GEOGRAPHY, WEATHER AND DISASTERS IN SINGAPORE

LAND AND GEOGRAPHY IN SINGAPORE

Located on the southern tip of the Southeast Asia, about 100 kilometers north of the equator, Singapore is a New-York-City- size island and city-nation on the western side of the South China Sea. Ranked as the 192nd largest country in the world, it covers 697 square kilometers (about 250 square miles) and is 40 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide at its widest point. With around 7,000 people per square kilometer, it is the third most densely populated territory or country in the world after Macau and Hong Kong. Singapore is about 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C.

Singapore is located in Southeast Asia between Malaysia and Indonesia at the narrowest point of the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s strategic sea routes connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. Lying off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore is connected to Malaysia by a causeway, which crosses the mile-wide Johore Strait between Singapore and and Malaysia. Singapore is also only a few kilometers away from the Indonesia island of Sumatra. Between Singapore and Sumatra is the eastern end of 890-kilometer-long Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. It is no surprise therefore that Singapore has been ranked as the world's busiest port.

An island nation with no land boundaries, Singapore is comprised of one main island and 58 islets. Malaysia lies to the north across the Johore Strait and Indonesia to the south across the Strait of Malacca. The total coastline in 2005 was 193 kilometers. The land area claimed by the government in 2004 was 699 square kilometers; the water area was 10 square kilometers, for a total national area of 709 square kilometers. Since 1988, the coastline has increased by 55 kilometers and the total land area has increased by some 63 square kilometers as a result of extensive land reclamation and landfill projects. Singapore claims a territorial sea area of three nautical miles, as well as an exclusive fishing zone beyond the territorial sea as defined in treaties and practice.

Singapore is mainly low-lying, with some rounded granite hills, especially in the island’s center. At 166 meters (581 feet) above sea level, the highest point is Bukit Timah Peak. The western and southwestern regions are composed of a series of northwest to southeast tending ridges, which are low but quite steep. To the east is a large region of generally flat alluvial soils where streams have cut steep-sided valleys and gullies. The island is drained by a large number of short streams, some of which flow into the sea through mangrove swamps, lagoons, or broad estuaries.

The Strait of Malacca is the shortest sea route between India and China. Singapore’s major natural resources are its location and its deep-water harbor. Today, only 1.6 percent of Singapore is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the United States). The city of Singapore occupies about a third of the island. Singapore's small size and large urban population is why it is one of most densely populated places in the world.

The Singapore River is only 4.1 kilometers in length but historically was an important resource for early settlers and traders. The Singapore River has five tributaries: the Geylang, Kallang, Pelton, Rochor, and Whampoa rivers. Also there are other small streams, some of which flow directly into the sea through mangrove swamps, lagoons, or broad estuaries. Several of the large streams have been damned at their mouths to form freshwater reservoirs. Singapore has 10 major reservoirs, both coastal and inland. Some of the larger streams were dammed at their mouths to form fresh-water reservoirs, and the major stream courses through built-up areas were lined with concrete to promote rapid drainage.

Weather in Singapore

Only two degrees north of the equator, Singapore has a hot, humid, tropical climate the year round. High temperatures are moderated somewhat by sea breezes and high humidity. There are two monsoon seasons, the northeastern (dry) monsoon from December to March and the southwestern (wet) monsoon from June to September. Even between the monsoon seasons, afternoon and early evening thunderstorms frequently occur.

The weather in Singapore can be so steamy that outdoor air conditioners are used for events like concerts. When sightseeing try to get it in early and avoid the mid afternoon heat. The nighttime is also a pleasant time to wander around. The average daytime temperature is 31ºC (88ºF), dropping to around 24ºC (75ºF) in the evenings. The relative humidity averages 70 to 80 percent in the afternoon. Rain falls throughout the year, but is heaviest during the early northeast monsoon from November through January. The driest month is July in the middle of the southeast monsoon. The intermonsoon months of April-May and October are marked by thunderstorms and violent line squalls locally known as Sumatras. The average annual rainfall is 237 centimeters (about 100 inches), and much of the rain falls in sudden showers. Singapore is generally free from typhoons, which usually strike further north. The greatest natural hazard comes from local flash flooding, the threat of which has increased as buildings and paved roads have replaced natural vegetation.

The rainy season is very humid. Most of the rains falls in one- or two-hour long downpours in the afternoon. Sometimes there is a pleasant wind. In the dry season it is still humid and rains occur from time to time. The rainy season in Singapore coincides more or less with the rainy seasons in Borneo, Indonesia and the east coast of Malaysia but it is different from the rainy season on the west coast of Malaysia (from September to November) and from Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia (from June to October). Cyclones and or typhoons are very rare in Singapore.

Reclaimed Land in Singapore

The island originally was covered with tropical rain forest and fringed with mangrove swamps. Since the founding of the city in 1819, the natural landscape has been altered by human hands. As the island urbanized, hills were leveled, swamps drained and land was reclaimed from the sea, a process that was accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s. By 1988, Singapore's land area was 49 percent built up. By 2005 forest covered only about 4,000 hectares, or 6.6 percent of the land area. The gently undulating central plateau contains a water catchment area and a nature preserve

Reclamation projects have increased Singapore’s size by more than 10 percent. So much reclamation has been done that roads that once ran along the coast are nnow more than a kilometer inland. Most of the urban, residential and industrial zones are around the perimeter of the island, particularly in the south. The center of the island has been preserved as a water catchment area to ease Singapore’s dependence on Malaysia for drinking water.

Three water reservoirs and their reserve catchment area, which preserves a fragment of the original tropical forest, occupy the center of the island. Extensive land reclamation between 1965 and 1987 increased the size of Singapore Island from 586 square kilometers to 636 square kilometers; further reclamation has been done since then. Many of the fifty-odd small islets and reefs have been enlarged or joined to form new larger islands suitable for industrial uses. In 1989 three of Singapore's five oil refineries were on offshore islands, and other small islands were used for military gunnery or as bombing ranges. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the municipal authorities made great efforts to establish parks and gardens as land became available and to plant tens of thousands of ornamental trees and shrubs, thus completing the transformation of the natural landscape.

David Fogarty of Reuters wrote: “Singapore, the world's second most densely populated country after Monaco, covers 715 square km (276 sq miles). It has already reclaimed large areas to expand its economy and population -- boosting its land area by more than 20 percent since 1960. Since it was created by the British as a trading port in the early 19th century, Singapore has turned to the sea to expand and has become one of the world's fastest-growing countries in terms of new land area. More land is being regularly reclaimed. Much of the city centre is on reclaimed land, including an expanding financial district, a new terminal for ocean liners and a $3.2 billion underground expressway, part of which runs under the sea. The industrial west has one of Asia's largest petrochemical complexes, much of it on reclaimed islands. The wealth generated from these sectors has created a $255 billion economy. Per-capita GDP stands on a par with the United States at nearly $50,000, though opposition politicians complain about growing wealth gaps within the island's society. [Source: David Fogarty, Reuters, January 26, 2012 *-*]

Flooding in Singapore in 2010

In July 2010, Philip Lim of Agence France Presse wrote: “Singaporeans were salvaging cars, soaked belongings and damaged goods after a third flash flood in two months submerged low-lying areas of the city-state. Shops and houses along posh Orchard Road were again hit by floods after heavy rain overwhelmed the drainage system of the wealthy metropolis, which is often lauded for its excellent urban management. The flooding took place just before parliament was to debate the issue following public clamour for explanations for earlier floods, which are normally associated with neighbouring capitals like Manila and Jakarta. [Source: Philip Lim, Agence France Presse, July 17, 2010 ~~]

“Residents in affected houses hauled out sodden furniture and opened windows and doors on Sunday after muddy water from overflowing canals receded. "We never had floods like that," said Peter Wong, 49, a long-time resident in a row of houses in eastern Singapore invaded by calf-high floodwaters on Saturday. "Everything was gone, the carpets as you can see are damaged, the bottom of all the sofa seats are still soaking wet now, after 24 hours. We had to replace a new fridge, the fridge is totally damaged," Wong told AFP."I'm trying to keep a cool head over this but it is frustrating. My life is disrupted," added the hotelier, who failed to take out insurance against "acts of God" like floods. ~~

“The Straits Times said some restaurants lost live fish stored in tanks. A major highway was also closed for two and a half hours, while motorists and commuters had to be rescued from stranded vehicles, but there were no reports of major injuries. The flash floods were the third in a month. Flash floods were a rare occurrence in Singapore until recently, with a climate expert interviewed by the Straits Times attributing the problem to regional weather phenomena such as Typhoon Conson and Indonesian squalls. Critics had blasted the Public Utilities Board (PUB) for not being prepared to handle the first two floods, while the department defending itself by saying abnormal weather conditions and clogged drains were to blame. The flooding issue has become so serious that the Singapore parliament is scheduled to address the problem when it convenes on amid forecasts of more rain.” ~~

Orchard Road to Be Raised after Floods

After the severe floods in 2010, the Singapore government announced that parts of Singapore's famous shopping thoroughfare Orchard Road would be raised to prevent a repeat of the flash floods that hit the area. A spokeswoman from the Public Utilities Board (PUB) told AFP the road will be built up by up to 50 centimetres (20 inches) at low-lying spots. "On average, it will be raised by 30 centimetres," she said. [Source: Agence France Presse, October 27, 2010 \>\]

AFP reported: “This would elevate the street above a drainage canal that overflowed four months ago and sent a sudden gush of water into the busy tourist district following torrential rains. In total, 1.4 kilometres (nearly a mile) of the road will be raised by laying coats of asphalt in stages. The project is expected to cost S$22 million (US$16.9 million) and is due to be completed by the second quarter of 2011. \>\

“The PUB will also raise bus shelters, traffic lights, lamp posts and electronic road pricing gantries that charge each vehicle entering the area. In addition to the road raising, the worst-hit building along Orchard Road is installing pop-up barriers to protect shops located below street level, including a Hermes outlet, from floodwaters. Singapore authorities were left red-faced in June after Orchard Road became a muddy stream following heavy rain, a rare smear on the city-state's image as an urban planner's dream. Affected shops including designer outlets had to be shuttered for maintenance and unsightly cleaning. \>\

Earthquake in Sumatra Raises Fear About Singapore Buildings on Reclaimed Land

In March 2007, Koh Gui Qing of Reuters wrote: “One Raffles Quay, the newest office block in Singapore's financial district, overlooks a vast swathe of reclaimed land on which a huge casino, a swanky apartment block and a new financial centre are rising up. On Tuesday morning, as One Raffles Quay was swaying, rocked by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia, 420 km (260 miles) west of Singapore, some of its occupants could not help but wonder: how quake-resistant are buildings on reclaimed land? Nearly 20 percent of land-scarce Singapore's surface area is reclaimed from the sea, and Singapore has scores of tower blocks, hotels, factories and petrochemical plants on reclaimed land. In the coming years the city-state will develop a second financial centre, all on reclaimed land in the Marina Bay area. [Source: Koh Gui Qing, Reuters, March 9, 2007 *\*]

“Engineers say that because reclaimed land is created by dumping sand into bodies of water, buildings rock more violently during tremors, although that does not mean they are unstable. "Reclaimed land is made up of sea sand, so buildings will be shaken up more violently during earthquakes as compared to those on non-reclaimed land, which is solid and will not be liquefied by the shake," said Fan Sau Cheong, an engineering professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. He told Reuters that buildings on reclaimed land may shake two to three times more than those on natural land during earthquakes because sand in reclaimed land slides like liquid when saturated with water, in a process called liquefaction. *\*

“On Tuesday, about 150 buildings in Singapore were rattled by the quake and hundreds of people in the financial district fled their offices. No buildings were damaged and nobody was hurt. "Blinds were shaking and the secretaries started panicking," said an office worker at One Marina Boulevard, a tower block next to One Raffles Quay. "Then some people started saying 'Oh no! And we are on reclaimed land!' It's just this instinctive fear that there are more risks with reclaimed land," she told Reuters. *\*

“Singapore's Building and Construction Authority denied that buildings on reclaimed land are more vulnerable to tremors than those on natural land, citing strong building foundations that can withstand tremors from distant earthquakes. Unlike buildings in earthquake-prone Japan and Taiwan, Singapore buildings are not designed to be quake-proof, as Singapore does not sit on any major geological fault lines. But since quakes in Indonesia are often felt here, the joints connecting the columns in many tall buildings should be connected more flexibly, to allow them to better absorb tremors, Fan said. To ensure that a plot of reclaimed land will be stable enough to hold buildings, Singapore lets the land lay fallow for about 20 years to allow the sand to settle. *\*

“Singapore is not the only country building on reclaimed land. Macau has reclaimed land to erect more casinos and hotels, while Dubai has spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating a palm-shaped resort island off the coast of the Gulf emirate. Engineers say that reclaimed land is always prone to sinking due to the difficulties in compacting the sand and draining the water trapped inside the reclaimed plot, which causes reclaimed land to subside more easily. Japan's Kansai International Airport, the world's first airport built on reclaimed land, has sunk more than 11.5 metres since construction began in 1987. *\*

“However, buildings on reclaimed land will not sink if they are supported by steel or concrete columns that are hammered all the way into the seabed, although the streets circling the buildings may sink alongside the drooping land, engineers say. "The building will not be floating on reclaimed soil," said Lee Siew Eang, a building professor at the National University of Singapore. *\*

Alfred Russel Wallace in Singapore

The famous English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace began his historic study of Malay flora and fauna in the Singapore rain forests in 1854. He stayed at a Jesuit mission surrounded by logging camps. In less than two months he collected 700 species of beetle. He attributed his success to the loggers who left behind piles of sawdust and rotting wood for the beetles to feed on.

Wallace said his greatest fear was of tigers. In the Malay Archipelago, he wrote, “"It was rather nervous work hunting for insects among the fallen trunks and old sawpits, when one of these savage animals might be lurking close by, waiting an opportunity to spring upon us." He also feared tiger traps—pits up to 20 feet deep—that were scattered around the island.

See Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Places, Malay Archipelago, Indonesia

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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