of the last 2 sampling stations. People, if you want to conduct a field trip, it pays to know the area well. Also, think hard for alternative exits in case a quick evacuation is necessary.

Fast flowing waters leading to the canal.

Back in the comfort of air conditioning and soft cushions.

What was that odd smell in the air? Just students drying their mud soaked shoes.

Working on the analysis of water samples using testing kits.

My favourite tool for field trips - African walking stick from Cold Steel. Modelled on the walking stick used by Zulu tribesman but made of polypropylene rather than wood. Virtually indestructible and superbly useful - prod the ground ahead for concealed trenches, clear bushes out of the way, balance oneself uphill or downhill, reach out to participants who need to be pulled to safety and of course discipline the occasional recalcitrant participant who insists to do things the hard way... (just kidding for the last point)

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Water, energy and the environment

Water and energy. 2 high profile environmental issues. Both are very important to the proper functioning of society. Yet we seldom link one with the other. In many discussions on climate change, energy alone always steals the limelight since its generation invariably produces CO2, a major greenhouse gas. Has it ever occurred to you that water and energy are more intricately linked to the environment than you think?

I came across this thought provoking article from a Wayne Patterson of Atreides Capital posted in the Water Forum. It is reproduced here in its complete form. It is slightly lengthy so make sure you have some spare time before opening it up, say during working hours. Link

To spare you the agony of going through the full article (or perhaps to entice you to complete reading it), here are its highlights.

  1. Generation of energy requires water. Transportation, treatment, disposal of water requires energy
  2. Lack of energy means no cars, no computers, no internet, no factories. Lack of water means death.
  3. Fossil fuels are finite and so is water yet few people talk about water running out.
  4. (Best of all) In the race to mitigate the effects of climate change caused by the use of fossil fuels, much R&D, resources and brain power are focused on alternative forms of energy. Another consequence is the world's fixation on carbon footprint and carbon credits. But have you wondered about the water costs of alternative forms of energy? For example, solar panels and biofuels require vast amounts of water to produce, outpacing the water requirements of traditional power plants (which by the way are already water hogs). Perhaps we should come up with water footprint and water credits to reflect the true costs of different human activities and technologies.

Yucks! What is that thing in my water?

All right, hands up, those of you who have seen "oily" patches like those in the 2 photos below. Let's count: 1, 2, 3...

Yes, they seem to be rather common in Singapore, whether in mangroves, streams, canals or ponds. And they appear throughout the year.

What are they? Are they natural or man-made? What are the ecological implications? Are they an indicator of water quality?

(Photo of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR) by Anuj Jain 2009)

(Photo of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR) by Anuj Jain 2009)

From the looks of the above photos, these "oil" patches could be caused by either real oil or certain metals (especially iron and manganese). To differentiate between them, try using a stick to disturb the patch. If it breaks up into smaller angular patches, it is likely to be metals. If the patch does not break but instead appears to follow your swirling, oil is present.

Iron and manganese are usually from the surrounding soils so yes, I would consider this natural.

Oils can also be from natural sources especially if nearby vegetation contains oils and somehow get into the water (pine oil, anyone?). A submerged dead animal can also produce oil from its fats.

Oils can be anthropogenic though. Without performing a lab analysis, it is difficult to differentiate between oils of natural and anthropogenic origins.

Ecologically, natural patches are probably harmless. Anthropogenic oil CAN be a problem, depending on its exact nature. Is it cooking oil, petrol, diesel, fuel oil or grease?

Yes, the appearance of oil in water can be an indicator of poor water quality but for most purposes, water quality is measured by a suite of parameters that can be quantified e.g. DO, oil content

Compare to the photo below. Even though there is a hint of an "oily" sheen, its characteristic colour (orangey) and angular fragments identify it as probably iron oxide. No prizes for guessing that it is similar to rust.

(Photo of a stream near Choa Chu Park by Robin 2009)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Green Buddy Award 2009

Got this nice looking plaque for my "support and contribution to environmental protection and preservation in SP". These include conducting training courses in water quality and environmental science, as well as my water projects with PUB and Nparks.

Though getting a plaque is not the aim of my work, it is nice to get some recognition once in a while.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Freshwater quality and biodiversity for primary schools (9, 13 Nov 2009)

Primary schools are finally getting into the act of water quailty monitoring! (Thanks to Audrey for the link-up.) I have always felt that the water quality in our natural areas and man-made water bodies (e.g. reservoirs, canals) can never be taken for granted. While Public Utilities Board (PUB) has done an excellent job in monitoring and maintaining the water quality in reservoirs, the rest of our water bodies are poorly monitored, or neglected altogether. We really do not know what is going on inside all these waters!

The other activity that I feel strongly about is education. If done right, education can solve many of today's problems - environmental, social or otherwise. And you can never start education too young. Given proper exposure, the children of today will grow up with a sound awareness of the environmental issues challenging our world and become staunch stewards of the environment tomorrow. However, without good old hands-on experience, how do you expect them to appreciate the importance of good water quality and acknowledge their connectivity to the environment?

Over a period of 2 days, Queenstown Primary, New Town Primary and Pei Tong Primary have their students participating in my course on freshwater quality and biodiversity. I must admit that facilitating primary school students is very different from facilitating secondary school students and more so compared to polytechnic students. But this adds to my overall learning experience so no complaints here.

If you are expecting to see 40 kids running around the field with their teachers (and me) shouting to keep them from hurting themselves (e.g. falling into the water), you are not too wrong. But it is exactly this infectious energy that fuels their enthusiasm and unprejudiced questioning. To them, curiosity is asking about what they do not know without fear of ridicule or embarassment. Their attitude is a refreshing change from the reserved nature of older students.

As always, field work is a must for my courses. There is no substitute for real world experience. However, the less predictable nature of the field is also present, culminating in a heavy downpour during our field trip. With some quick thinking, the field session was salvaged by substituting with an outdoor lesson under a nearby highway bridge. (We were pretty safe as the whole area under the bridege was concretised.)

Figures (L-R, T-B): Inspecting leeches (again!) under the shelter of a highway bridge; Andrew conducting a lesson on water ecology under the same bridge; in brighter weather, Andrew does the same lesson next to the pond; students checking out aquatic life at the pond; on-site testing of water quality; the mandatory classroom photo at the end; downpour!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

IWA-Aspire Conference 2009 on water (Taipei, 18-22 Oct 2009)

Here is a my poster presentation for the recent International Water Association (IWA) - Asia Pacific Regional Group (Aspire) 2009 Conference on water issues in Taipei. It touches on "Starting a water quality monitoring programme in the nature reserves of Singapore". The "nature reserves" are Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR), Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (BTNR) and Nee Soon freshwater swamp. The time period stretched from 2006 - 2008.

Some highlights of the presentation:
  1. At SBWR, the water quality was either relatively unpolluted or weakly polluted. However, some concerns were raised regarding the low levels of DO (minimum of 2.5mg/L) and relatively high levels of phosphorus, nitrogen (ammonia and nitrate) and E. coli.
  2. The waters in BTNR were relatively clean except for the high levels of acidity (minimum of 1.7) at all three sampling stations and incidences of low DO (minimum of 3.2 mg/L).
  3. Similarly, in Nee Soon Freshwater Swamp, incidences of low DO (minimum of 1.9) and pH
    (minimum of 1.1) have been recorded. Such a low pH was unusual even for an acidic swamp like Nee Soon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shades of green: Beijing (13-27 Sep 09)

Saying that my study tour to Beijing was an enriching experience is an understatement. It was overwhelming should one opened his senses and thoughts to the surroundings. Keeping within the scope of this blog (not to mention some very private episodes and opinions), I will only touch upon the environmental aspects of the trip. (No, this trip has nothing to do with water so do not expect to see photos of field trips to exotic lakes and rivers.)
  1. No vehicle engines were kept idling. I would say we Singaporeans became acutely aware of this practice each time we boarded a transport to find that the air conditioning was off. No exceptions. The driver only turned on the engine (and air-con) when he was ready to move.

  2. No plastic bags were given. You have to pay RMB20-30 for a plastic bag. I initially could not believe that this could be implemented for such a large city. In contrast, Singapore's efforts in promoting this habit have been insipid at best.

  3. Despite the increasing number of cars, the bicycle was still commonly used, no doubt encouraged by designated bicycle lanes on certain roads. Electric bicycles were also common as they could be easily recharged overnight using the house mains.

  4. Street have few lights. Walkways were lighted by road lights for vehicles rather than for pedestrians. In most cities, this constitutes a risk to personal safety but in Beijing, lots of people still walked about in the semi-darkness, apparently acclimatised. In the campus I stayed at, lights in buildings were sparingly turned on, making most corridors rather dark (and spooky). These procedures would certainly save energy though I am not sure the compromise in safety (perhaps missing a step on the stairs) is acceptable.

  5. Beijing has its own haze too. Unlike Singapore, the haze took on a weekly cycle. Sunday - Wednesday: clear, blue skies. Thursday: the haze appeared by sun rise and grew worse each day till Saturday. Look out for it if you ever go there. It can really spoil your plans for crisp outdoor photography from Thu - Sat.

  6. Spitting is now a "minor" problem which only the older folks passionately engage in. Still, the characteristic gurgle followed by the ear splitting excretion of oral fluid can be unbearable to the uninitiated.

  7. Smoking is a "major" problem, from underaged youngsters to toothless old folks. It is everywhere. Yes, even in air conditioned areas (this is NOT a crime over there). With the weekly haze and the smoothering cigarette smoke for comparison, I am thankful that we have strict air pollution control laws in Singapore. (Smokers out there, you are welcome to disagree.)
Figures (L-R, T-B): A typical thoroughfare shared by motors vehicles and bikes; an exception to the semi-darkness on most streets - the symbolic Bird Nest sports stadium; another exception t the low light rule - the Water Cube swimming centre; solar power is very common on street lamps - check out the solar panel at the top; the inescapable weekly haze

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What have I been up to?

For the folks who track this blog, I am apologetic for not posting anything for some time. Main reasons - I was in Beijing for more than 2 weeks on a study tour (more on this in another post). Strangely, Beijing does not allow access to Blogger even though I would have loved to blog over there. (This access restriction also applies to Facebook.) I had another week of R&R with my family before finally returning to my PC. (I am not a fan of multitasking as I believe great things can only be accomplished by focusing on one thing at a time.)

Guess what, I found out from Serene (thanks for the tip) that my blog (ok, 1 particular post) is featured in the reading list of a NUS geography module, GE2229, Water and the environment. How interesting!

(from You run, we geog)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Is that number 6 or 9?" - reading an unlit LCD in the dark... Sentosa water quality monitoring (21 Aug 09)

Another session of water quality monitoring with Team Seagrass - this time at Sentosa, a world of sun, sand and sea (or so they advertised). We were not in the least surprised that this was yet another "wake up in the wee hours, rush down by cab" kind of operation. But what was new (at least to me) was to measure water quality parameters in the dark (~ 6a.m. so the sun is out, leaving us the sand and sea). Fumbling with torches in the dark to squint at the 4th decimal in the LCD readout provided a refreshing start for the day.

Actually, it was not that bad. Even though the moon was down, plenty of light came from the nearby hotel and the sea traffic. Yup, we are talking about light pollution. This form of "pollution" is rather benign compared to pesticides and heavy metals but I still hope that we have less of it to truly savour the shimmering beauty of the night sky. Fortuitously, the pre-dawn sky was pleasantly clear, filled with familiar constellations despite the invasive artificial lights. Orion, Taurus, Canis Major, Auriga were high up. Mars was there too but the star (pun intended) must really be Venus which outshone all the rest.

This was the perfect opportunity for me to practise navigating by stars. Do you know that Sirius (C. Major) and Canopus (Carina) form a straight line that points to the South on the horizon? How about dropping a line straight down from Mintaka (leading star of Orion's belt) to point to the East? Stargazing is more than just for aesthetics.

You may have noticed that I have yet to mention anything about the wondrous seashore life. The plants and animals were nothing short of breath taking so I shall leave their descriptions (with great photos) to the experts in these areas (Ria's is highly recommended). Also, check out the following blog posts for alternative viewpoints of this little outing:
1. Team Seagrass
2. You run, we GEOG

Many thanks to Marcus Ng for being a such a marvellous trip leader and guide. (Or were we harassing him from our incessant questions about each and every observable intertidal organism?) He has clarified an old doubt of mine - seagrass vs. seaweed. Though I have always known that seagrass is a flowering plant and seaweed is an algae, you have to get down in the mud and dirty your hands to see and feel the differences. And this can only be accomplished with an adept guide to point you in the right direction. Like someone once said, life is a little bit of theory and lots of practice.

(Serene, I don't think you can use the analogy of garden plants vs. dandelions to compare against seagrass vs. seaweeds. I love dandelions and seaweeds! You can eat dandelions and seaweeds! You can even make a coffee substitute out of dandelion roots :-)

Overview of the seagrass area with sheers cliffs in the backdrop

Seagrasses with some brown seaweeds

Seaweeds and more seaweeds.

The water quality monitoring team in the darkness

Sentosa was still asleep but the lights were certainly active.

A significant interest on this trip - awesome clouds replaced the stars as night turned to day. Here, a cumulonimbus appeared to be forming.

Reflection - a favourite camera angle. Here, the same cumulonimbus has grown which probably led to the thunderstorm in the afternoon when I was back at work. (Yes, I have to go straight to work after this Sentosa trip!)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A walk on the wild side: Woodcutter's Trail

This trail gets my top vote for the wildest trail in Singapore. You will be hard pressed to find anyone else save for the rare cyclist or SAF personnel. The trail proper is almost free of the trappings of civilisation e.g. board walk, stone paved paths that make the other natural areas too tame in comparison (but see below for other less desirable signs of civilisation). Nature aside, this trail has strategic significance as it cuts east-west through the central catchment from Bukit Timah to Upper Thomson. It is certainly of interest to those who want to avoid detection and movement on the main roads. (Any Mas Selamat wannabe out there?)

The old standby never lets you down
One reason for its obscurity is it is so ******* hard to find. Despite having been here before (4 years back?), I still got lost initially with its many criss-crossing trails at the Bukit Timah end. Back tracking became routine in no time. Sorry, my GPS was down and it probably would not have penetrated the forest cover for the minimum 3 satellite signals. Dear readers, do not ever leave home without your trusty map and compass, with or without GPS. After all, the compass has no batteries to fail, no parts sensitive to hard knocks and is cheap to boot. Heck, you should bring an extra compass like I did for level 1 premium insurance. And yes, it really saved the day for me.

Figures (L-R, T-B): My faithful companion; Opps, wrong turn; No surprise, this whole area is a water catchment that drains into our central catchment reservoirs; important land mark to turn into the right path!

A trail of streams
If you are waiting for a lively description of my water quality monitoring work on this trip, there is none. This was supposed to be a recce. (who knows what has changed in a span of 4 years?) More importantly, the trail itself took 3 hours to traverse. The trail's entrace and exit are not exactly next to the main road. Factoring these details in can easily add up to 4 hours or more. Did I mention that you may get lost too? Mounting a water quality monitoring operation will need good planning and lots of margin for error.

Nevertheless, the trail is crossed by several genuine forest streams. You probably can find some of the rare endemic freshwater species here though I did not try searching. Mercifully, some kind soul has set up planks, ropes or even just flower pots for easy crossing of these streams.

Your textbook secondary forest
This is no doubt a true blue secondary forest. Simpoh Air rule supreme at the Bukit Timah end, so much so that you find yourself trudging through a Simpoh Air forest.

Many forest gaps were encountered. And usually, ferns (Bracken, Resam) dominate. (Many factors could have created these gaps e.g. fallen trees, human activity.) Of course, we saw the usual Smilax and Hairy Clidemia every few paces or so.

Side note: many consider Hairy Clidemia to be a vicious weed. Perhaps. But do you know that it can stop bleeding? If you are spilling blood and out of first aid, you will be wise to recognise this plant and make it your best friend. I have tried it on leech bites and it worked! A 3-hour trickle turned into a half-hour trickle. (This is not Panadol Flu Max so do not expect instant relief!)

Figures (L-R, T-B): A sea of ferns; Hairy Clidemia; the forest floor is not dark and bare, instead it is often colonised by ferns; a large clearing in the secondary forest; fallen logs could have opened up gaps in the forest; Simpoh Air forest

The good, the bad and the ugly
In case you are hoping to find a pristine wonderland here, can it. The fact that the trail is so well marked means that it is regularly maintained and used. Vegetation was cleared by machete as seen in the slashed branches along the trail. The heavy duty ones e.g. fallen logs were cleared by chainsaw. This is all and well with me since it makes the journey more pleasant without having to bush whack our way through.
On the down side, LITTER rears its ugly head whenever you have people coming in. Perhaps not surprisingly, most litter are SAF combat rations and other issue items e.g. cylum sticks, solid fuel (we found a pack of 3 unused ones), gloves. SAF should seriously consider including environmental education as part of their soldiers' training.

At Bukit Timah end, we came across lots of evidence of the old kampongs previously there. Zinc roofing sheets, clay pots and even an abandoned cabless pickup truck. (We even found the number plate hanging from its rusty rivets. Die-hard gamblers may approach me for the 4 digit number.)
Figures (L-R, T-B): SAF tactical marking; Nparks DOES come in here - a tree tagged by Nparks; a fallen log cleanly cut up by chainsaw; SAF paraphernalia (read LITTER); clay pots everywhere; end of the trail