SINGAPORE - With about 60 per cent of Asia’s population expected to live in cities in the coming decade, many urban centres in the region are a ticking time bomb as poor town planning and infrastructure shortages threaten to produce a disaster unless steps are quickly taken to address the challenges, key speakers at Singapore’s Large Infrastructure Project (LIP) Forum warned at the weekend.
With about 60 per cent of Asia’s population expected to live in cities in the coming decade, many urban centres in the region are a ticking time bomb as poor town planning and infrastructure shortages threaten to produce a disaster unless steps are quickly taken to address the challenges, key speakers at Singapore’s Large Infrastructure Project (LIP) Forum warned at the weekend.
Forum chairman and Holcim’s powerful executive officer Paul Hugentobler said cities like Dhaka, Mumbai, Kolkata, Ho Chi Minh and Jakarta that are choked in smog and filth must do more to address pollution, unhealthy environment and poor transportation "before it is too late".
The veteran builder with more than 32 years with the Swiss cement conglomerate said "countries can learn from Singapore’s achievements in infrastructure excellence".
The island-state has successfully housed its 5 million residents and supplied clean water, a healthy environment and a stable lifestyle in past decades.
Hugentobler also praised New Delhi for its equally progressive switch in recent years to build critical infrastructure such as good roads and a mass transit city line. "I wish more Indian cities were like that," he offers.
Another key participant Lam Siew Wah, deputy CEO of Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) said it "targets 80 per cent of all commercial buildings to be green by 2030".
Old buildings can be refitted with proper ventilation, energy saving chillers, automation equipment and insulation to meet green standards, he said.
The refitting is simple and not costly, he said. Most importantly, they are necessary to promote responsible action by the public to protect the workplaces as well as the overall environment.
Lam says "the target is do-able" as 16 per cent of office buildings in Singapore are now certifiably green structures.
At the same time, the authority plans to raise the bar in coming years as technology advances, making buildings more efficient and ecologically sound.
The BCA spends about S$20 billion (US$16 billion) on average each year with 40 per cent going to residential development and between 10-15 per cent on schools, health centres and parks.
In boom years, this sum had risen to more than S$35 billion while in times of deep recessions such as in 2003, it had fell to about S$10 billion.
Don Philips, the head of British infrastructure firm warns that unless steps are quickly taken to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions and cut energy consumption, many coastal settlements could "be under water".
The rising tide from polar ice melt can in the coming years submerge key waterfront towns all over the world, many of them vital financial and banking centres.
Celebrated green architect Dr Ken Yeang also made a point of fusing nature in all his designs.
Holcim awarded the Penang-born Yeang for his recent work for Kuala Lumpur-based Putrajaya Holdings’ eco commercial building project.
The stunning office centre in the heart of the city with rich tropical gardens was one of the winners of Holcim’s green awards last year.
When Hugentobler asked Yeang what the architect can do to persuade government leaders to embrace green building codes, Yeang answered there are basically two measures: "It is like raising children. You reward them when they do good things. And you punish them when they don’t".
The reward-punish method model is exactly what Singapore’s BCA has applied when it grants permits and approvals. Failure to comply is not really an option, Hugentobler observed.
National University of Singapore architect and lecturer Nirmal Krishnani, another strong advocate of green buildings, paid homage to Yeang in saying the architect was one of his supervisors when he was doing his thesis.
Krishnani says the danger of the green trend today is that it has become fashionable and this may rob the movement of its serious pursuits.
But by and large, he said attempts to go green has humorous results, such as one hospital’s "wellness" area that attracted many nearby residents to join in, cultivating a variety of flora and fauna o make the spot a landmark for Singapore.
In farming societies such as Thailand, India and Vietnam, the Singapore urban model may fall short as a solution, Hugentobler admitted.
Singapore’s is purely focused on being a financial hub and port, akin to that of Hong Kong.
For much of Asia, urban migration is a far more disturbing trend for countries with 60 million people or more, 70 per cent of whom live in the countryside.
Many migrants to cities face sub-standard living conditions, poverty, slum dwellings, water and power shortages as well as exploitation by employers.
These are hard issues for many Asian countries today that also require tackling.
At the same time, the danger of losing the farming communities is not only undesirable, but dangerous.
During deep recessions such as the 1997-1998 financial crisis, many hard hit economies did not see social unrest intensify as the farms served as safety nets for the unemployed.
The same can be said of China’s recession in the years that followed. Again, millions of jobless people could go back to the farms and ride out the slump.
Hugentobler admits that one of his great satisfactions is to see "with every visit to Singapore, more tress, more flowers and more green areas".
It is difficult to put a price on the foliage and vegetation, But they clearly earn billions of dollars for Singapore in home sales as well as pull billions more from foreign firms that want to relocate there because of its scenic environment.
Landscape, while being one of the more under-rated aspects of the green movement, is actually one of its most powerful forces in capturing hearts and minds, he admitted.