Hip Deep on Singapore's Orchard Road

The June 16 flash flood in Singapore's posh shopping belt area, Orchard Road, has drawn the public's ire and disdain. Suddenly, the popular road was christened "Orchard River" by the local Singapore press.

The question, spurred by concerns over global warming, is whether Singapore is going to have to get used to this.

Flood waters rose by 300 mm; basement car parks, the Orchard underpass, and shops in the vicinity were flooded. Public bus transport was disrupted and diverted for about three hours, while cars were stranded, all causing a public ruckus. Singapore's National Environment Agency reported that 100 mm of rain fell within a two-hour period from about 9 am to 11 am, more than 60 percent of the average monthly rainfall in June each year.

What hit hardest was the fact that the these floods occurred in Singapore's swankiest shopping district, catching not only the attention of the Singapore public but the regional media as well. Orchard Road has all this while been touted as a haven for visiting tourists. So this piece of news came as a great surprise for those familiar with Singapore's shopping attractions.

What caused these floods? Are they becoming a regular occurrence in Singapore and the region?

Questions were called into play regarding the adequacy of the present drainage system, given that the Orchard area has been intensely developed over the past few years. Other possible causes of the flood include the reconstruction of roads after the new Ion Mall was completed, which could also have affected drainage and water flow. Climate change was also identified as another possible factor causing freak floods and the heavy downpour.

To date, the highest rainfall recorded in Singapore over 24 hours was 512 mm in 1978, the second highest was 467 mm in 1969, while the third highest amount of rainfall to drench the island was on 20 December 2006, when 366mm of rain fell over a 24-hour period. Flash floods also occurred in various parts of the island republic in 2007 and 2009, raising the disturbing possibility that such floods are becoming a regular feature.

No human casualties were noted, but retailers have lost millions of dollars in this environmental debacle, though the final amount is yet to be tallied. Back in 1978, when Singapore's worst flood occurred, there were seven deaths, with more than 1,000 people evacuated from their homes. The cost in 1978 dollars was S$10 million.

Action was mobilized by Singapore's national utility agency, the Public Utilities Board (PUB), when rain began in the early hours of the morning. The traffic police were also called into play, and the Singapore Civil Defence helped about 70 people from cars and buses to safety in the Orchard area.

Is the jury out on the link between global warming and climatic extremity? If this is so, what action should the authorities take to deal with these situations?

An Asian Development Bank (ADB) Study conducted in 2009 on the economics of climate change in Southeast Asia may shed some light on the link between global warming and climatic fluctuations. Governments in the region, not only Singapore, are well advised to take note of observations reported in the study. In 2004, the number of tropical depressions, tropical storms, and typhoons recorded in the region was an all time high of 21 reported typhoons, well above the median on 17.5 for the period 1990-2003.

The study also recorded an increase in extreme rains that caused flash floods in Viet Nam, landslides and floods in 1990 and 2004 in the Philippines, and floods in Cambodia in 2000. El Nino events have also become more frequent in Southeast Asia in recent years, with the frequency and intensity of extreme events likely to increase further in the coming decades, the report warns.

The flash floods in Orchard Road were just a small glimpse of the havoc that Mother Nature could inflict on the tiny island state. Measures to further widen and deepen the local drainage network in Orchard, and to prepare a contingency plan to cope with sudden and severe floods may be necessary in the coming months. Already the Stamford Canal and the Marina Reservoir are in place to deal with sudden rises in the water levels.

Public awareness may also need to be raised to deal with sudden disruptions of this nature. The causes of the flood have not been identified but the national utilities agency, PUB, is currently investigating some of the possible causes, including blockages in the local drain network.

Flood water eventually flows back into the sea and all is well again. As the ADB study points out, the more worrying issue for Singapore and other countries in the region is that sea levels are rising due to climate change. Unlike flash floods, sea level rises are permanent and cannot be dissipated easily. Such impacts obviously would be far worse than what flash floods can inflict. In Singapore, the study reported that sea level rise is likely to be close to the global mean of 0.21 to 0.48 meters by the end of this century. This is certainly worrying and the Singapore government has been reported to be exploring the possibility of building dykes in view of this threat.

For other countries in the region like Vietnam, a World Bank policy research paper published in 2007 has reported that for a one-meter rise in sea levels, about 10 percent of Vietnam's GDP and land areas may be wiped out. Again for the same scenario, about 28 percent of Vietnam's wetlands would be affected.

Given the real possibility of greater climatic fluctuations, flash floods, and the likely scenario of rising sea levels in the years to come, the lesson learnt from the Orchard flash floods had better be ingrained in the minds of the public to pay greater attention to the issue of climatic fluctuations and also to global warming.

Lee Poh Onn is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The views expressed are his own.