Singapore’s tallest fish farm to produce 2,700 tonnes of fish a year by 2023

High-rise living is not just for humans in Singapore.

An eight-storey fish farm – the tallest in Singapore and the region – started operations in the first quarter of this year.

The opening of the new facility by homegrown fish farming company Apollo Aquaculture Group comes amid a governmental push to get farmers here to use technology to improve yields.

Singapore wants to meet 30 per cent of its nutritional needs with local produce by 2030 – up from less than 10 per cent today. The goal is to boost food security by improving local production, so it is more resilient to global food supply shocks.

Mr Lucky Phua, senior director for international and corporate development at Apollo Aquaculture Group, said the facility’s first phase of operations will involve farming mainly hybrid grouper and coral trout on the first three storeys of the building. The expected output is up to 1,000 tonnes of fish a year.

This is more than six times the yearly output capacity of 150 tonnes of fish from Apollo’s three-tiered pilot farm in Lim Chu Kang, said Mr Phua.

When all tanks across eight storeys are operational in 2023, the total output capacity would be 2,700 tonnes a year, he added. For context, some 4,707 tonnes of fish were produced in Singapore in 2019.

Apollo’s $65 million fish farming facility looks nothing like the “kelongs” (offshore fish farms) people here usually associate with the rearing of fish.

Painted a bright blue, it appears to be the tallest building in the rural Neo Tiew Crescent area, and would not look out of place in an industrial park elsewhere in the country.

Inside, screens on a wall in an air-conditioned control room showed camera footage of the tanks – some of which now house hybrid grouper fingerlings – while others displayed water parameters such as pH value (a measure of how acidic or basic the water is), temperature and salinity.

Farming fish on land may be more expensive, but it allows for higher productivity because of vertical expansion and also affords farmers greater control over water quality, said Mr Phua. “In the sea, water quality depends on what the currents bring. Temperature and salinity also fluctuate,” he said.

Apollo has developed its own recirculating aquaculture system and equipment so the water can be treated and reused.

Farming in this controlled environment also means the farm can grow fish without the need to use hormones, antibiotics or vaccinations, to prevent diseases, said Mr Phua.

Apollo’s seafood currently costs slightly more than imported varieties. For instance, its hybrid groupers usually sell for between $18 and $28 per kilogram or fish, while the coral trout is sold for between $70 and $90 per kg.

But Mr Phua said costs will come down as production goes up.

He expects the new transformation fund to cover a broader scope than a push for productivity, and hopes there will be greater efforts to increase Singaporeans’ appetite for local produce.

Dr Ritu Bhalla, senior manager at Republic Polytechnic’s Agriculture Research and Innovation Centre, said fish is most economically farmed in natural water bodies, but these options are limited here.

“Farming fish in urban settings like Apollo (is doing) may very well be the way forward for us,” she said. “Being entirely self-contained, it allows for complete control and monitoring of all growth parameters. This can bring benefits like optimised feeding regime to reduce feed, zero pollution to our local water systems, and potentially better produce quality.”

Land-based recirculating aquaculture systems like Apollo’s are more energy intensive, but are highly flexible to meet potential food supply emergencies, provided there are ready sources of fast growing fish fingerlings, she said. “In the interest of diversifying our food sources and enhancing Singapore’s food security, the slight cost premium can possibly be justified in the longer term.”

Covid crisis points to climate challenge ahead

Getting to school as a boy growing up in Singapore in the 1970s could be soggy affair at times.

Tropical downpours overwhelmed drainage systems, leaving parts of the island impassable. Students braved the rains and rising waters, turning up wet and bedraggled, if they made it at all.

Thankfully, this became a thing of the past by the late 1980s. Massive flood alleviation efforts caused this story to recede from newspaper front pages, as a modern city-state emerged.

Yet, decades on, we seem to be heading back to the future.

Severe storms are now becoming more frequent.

The result: last month, pictures and videos of upscale districts in central Singapore inundated hit the headlines again, causing much consternation.

But even as the authorities rushed to unveil plans in response to the public concerns, a minister warned that as intense rainfall was becoming more common with global warming, people might have to get used to flash floods from time to time.

Rising sea levels is an existential issue for this low-lying island, about a third of which is less than 5 metres above the mean sea level. The country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has estimated that over $100 billion (Singapore dollars) might be needed over the next decades to tackle the rising tides caused by warming seas and melting ice sheets.

But Singapore is not alone. New York City declared a “flash flood emergency” earlier this month after record levels of rain in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

Over 300 people were killed in China’s Henan province in August, when a year’s worth of rain fell in three days, leaving many trapped in underground train carriages and road tunnels, as water levels rose.

Devastating floods in Germany and Belgium, droughts in Brazil, heatwaves in India, Australia, and the Pacific Northwest of the United States, wild fires in California and Canada, as well as across the Mediterranean and Amazon regions  – such extreme weather events, once the stuff of movies, have been playing out across the planet this year.

Get used to it, say the climate scientists, for these are signs of what’s to come.

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chairman Hoesung Lee, summed up the grim scenario this way: “It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change and making extreme weather more frequent and severe.”

“It also shows that climate change is affecting every region on our planet,” he said, following a UN report in August, dubbed a Code Red warning for humanity and an urgent call to action.

Yet, who can blame a weary world for being distracted, with so many countries still in the grip of a rampaging virus that refuses to yield.

But, as the IPCC’s Dr Lee rightly notes, the Covid-19 pandemic is a “foretaste of what climate change could do to our society, to nature and our lives”.

“Both climate change and Covid-19 have shown us the risks of an unthinking and rapacious approach to nature and its resources.”

Lamentably, while the world’s scientists were quick to step up to the Covid-19 challenge, delivering effective vaccines, efforts to curb the outbreak have been hampered by populist politicians, global inequalities, and a pandemic of misinformation.

Divisions and delays have compounded the challenge: the virus has continued to spread, mutate, and unleash new waves of infections.

The Covid-19 experience has made plain how difficult it will be to forge a global consensus on tackling the climate crisis.

The signs of this looming challenge, and the science behind it, grow clearer by the day. But here too, politics, inequality and misinformation confound concerted action.

This is where professional newsrooms have an important role to play.

And it is why this year’s World News Day on September 28, will focus on the climate crisis.

Some 500 newsrooms from around the world will come together to tell the story of how climate change is already impacting the lives and livelihoods of communities, and how they are grappling with it.

Professional newsrooms, with resources and expertise, are best placed to tell these stories in clear, compelling and credible ways.

One of the best examples of this, in my view, is the recent BBC documentary, The Truth about Climate Change.  In it,  environmentalist David Attenborough sums up the facts and makes the case for action, in his friendly-scientist-you-can-trust way.

“In 4,500 million years, our world has gone through many natural changes. Now, it is changing once again,” he warned.

“But this time, we ourselves are contributing to those changes. We are causing the world to heat up.

“If we continue to behave as we are doing, our children and grandchildren will have to deal with potentially catastrophic changes.

“The vast forests of the Amazon could wither and burn. The oceans could turn acid, destroying much of the life they presently contain.

“The Arctic could be transformed. Its ice could melt and its most famous animals vanish forever.

“Rising tides could cast millions of people adrift. Many of our coastal cities could be flooded, and drowned.”

There is still time to act if the world is to minimise these changes, he adds. But time, that most non-renewable of resources, is running out.

Sir David, 93, has been making such pleas for some time.

Now is the time to hear him, and heed.

Warren Fernandez is Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times, the leading English language news title in Singapore, and President of the World Editors Forum (WEF). 

Financing climate change: Banking on nature to fight climate change

The vision is grand, the outcome could be just what the planet needs: investing billions of dollars to save vanishing nature and fight climate change at the same time.

The foundations of such a market already exist. Called the voluntary carbon market, it focuses on the ability of nature to soak up huge amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2). Developers of conservation projects earn a return by selling carbon credits to buyers, usually big companies, to help them meet their climate goals.

Essentially, you are offsetting a portion of your own carbon emissions by paying someone else to do it for you.

The market, though still small, has shown it works. Scores of successful nature-based climate projects exist which avoid or lock away millions of tonnes of CO2.

Now, faced with the twin emergencies of climate change and biodiversity loss, investors want to remodel the market and channel huge sums into protecting and rehabilitating rainforests, mangroves and grasslands, and greatly expand the volumes of carbon credits, or offsets, for sale.

By the end of the decade, the market could be worth billions of dollars a year and Singapore is aiming to be a regional carbon credit investment and trading hub.

Efforts are well under way in Singapore and around the globe to make the market more transparent, more efficient and improve the quality and verification of the nature-based climate projects to entice large-scale investment. If done well, it could be a win for the fight against climate change and curb the loss of nature.

Trust and transparency

To get there, the market must overcome questions about transparency and concerns over ensuring every project does what it claims: reduces or locks away CO2 in a fully verifiable way.

And investors also need reassurance that the conservation or replanting projects are fully protected and not destroyed by fire or cleared for agriculture or logging. That’s where technology such as satellite monitoring comes in.

While existing projects have proved the model, the concern is whether vastly scaled-up investment will undermine the integrity of the market in the rush for carbon gold.

Carbon credits represent a tonne of CO2 reduced or locked away. It’s an attractive idea for customers such as car manufacturers, tech firms, banks and pension funds keen to hedge their future carbon costs.

A key focus, particularly in South-east Asia, is on saving natural ecosystems rich in carbon and with a high capacity for soaking up CO2, such as peat swamp forests. These forests and replanted areas need to be protected over the long term from logging, illegal clearing for palm oil and fires. Which is why well-run projects hire staff to monitor the project area on the ground, and in space using satellites.

Ultimately, the idea is about putting a value on ecosystems, a value that helps them compete with mining, industrial agriculture and logging interests.

The higher the carbon price, the greater the return – and the incentive for investors to take the risk.

The Singapore connection

“Thanks to their rich forest, wetland and mangrove ecosystems, South-east Asia and Asia generally are set to become one of the largest suppliers of natural climate solutions (NCS) globally. The region houses a third of the cost-effective NCS supply potential from both the protection and restoration of natural ecosystems in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and India,” said Mr Mikkel Larsen, chief sustainability officer for DBS Bank.

That makes Singapore a natural centre for investing in these projects and trading the credits – this explains why Temasek, DBS and others are looking at ways for Singapore to capitalise on revamping the market.

The idea is to leverage Singapore’s long history in commodities trading and its well-regulated financial market. Singapore firms could use offsets as part of their emissions reduction strategies and, one day, carbon credits might be included in the nation’s carbon tax scheme.

Temasek has been helping to guide Singapore’s evolution into a carbon services hub and has bought offsets from two forest carbon projects to meet its internal emissions targets.

A Temasek spokesman said multiple approaches should be used in the fight against climate change, including carbon offsets. He added that Temasek hopes to support natural climate solutions and carbon projects that are of high quality and meet other social and environmental aspects, such as conserving and restoring important ecological systems like peatlands, rainforests and mangroves.

Preserving and rehabilitating these areas also reduce the risk of fires and haze, and are good for local communities.

Investor interest is being driven by mounting pressure on companies and governments to meet stringent climate targets. Globally there’s been a surge in pledges to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century. To get there, you’re going to need nature.

“Eliminating the 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere every year requires an enormous amount of global momentum and investment,” said Mr Dharsono Hartono, co-founder of the Katingan-Mentaya forest preservation project in Central Kalimantan on Borneo island.

“This is going to involve entirely rethinking how we produce energy, how we travel and how societies operate. But it also means rethinking how we treat nature. To keep global warming well below 2deg C, we must protect nature,” he added.

The Katingan-Mentaya project, comprising mostly carbon-rich deep peat swamp forest, is about twice the area of Singapore. Saving it from destruction by palm oil companies means about 7.5 million tonnes of CO2 are prevented from being emitted every year. Selling carbon offsets to big corporations, including VW Group, Shell and Bank of America, helps run the project and fund community programmes.

True potential

Mr Dharsono’s project, though, represents a fraction of the true potential if huge investment is channelled into well-managed and well-funded projects.

South Pole, a Swiss firm that has developed more than 800 carbon offset projects globally, sees big opportunities for investment.

“Nature-based solutions – such as forest protection and restoration – can actually provide over a third of the climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilise warming to below 2 deg C very cost-effectively. So investing in a cost-effective solution that can mitigate over 30 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions seems like a no-brainer,” said Ms Leah Wieczorek, South Pole’s business development lead for Asia, who is based in Singapore.

Under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, nearly 200 nations agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 deg C and aim for 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels if possible.

Professor Koh Lian Pin runs the Centre for Nature-Based Climate Solutions at the National University of Singapore. He and his team have analysed areas of the planet that could yield good returns for investors.

In a recent study published in Nature Communications, Prof Koh and colleagues show that at an initial carbon price of US$5.80 (S$7.70) a tonne, the protection of tropical forests can generate investible carbon amounting to 1.8 billion tonnes a year globally – roughly the annual emissions of Japan and Australia combined.

Financially viable carbon projects could generate return-on-investment totalling US$46 billion a year, with the highest returns in the Asia-Pacific at US$24.6 billion, followed by the Americas and Africa.

And the higher the carbon price, the greater the area of forest carbon sites that could be conserved.

The recent surge in interest in carbon offsets is pointing to higher prices, especially buyers locking in future flows of offsets at higher prices for high-quality projects.

Groups such as former Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s task force on scaling up the voluntary carbon market foresee exponential growth over the coming decade.

“In 2019, just over US$300 million worth of trading took place on the voluntary market when these projects should be measured in the tens of billions of dollars per year,” he told a green finance summit in London last November.

Investors such as HSBC and Australia’s Pollination group, a climate change advisory firm, agree.

Last year, both teamed up with the aim of creating the world’s largest dedicated natural capital asset management company. They are launching a natural capital fund to invest primarily in regenerative agriculture and sustainable forestry projects. A second carbon fund is also planned aiming to ramp up investment in carbon offset projects. Overall, the intention is to raise up to US$6 billion in funds.

“We take the view that there is a huge amount of demand and very little supply such that investment is required in the underlying projects to scale them up rapidly,” said Mr Martijn Wilder, Pollination’s founding partner.

The funding model for nature-based projects has to change, he said, with significant upfront funding crucial to ensure projects get off the ground, are well managed and well protected.

“Protecting a rainforest is an infrastructure project. That’s what you’re doing.”

HSBC said escalating risks to the climate and biodiversity have changed mindsets.

“Today, nature is undervalued and overlooked by our investment community. This must change,” said Ms Melissa McDonald, the bank’s global head of responsible investment.

How to scale up

The existing voluntary carbon market has been around for about two decades and has strict standards for offset projects. But trading has always been small and opaque because it’s purely between buyer and seller and not on an open exchange. That needs to change, market players said.

The main standard-setting body that certifies offset projects, Washington-based Verra, has issued offsets representing 622 million tonnes of CO2 reduced from 1,697 projects to date. That’s the equivalent of taking 132 million cars off the road for a year.

And the market is growing. “We’ve seen that in terms of the volumes of the projects coming through the door. That’s definitely growing. We’ve seen in the last few years an increasing trend towards natural climate solutions,” said Verra CEO David Antonioli.

South Pole’s Ms Wieczorek said interest is growing in Asia, too. “We are seeing a dramatic increase in clients in Asia looking to make carbon reduction commitments,” she noted, adding that some clients are looking to lock in long-term offtake contracts.

“The vast majority of humankind’s carbon emissions are currently unpriced, so having a dedicated budget for offsetting also helps companies set or at least consider an internal price on carbon,” she added.

For now, though, Mr Carney, who is the United Nations special envoy for climate action and finance, said the voluntary carbon market still struggles with low liquidity and scarce financing.

To scale things up, Prof Koh said the market must overcome “pain points”. “The market will grow with our ability to improve the quality of those nature-based credits, our ability to reduce the cost of validation, of certification, to improve the transparency of monitoring those projects.”

Mr Larsen of DBS agrees.

“The thing that has plagued the voluntary carbon market for the longest time is issues around trust and integrity. The quality and integrity of the projects is believed to be too low,” he said. People buy a project and it doesn’t do what it is said to do, that’s the integrity. Or it creates problems and social issues, that’s the quality, he said.

“There’s no doubt that carbon offsets projects, if done right, do work, and they do sequester carbon,” he said. But he also feels that transparency around pricing and verification is needed. Technology can help by improving the science and technology around projects, around verification of carbon stock, for example finding ways of improving carbon sequestration.

One firm that has brought price transparency is Singapore-based AirCarbon Exchange, a digital platform that trades fully verified carbon offsets. The exchange treats carbon offsets like a commodity with a range of offsets available for trading.

“The current market construct fails to send a strong price signal due to a fragmented project-based trading environment. A strong price signal will unleash pent-up capital to finance climate mitigating projects,” said Mr Bill Pazos, AirCarbon’s chief operating officer and co-founder.

Few in the market question the integrity of the standards set by Verra – it’s more that the problems lie elsewhere in the market as it has evolved. “These standards have been around for 15 to 20 years. They are very robust. They are constantly evolving and improving themselves,” said Pollination’s Mr Wilder.

Verra’s Mr Antonioli said they are constantly updating their standards according to changes in technology, regulations and latest scientific evidence.

Genuine action?

Some conservation groups say offsets are just a dodge, allowing polluters to buy their way out of making deep emission cuts to their operations.

That is untrue, key players said.

“It is impossible right now for most companies to achieve climate neutrality, a key milestone on the journey to meet net-zero pledges, without the use of carbon credits,” said South Pole’s Ms Wieczorek.

Offsets from well-run, fully verified projects can help firms that are already cutting emissions go the last mile.

For DBS’ Mr Larsen, carbon credits are responding to an urgent need. “We talk about carbon offsets as a potential point of delay and inaction. And I always really struggle with that because with a football field of rainforest being cut down every six seconds, the inaction lies in not trying to help.”

Mr Wilder said that for now, carbon financing remains a vital source of funding for conservation, despite the detractors. “The global climate is in crisis and we have to do everything we possibly can to reduce the risks. We shouldn’t be ideological about offsets and how we do it, provided the actions are real and have integrity.”

 

ST GRAPHIC: MIEL

Building Singapore’s largest floating solar farm

Covid-19 may have caused delays to shipments of key equipment, but that has not derailed the timeline set out for building Singapore’s largest solar photovoltaic (PV) system to date.

Spread across 10 solar-panel islands – equivalent in size to 45 football fields – on the surface of Tengeh Reservoir, it is also one of the world’s largest inland floating solar PV systems.

It is set to be operationally ready in a few months, with national water agency PUB poised to tap the farm’s 122,000 solar panels to power its water treatment plants which convert reservoir water into drinking water.

The farm can produce enough electricity to power around 16,000 four-room Housing Board flats for a year.

Last year, solar PV systems generated only 0.56 per cent of the total electricity generated nationwide.

Then Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, who is now Education Minister, announced a climate target – a quadrupling of solar energy capacity to 1.5 gigawatt-peak (GWp) by 2025.

That would power about 260,000 households annually, meeting about 2 per cent of Singapore’s projected electricity needs in 2025.

The target accelerates the country’s goal of deploying 2 GWp of solar energy by 2030.

Since 2015, the capacity of solar PV systems that have been contributing to the national grid has grown from around 60 megawatt-peak (MWp) to around 428 MWp at the end of last year.

This newest solar farm in Tengeh, which has a capacity of 60 MWp, will lead to carbon savings equivalent to removing 7,000 cars from the roads and contribute 4 per cent to the 2025 target.

Ms Chong Mien Ling, chief sustainability officer and director of policy and planning at PUB, said Tengeh Reservoir was chosen for this large-scale project because of its size. The farm occupies around a third of the reservoir’s surface.

Building the farm

PUB – Singapore’s water agency – will purchase clean energy generated by the farm from the national grid. The solar energy is not directly supplied to PUB’s infrastructure.

Energy company Sembcorp, which won the tender, took just about half a year to build the farm, with the bulk of the construction starting last December.

Ms Jen Tan, head of integrated solutions in Singapore and South-east Asia at Sembcorp Industries, told The Straits Times: “The beauty of a solar farm is that it has no moving parts. With a service lifespan of 25 years, this means that the farm should behave in the same way for the next 25 years if properly installed. No major maintenance is required.”

But the solar panels have natural degradation, with the power generated falling by 0.5 per cent to 0.6 per cent every year.

“So we are expecting the system to still be able to perform around at least 80 per cent of its original capacity at the end of 20 years,” said Ms Tan.

Being the first in Singapore to undertake such a large-scale project, Sembcorp faced a steep learning curve. “Early this year (amid the pandemic), assembling just 1,200 solar panels a day was difficult,” Ms Tan recalled.

The engineers then came up with their own techniques to boost productivity, such as by inventing a custom-built jig that saw the number of solar panels assembled peaking at around 1,800 to 2,000 a day.

A digital monitoring system will be set up to monitor the health of the solar farm. And as dirt on the panels can reduce operational efficiency, they are tilted at a slight angle to allow rainwater to wash off the dirt.

Drones with thermal-imaging capabilities will also be deployed to detect any faulty panels.

Environmental challenges

PUB said that as operationalising a sprawling solar farm may throw up environmental concerns such as the disruption of aquatic life, it took pre-emptive steps by looking into the feasibility of “solarising” Singapore from as early as 2011.

In 2015, the agency started studies to determine the potential impact on biodiversity and water quality of the reservoir, and subsequently started a 1 MWp solar testbed in Tengeh in 2016.

“We wanted to look at the impact on water quality, such as dissolved oxygen levels, nutrient levels and water temperature; how biodiversity is affected, if there is any noise generated and so on. We concluded that there was minimal impact,” Ms Chong said.

These studies gave PUB the confidence to scale up implementation of the panels, and in 2019, it invited private developers to come on board to install the Tengeh floating solar PV system.

Sembcorp also ensured sufficient gaps between the panels, facilitating good airflow and sunlight into the water.

Materials used to build the farm were carefully selected. For instance, the floats used are food-grade certified – meaning that they are non-toxic and safe for consumption. This prevents water quality from being compromised in the long term.

Nature groups were consulted, and the results of the environmental study were shared with them to allay their concerns.

The Tengeh solar farm intentionally avoided the south of the reservoir so as not to encroach on the nesting area of the grey-headed fish eagle, a near-threatened species.

“The farm was not built near that area to preserve the eagle’s habitat – an understanding which PUB has with the nature groups after we consulted them,” Ms Chong said.

In 2019, Sembcorp and Singapore Polytechnic also agreed to collaborate on researching and commercialising Singapore’s first solar panel recycling process. This involves extracting recyclable materials from parts of used solar panels after their lifespan of 25 years.

Powering the future

PUB is currently constructing two floating solar PV systems at Bedok Reservoir and Lower Seletar Reservoir, with each having a capacity of 1.5 MWp.

“We are also trying to maximise the solar PVs on our rooftops,” said Ms Chong.

Earlier in March, sustainable energy provider Sunseap Group announced that it had set up a sea-based floating 5 MWp system in the Strait of Johor, off Woodlands.

Meanwhile, Sembcorp is ready to scale up and build more farms. With a substantial amount of learning that came out of the Tengeh project, the company is confident about undertaking future projects of such scale, Ms Tan said.

Tweaks will be done as each environment is different and there is no one-size-fits-all design, she noted. For instance, whether the farm is out at sea or in a reservoir will determine the materials used as freshwater and seawater have different salinity levels.

“We have the knowledge, we know the challenges, how to mitigate them, and we intend to document all of these and apply it to other farms,” Ms Tan said.

The article was shared by The Straits Times as part of the World News Day initiative.

Aerial shot of the 60 megawatt-peak floating solar photovoltaic system on Tengeh Reservoir on May 15, 2021. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

 

Special report: Mountain of Masks (1)

A Growing environmental problem emerges amid Covid-19 pandemic.

Part one of a special report.

When you think of the Covid-19 pandemic, one item probably symbolises it more than any other: the disposable mask.

Across the globe, mandatory mask wearing has saved countless lives and made everyday life safer.

But the surge in mask use has a dark side. It is estimated that billions of masks are used daily across the globe and this is creating a growing environmental problem that could last much longer than the pandemic.

Disposable masks are made from plastics, which can take decades to break down in the environment.

In addition to mask usage, the pandemic has led to a surge in other plastic waste, from single-use food containers and bags to huge amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) from hospitals and businesses.

Conservationists and non-governmental organisations are increasingly concerned that a lot of the plastic waste, especially Covid-19-related waste, is ending up in landfills, waterways and oceans, adding to the millions of tonnes of plastic waste already dumped into the world’s oceans every year.

Dr George Leonard, chief scientist at US-based Ocean Conservancy, said: “Without question, pandemic-related gear like gloves and masks are hurting sea life.

“Sea birds, turtles and other ocean animals can get tangled up in mask elastics, or choke on masks and gloves that end up along shorelines or in the water.”

Mr Subhash Chandran, 32, knows the threat well. He has been diving underwater to clean up the seabed in the coastal city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Last November, when volunteers did their first underwater cleanup during the pandemic, they saw the ocean choked with masks, gloves and empty medicine sachets.

“Normally we find a lot of plastic bottles and wrappers. After the pandemic, we found 1,500kg of mostly N95 masks, surgical masks, tablet packets and gloves.

“I consider the ocean my second home, but it is a Covid-19 dump yard today,” Mr Chandran said.

In Jakarta and Manila, large amounts of Covid-19 waste, from masks to gowns, are dumped in landfills or along the roadside. Some find their way into rivers and seas.

While officials have been trying to improve on collection and disposal, especially from hospitals, large amounts are still being dumped rather than incinerated.

The Philippines ranks second in South-east Asia with the most number of Covid-19 cases after Indonesia.

“We can just imagine how staggering the figures would be for the disposable personal protective equipment being used daily and discarded,” said Ms Gloria Ramos, vice-president of conservation organisation Oceana Philippines.

“Single-use plastic is already a problem. What we’re seeing on the surface is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“There’s so much lying on the ocean floor, and now not just plastics but face masks too,” said Ms Ramos.

Unmasking the threat

So how great is the threat from masks?

That is still unclear but evidence from The Straits Times correspondents in Indonesia, India and the Philippines point to worrying signs. ST also interviewed a variety of experts who point to an emerging problem.

Dr Denise Hardesty, a marine plastic waste scientist from Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, said more data is needed to get a clearer picture.

“One would anticipate that it would be an issue, particularly because people are going to be much less likely to want to pick up a littered mask on the ground than they would, say, a candy wrapper, because people would have fear around Covid-19,” she told ST.

She noted that the coronavirus outbreak has led to a huge increase in mask usage but in South-east Asia, it was already common to wear masks prior to the pandemic, so more data is needed on pre-pandemic and current mask usage.

What is clear, though, is that masks and other PPE waste are already washing up on beaches around the globe.

International Coastal Cleanup run by Ocean Conservancy has recorded tens of thousands of pieces of PPE as of early November, with more detailed data expected in the coming months, Dr Leonard said.

In a separate coastal cleanup, thousands of PPE items, mainly masks and gloves, were also recorded during a three-week waste collection exercise involving participants from 78 countries during September and October last year. The cleanup was organised by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an industry body.

Mask manufacturing has rapidly become a multi-billion-dollar industry to meet spiralling demand.

Last June, researchers estimated that 129 billion masks were used and disposed of every month. At roughly 3.5g each, that equates to 451,500 tonnes of masks a month and would cover an area roughly three times the size of Singapore.

One of the authors of the study, Professor Tony Walker from the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in Canada, told ST that estimate may now be conservative.

“Now it’s a full-blown pandemic. With many countries having mandatory non-medical mask wearing in public places, the numbers would be even more staggering.”

A study published last September by British site finder.com estimated that Britons were sending more than 1.6 billion disposable masks to landfills each month.

Forever plastic

With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing, single-use masks will continue to be used in large numbers for some time to come.

“We are in a health crisis at a global level and there’s a strong encouragement across all countries in terms of the use of single-use or reusable masks. And I think that number will only go up as we go forward,” said Mr Jacob Duer, chief executive of the Singapore-based Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which is working on solutions to reduce plastic waste globally and boost recycling.

But he said in the long term, single-use mask usage will not necessarily continue to rise. “I think it will see a flattening out at one point because we will transition to reusable masks.”

Asia remains a key focus for the group because of the huge amounts of mismanaged plastic waste in the region.

The Burangkeng dumpsite on the eastern edge of Indonesia’s capital provides an example. Surgical masks and rubber gloves are mixed in with daily household rubbish, as goats scavenge the trash for food.

Waste picker Oom Komalasari, 48, said prior to the pandemic, she often found medical waste such as needles and intravenous fluid bottles scattered among other garbage. Now, there are more.

“Nearby factories dispose of their masks and gloves here, and many more have been thrown here lately,” she said.

For Dr Leonard, the surge in production and use of Covid-19-linked single-use plastics will likely haunt humanity and the environment for years to come. “Perhaps what’s so troubling is that plastics never break down, so we really can’t operate with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude,” he said.

VIDEO

This article, first published by The Straits Times, was shared as as part of the World News Day initiative

 

Digging deep to understand rising sea levels

About 10,000 years ago, sea levels in Singapore were at least 20m lower than today.

But with the ice age coming to an end, melting land ice fuelled the oceans and sea levels rose over the next three millennia.

Eventually, rising waters flooded and killed a mangrove forest along Singapore’s southern coast, according to a new study by climate scientists at the Republic’s leading Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

On June 4, their findings were published in the scientific journal The Holocene. They offer insight into how rising sea levels at present could impact the country in the years to come – especially when the accelerating rate of sea-level rise due to human activity is taken into consideration.

Researchers found that from 10,000 to 5,000 years ago, sea levels were rising at rates as high as 10mm to 15mm a year.

Sea-level data for the subsequent two millennia is patchy and NTU researchers are looking to fill the gaps.

Preliminary data, however, indicates that modern sea levels were reached about 3,000 years ago and remained relatively constant until the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.

In the 20th century, a warming planet due to human emissions caused sea levels to rise 1mm to 2mm a year as water expands when heated.

Today, the rate is between 3mm and 4mm a year – thermal expansion is still happening but land ice is also melting faster.

Scientists say sea levels would only rise faster, as mankind continues to burn fossil fuels and fell forests, putting more and more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

Study lead author Stephen Chua, who did the research as part of his doctoral work at NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore and the Asian School of the Environment (ASE), said understanding how sea levels have changed in Singapore could lead to more robust and accurate local projection of sea-level rise.

A better understanding of the fluctuations will help scientists here come up with models that can more accurately predict sea-level rise in this part of the world instead of relying on global forecasts.

Dr Chua added: “The study offers a strategic insight for Singapore as it moves to adapt to climate change.”

Looking back to look ahead

To figure out what sea levels were like all those years ago, the researchers had to dig deep into the earth.

They looked through thousands of available borehole logs – records of holes that have been drilled into the ground for infrastructure projects – to find an area with deposits such as marine mud and mangrove peats.

Such deposits accrete, or accumulate, layer by layer and contain pollen and microfossils of foraminifera – tiny organisms found in marine environments.

Their presence can help researchers determine how sea levels have fluctuated in Singapore.

For instance, the presence of foraminifera in one part of the core indicates that seawater had likely inundated the area then. On the other hand, if pollen from trees is found in another segment of the core, it could mean seawater did not extend that far inland at that point.

Radiocarbon dating – a technique also used by archaeologists – can be used to determine the exact age of the deposits.

The climate scientists at NTU discovered abundant mangrove pollen 20m below the current sea level, indicating that a mangrove shoreline existed in southern Singapore almost 10,000 years ago.

The findings show the limitations of using mangroves as a nature-based solution to keep out the rising tides, according to the researchers.

Because the complex root systems of mangrove trees can trap sediment from the tides as they ebb and flow, they can, to an extent, keep pace with sea-level rise and are considered a natural defence against rising waters.

Despite mangroves’ adaptability and effectiveness as a coastal defence, the study highlights their limitations in the event of rapid sea-level rise, said the NTU researchers in a statement.

Professor Philip Gibbard, a geologist from the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in the study, said sea-level records from places far from the ice sheets were important, as the processes driving sea-level changes in such areas would be different from the processes nearer to the poles.

“This important contribution from Singapore and the region provides a valuable record… This record can then be further refined as more studies become available in the future,” he said.

This story, provided by The Straits Times, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.

Surviving sea-level rise

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns humans are unequivocally warming the planet, and that is triggering rapid changes in the atmosphere, oceans, and polar regions, and increasing extreme weather around the world.

The IPCC released the Sixth Assessment Report on August 9th, 2021. The report from 234 scientists from around the globe summarized the current climate research on how the Earth is changing as temperatures rise and the impacts for the future. I was one of these scientists.

The facts about climate change have been clear for a long time, with the evidence just continuing to grow. The warning signs of climate change have been clear over the last decade, with each new emergency topping its precedent.

The earth as we know it has become radically altered by our misuse of fossil fuels and natural resources. Our lives and livelihoods are in danger of forever suffering from the consequence of our own actions.

Global temperatures are rising, producing more droughts and wildfires, increasing the intensity of storms, causing catastrophic flooding, and raising sea levels.

Rising seas increase the vulnerability of cities and the associated infrastructure that line many coastlines around the world because of flooding, erosion, destruction of coastal ecosystems and contamination of surface and ground waters.

Future sea-level rise will affect every coastal nation. But in the coming decades, the greatest effects will be felt in Asia, due to the number of people living in the continent’s low-lying coastal areas. Mainland China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand are home to the most people on land projected to be below average annual coastal flood levels by 2050. Together, those six nations account for roughly 75% of the 300 million people on land facing the same vulnerability at mid-century.

Global sea level is rising at a rate unmatched for at least thousands of years.

Global sea level is rising primarily because global temperatures are rising, causing ocean water to expand and land ice to melt. About a third of its current rise comes from thermal expansion — when water grows in volume as it warms. The rest comes from the melting of ice on land.

In the 20th century the melting has been mostly limited to mountain glaciers, but the big concern for the future is the melting of giant ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. If all the ice in Greenland melted, it would raise global sea levels by seven metres.

Antarctica is the existential threat to coastal nations. It is twice the size of Australia (over 20,000 times the size of Singapore!), two to three kilometres thick, and has enough water to raise sea levels by 65 metres. That is more than the height of the Singapore Art Science Museum and the Super Tree of Gardens by the Bay. If just a few per cent of the Antarctic ice sheet were to melt, it would cause devastating impacts.

Ominously, satellite-based measurements of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets show that this melting is accelerating. Greenland is now the biggest contributor to global sea-level rise. Greenland went from dumping only about 51 billion tonnes of ice into the ocean between 1980 and 1990, to losing 286 billion tonnes between 2010 and 2018.

That is a staggering 76 trillion gallons of water added to the ocean each year, which is equivalent to 114 million Olympic-size swimming pools.

Sea-level rise through 2050 is fixed.  Regardless of how quickly nations can lower emissions, the world is looking at about 15 to 30 centimeters of sea-level rise through the middle of the century due to the long timescales response of the oceans and ice sheets to warming. Sea-level rise is expected to continue slowly for centuries, even under a stable climate. This so-called ‘commitment to sea-level rise’ leads to a long-term obligation to adapt to sea-level rise, which coastal policy and practice is only just beginning to recognize.

Beyond 2050, sea-level rise becomes increasingly susceptible to the world’s emissions choices. If countries choose to continue their current paths, greenhouse gas emissions will likely bring 3 to 4 C of warming by 2100, and sea level rise of up to 1 meter. 

Under the most extreme emissions scenario, rapid ice sheet loss from Greenland and Antarctica is possible leading to sea level rise approaching 2 meters by the end of this century. At this point sea-level rise is not an existential threat but a reality to coastal nations such as Singapore.

But there is hope to survive sea-level rise.

The IPCC report has shown a growing understanding of the causes of climate change and their solutions. 

A 2 C warmer world, consistent with the Paris Agreement, would see lower sea level rise, most likely about half a meter by 2100.

What’s more, if the more the world limits its greenhouse gas emissions, the chance of triggering rapid ice sheet loss from Greenland and Antarctica is much lower.

But time is running out to meet the ambitious goal laid out in Paris Agreement to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

We must hold our elected official accountable to the promises they have made on climate change. Indeed, we may require reductions far more than those that have been pledged by nations in the run up to COP26, the United Nations climate summit to be held in Glasgow in November.

Fortunately, attitudes across the world towards climate change have shifted in the last decade. Where once there was ignorance, inattention, and disbelief about climate change, now there is concern. 

Individually, rather than depriving ourselves, we should instead be adding to our lives to contribute to the fight to tackle the climate emergency. These can include things like volunteering, activism, and spreading awareness to other people about the effects that climate change can have on our lives. All these positive solutions coupled with attempting to live a more sustainable life, can make all the difference.

Technological advances are also a cause for hope. Solar and wind energy and battery technology are now far cheaper, and their efficiency is getting better and better. New technologies, including artificial intelligence, now also offer the prospect of huge improvements in the energy efficiency of transport systems, building operations, manufacturing processes and food production. 

Ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere also offer hope, not only of reaching net zero, but in eventually reversing climate change.  

The planet’s oceans, forests and grasslands take up huge quantities of carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, much of which is stored in plants or in the soil, creating major global carbon sinks.  

By preserving and expanding forests, these sinks could be made larger.  Taking greater care of oceans and land is not only important for preserving biodiversity but is also a key part of climate change mitigation. 

I believe that, for all the challenges that we face, climate change is the one that will define the contours of this century more dramatically perhaps than the others.

Surviving sea-level rise is going to change our lives; it is going to change the way we regard ourselves on the planet; it will lead to a happier, more equitable way of life for all of humankind. 

Only then can we leave behind a world that is worthy of our children, where there is reduced conflict and greater cooperation – a world marked not by human suffering, but by human progress.

This story, written by Professor Benjamin P. Horton, Director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.

Stranded Malaysians and Singaporean hosts forge enduring bonds

Click here to see the original story.

SINGAPORE — Since she was five, Ms Kelly Kanaga, 30, and her family moved from one place to another for a roof over their heads before they got a rental flat of their own a year ago.

When she heard about the plight of Malaysian workers sleeping rough near Kranji MRT Station after a nationwide lockdown in their country in March, she did not think twice about opening her home to strangers even though it was already cramped.

Ms Kanaga was among many Singaporeans who offered their homes for free as temporary shelters.

“For many years, after my family lost our home, we would stay at people’s homes, so I know how it feels to be in their position,” said the full-time content creator, who lives with her mother and two siblings in a three-room Housing and Development Board flat in Marsiling.

TODAY reported on the Malaysian workers sleeping rough near Kranji MRT Station after the Malaysian border closure — which took effect on March 18 to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak — left them scrambling for shelter. These workers usually commute daily.

The report garnered more than 116,000 shares and an outpouring of support from Singaporeans, who offered to house Malaysian workers in their homes, or provide them with food and blankets.

Ms Kanaga said she took in two workers who work as cleaners at her sister’s office, providing them with mattresses in her living room for two months.

One of them, Ms Kasturi Karpanan, 48, was at her wits’ end trying to find a place before the offer from Ms Kanaga and her sister.

The mother of four children aged 13 to 23 was away from her family in Kulai, Johor, for the first time, so she could keep working in Singapore.

Alone here, Ms Karpanan said she never expected such hospitality from Ms Kanaga’s family. They went grocery shopping occasionally and she even appeared in an episode of a show Ms Kanaga has on YouTube.

“They spent a lot of money on me over the two months. They bought me a pillow and clothes, and refused to take a single cent.

“I didn’t feel like I was living in a stranger’s house at all… It was like living with family,” she said.

After a tip-off by activist Gilbert Goh, TODAY went to Kranji MRT Station on March 19 at about 9.30pm.

The first sign of the homeless Malaysians was warehouse storekeeper Armel Sharil, who was leaning on the station’s metal gates, his face buried between his legs.

Mr Armel had only his wallet, a phone with no internet access, a portable charger, a small tub of hair wax and mouthwash with him. He had no time to pack more belongings before the lockdown.

He was hesitant to share his story at first, but when he did, many followed suit as they wanted their stories told.

TODAY’s reporter and photographer stayed at the station till almost 2am approaching worker after worker, although some refused to talk and many were already snoring.

IMPACT ON COMMUNITY

The Ministry of Manpower said 14 workers were picked up from the station later in the night and taken to a temporary relief centre in Jurong East managed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

A check at the station by TODAY the next evening found no Malaysian workers looking to spend the night there.

Instead, this reporter was met by groups of volunteers carrying boxes of sleeping bags, bread and blankets. Officers from the High Commission of Malaysia and the Malaysian Association in Singapore also turned up at the station after reading TODAY’s report.

Within a week, property portal 99.co started an initiative matching homeowners to workers in need.

To date, 99.co has worked with 40 homeowners and residential firm MetroResidences to match workers with temporary housing. Nine workers have been matched.

Mr Darius Cheng, its chief executive officer, told TODAY: “99.co salutes Malaysians working in Singapore for their sacrifice and dedication in earning a living for their loved ones back home,  especially in challenging conditions imposed by the lockdown.”

One of its sign-ups was Ms Michelle Loi, 48, who had a vacant flat she wanted to rent out.

Instead, she used it to house two workers for free — one stayed a month before returning to Malaysia and the other moved in with his colleague after two months.

Ms Loi is still in touch with one of them, who kept her updated when he changed his job and moved into his new accommodation.

Bonds flourished between homeowners and the workers they housed.

For outdoor instructor Ruby Tan, who housed two workers for two months, the workers made co-living easy, as they were respectful of the space and kept it clean.

“I’m happy to be able to help, and at the same time, make new friends. It was bittersweet when they left,” said the 32-year-old, who lives in a three-room flat with her husband.

“I felt like we hadn’t built enough of a connection and they were gone.”

The workers left in May when they found a place to stay.

Similarly, human resource executive Joy Choo, 32, who opened her home to a worker, said the pair keeps in touch.

“She still has a plush toy in the room… She told me that she would come back for it before she returns to Malaysia,” said Ms Choo.

She recalled having to make adjustments when sharing her home with the Muslim worker, such as ordering in Halal food.

TODAY did not speak to the workers involved, as they did not wish their employers to know of their circumstances.

Ms Kanaga said she would open up her home to anyone who needs a place to stay, no matter the circumstances.

Ms Karpanan said she tries to visit Ms Kanaga’s family whenever she has time as she misses them.

“When I am alone, I think about the things we did together or I will watch Kelly’s shows (on YouTube).”

This article was written in conjunction with World News Day, which raises awareness of journalism’s role in helping people to make sense of and improve the world around them. The campaign, on Sept 28, will showcase the best work from newsrooms around the globe and how they have brought about positive change in the community. 

Warren Fernandez: Why real news matters amid the twin pandemics of Covid-19 and fake news

Over 150 newsrooms from around the world will come together today to mark World News Day, including journalists from Toronto to Taipei, Spain to Singapore.

This, however, is not an occasion for journalists to pat ourselves on the back for the work we do. Rather, the focus is on how journalists go about reporting on issues that matter to our audiences.

In the face of the Covid-19 outbreak, audiences have been turning to professional journalists like never before.

They want answers on how to stay safe, as well as how to safeguard their jobs. They need to know the facts. They need help separating fact from fiction, amid the pandemic of fake news that has also gone viral. They are looking to people they can trust to help them join the dots, to make sense of these bewildering times.

At a time when so much has been turned on its head, this much has become clear: Real news matters. The truth matters. Objectivity matters. Balance and fairness matter.

In short, quality journalism matters.

These are hallmarks of professional newsrooms. These newsrooms strive to tell the stories that matter to the communities they serve.

Consider these examples. In March, the Brazilian media group 100 Fronteiras told the story of the trauma caused by the sudden closing of the International Friendship Bridge between the towns of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay and Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil.

“Many families had to split up. People who live in Foz, but have relatives on the other side of the bridge and now only see themselves through the cell phone screen.

“Never before in the history of the world has a hug been so desired. Yes, people really only value it after they can’t. Now we are feeling it in our skin and it hurts.”

On the other side of the earth, a similar story of separation and loss was playing out. In my hometown, Singapore, the land-bridge popularly called the Causeway that many use to cross into Johor Bahru in Malaysia, also had to be shut down to stem the spread of the virus. Families, workers, businesses and communities, that had been intertwined for decades, were suddenly left bereft of each another. Their stories were told in the pages of The Straits Times.

In the face of a global pandemic, our common humanity also rang out in stories of courage and hope which many newsrooms recounted. In a special report in February, titled ‘On the frontlines of the coronavirus’, we profiled the doctors, nurses and officers in Singapore who were fighting the virus. Likewise, The Canadian Press traced a patient’s harrowing journey from emergency room to Intensive Care Unit and finally to recovery and rehabilitation, highlighting the many people who pitched in to save one man’s life in a feature in April.

Across the planet, newsrooms have been bringing these stories to our audiences, not only to inform and educate, but also to inspire and uplift communities.

In the process, Covid-19 has reminded us of many things we had taken for granted.  It has made plain the importance of good governance, the value of trust in leaders and institutions, and the solace and strength that families and communities provide. It has also highlighted the critical role that a credible and reliable media plays in the health and well-being of our societies.

Ironically, however, the pandemic has also posed an existential threat to many newsrooms. While audiences have surged, revenues and resources have plunged, making it harder for journalists to keep doing their jobs.

World News Day is an opportunity for us to ponder why this matters.

Real News matters if we are to make sense of the bewildering developments around us. Credible journalism is critical if we are to have informed debates about where we might be headed in a post-pandemic world.  Newsrooms that are engaged with their readers can help rally communities in a time of wrenching change.

Indeed, as the French author Albert Camus mused in his novel, The Plague, which tells the story of how the inhabitants of a town came to terms with a deadly outbreak: “The strongest desire was, and would be, to behave as if nothing had changed…but, one can’t forget everything, however great one’s wish to do so; the plague was bound to leave traces, anyhow, in people’s hearts.”

Wittingly or otherwise, the “traces in people’s hearts” that are left post Covid-19 will have to be dealt with, when the pandemic now still raging around the world, eventually, passes.

Societies that remain well served by good news organisations will be better placed to do so.

Professional journalists and newsrooms will be vital in helping communities survey the ravaged landscape around them. They will also be critical for the honest conversations that will be needed to figure out the way forward.

That, put simply, is why the success and sustainability of the media matters – now more so than ever– to us all.

Warren Fernandez is the Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times, Singapore’s leading English language news organization.

This Singaporean, 23, aims to get viewers saying ‘WTS’ with videos exploring social issues

Image from Zhong Han.

This story first appeared in Mothership on July 25, 2020.

Lee Zhong Han tells us how he started a community initiative from scratch, garnering tens of thousands of views online.

What comes to mind when you see the letters WTS?

For 23-year-old Lee Zhong Han, what may normally stand for a crude expression of incredulity, is actually the name of his brainchild, WTS Community, a visual storytelling initiative.

“Yes, WTS is an abbreviation for We Tell Stories,” he told Mothership.

The initiative started as a social media campaign seeking to tell stories about how everyday Singaporeans were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic but quickly evolved into a platform that also features other ground-up efforts addressing community needs.

Today, a quick look at the initiative’s Facebook page shows that the initiative’s videos have clocked up tens of thousands of views on average with WTS Community’s latest video bringing to light the struggles that local food and beverage businesses are experiencing.

Another video was devoted to the SGUnited Buka Puasa Initiative, a community effort which provides free Buka Puasa meals to underprivileged families during Ramadan.

OVERWHELMED BY STRUGGLES FACED BY COMMUNITIES

“Storytelling as a force for good”, Lee explained, is at the core of what his community initiative does.

Through WTS, we aim to bring more stories to light and increase the awareness of social issues faced in Singapore through exploring the micro and macro aspects of society.”

The project, which started in March this year, was the product of an “accumulation of experiences” from working on nonprofit and social enterprise initiatives and learning about societal and environmental issues.

The 23-year-old, who is currently studying counselling at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, recalled being overwhelmed when he first started learning about society and the environment.

“I was shocked by the vast amounts of information. There was so much I didn’t know. I was also overwhelmed by the struggles faced by several communities,“ he said.

I wanted to continue my learning journey and build a community where we learn and support one another together. To satisfy my desire to learn more about different issues in society and bring others along on this learning journey, I decided to embark on WTS Community.”

SELF-DOUBT AND THE FIRST VIDEOS

The team today is made up of a dozen youth volunteers, united in their passion for storytelling and digging deeper into the struggles facing Singaporeans.

However, Lee told us that the initial stages of the initiative were difficult; volunteers were hard to come by and organisations that they wanted to work with were quite distrustful.

“They [doubted] our intentions and professionalism. As a young person, I do sense that we need to work harder to gain the trust of our partner organisations,” he mused.

But it wasn’t just organisations that hesitated, Lee faced doubts from his friends and even his parents.

Then there was also the act of actually producing a video and uploading it for audiences to see.

“When I posted our first video on our social media platforms, my heart was palpitating,” said Lee.

I felt very nervous as if I was on stage giving a speech.”

That first video saw WTS Community hitting the streets and talking to youths about the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Actually, I did. Just a bit,” admitted one interviewee when asked about the panic-induced buying that beset some Singaporeans at the supermarkets.

The vox-pop ended with participants sending well wishes to Singaporeans and frontline workers before directing viewers to different organisations in need of volunteers.

While Lee said that he felt a sense of accomplishment and joy shortly after the video went up, self-doubt and uncertainty soon crept into his psyche.

It would be another two months before WTS Community would post a second video.

Yet soon, things began to pick up steam for Lee and his group of volunteers soon grew to include friends of friends who were interested in what WTS Community was doing.

“WE TAKE OUR WORK VERY SERIOUSLY”

The initiative’s second video was also more substantive, featuring the executive director of Zero Waste Singapore — a non-governmental organisation dedicated to helping Singapore eliminate the concept of waste, and accelerating the shift towards zero waste and the circular economy.

The video sought to encourage viewers to reduce their single-use food packaging.

Now, a better-oiled machine, Lee approaches prospective partner organisations by telling them “we might be a volunteer initiative but we take our work very seriously”.

When deciding on a new video topic, Lee’s team looks out for projects or issues that are under-reported and can offer new perspectives.

They then spend a few weeks doing research, talking to people familiar with the issues at hand, and sourcing for interview profiles.

The team, he explained, is keenly aware that viewers today have shorter attention spans.

There are many societal issues that deserve attention but are often not reaching the masses. We want to make it easy. Allow others to learn about society in an experiential and fun way. We condense what we find from research into short-form video content, designs and social media posts.”

The result is a slickly edited, snappy video delivering bite-sized information on issues targeted at young Singaporeans, before directing them towards an avenue to act on their newfound curiosity.

GETTING HELP AND FUNDING

All this would not be possible without the initial funding that Lee received from the Our Singapore Fund (OSF).

Supporting the Singapore Together movement, the fund seeks to support meaningful projects by passionate Singaporeans that build national identity and a sense of belonging or meet social and community needs.

Funding, explained Lee, took a week to get approved after he sent in a proposal to OSF’s online portal.

The partial grant helped WTS Community “get off the ground” by paying for marketing and production costs.

More than just providing financial support, the team managing OSF also gives Lee feedback on the team’s videos and offer advice on how to make the initiative sustainable in the long run.

Source: Zhong Han.

“THE TYPE OF SHIFT WE WANT PEOPLE TO HAVE”

The support provided by OSF has allowed Lee and his team to focus on delivering fresh and impactful content. Speaking about impact, Lee was reminded of a comment left by a friend on WTS Community’s social media:

I have a friend who commented on one of our social media posts about how some people need regular blood transfusions due to conditions like leukaemia. His comments were: ‘Nice that’s quite a perspective I have never come across before.’

When I saw this, I felt a sense of satisfaction as we are inching towards creating content that serves our vision.”

Ultimately, that incident offered a glimpse into what WTS Community hopes to achieve.

While Lee has grand plans to expand the initiative into a sustainable non-profit organisation, the mission — to bring change through storytelling — will remain unchanged.

It’s even exemplified in the playful pun in WTS Community’s name, said Lee:

[WTS is] typically exclaimed when the person comes across something they didn’t know before that is usually incredible or hard to believe. And yes, that’s the type of shift we want the people to have when you consume our content… in hopes that they take action and contribute to the common good.”