Thursday, January 12, 2012

Experts disagree with NEA

I read with interest the recent disagreement between an expert panel of drainage experts and the National Environment Agency (NEA) with respect to the annual rainfall trends. No discernable trend, sez the NEA. But the expert panel disagreed. You can almost see Prof Lui Pao Chuen shaking his head in disbelief. According to the panel, the annual rainfall has actually been increasing at about 15mm per year between 1968 and 2008.

And it's my turn to shake my head in disbelief. How can something so fundamental be in dispute? I mean, I can understand differences in scientific perspectives and theories, but the interpretation of hard numbers?? There is either a trend or not. How can there be such a fundamental disagreement about whether the rainfall is going up or not?

Intuitively, and not having access to the detailed data, I am more inclined to believe the expert panel. Global warming has been melting the ice caps. There is just so much more water circulating in the environment. Sea levels are rising and projected to rise even more. Surely more rain is cycling through the atmosphere. The increasing spate of ponding, oops, sorry, flooding says a lot about how much more rain has been falling.

It kinda makes me question what's happening at the NEA. How are they, and have they been examining the data they have been collecting? Can we trust their projections for the future? And can we trust any assurances that they are adequately preparing for the future?

This is just one of the indications that we really need our agencies to provide more publicly available information. Hitherto, the public has been trained to accept sanitized proclamations from our public agencies that all is well with the world, and Singapore, and that we should trust only their interpretation of fragmented and cryptic data shown to the public.

This is not acceptable any more.

This episode speaks volumes about why we need data to be made available to the public so that they can be scrutinized independently. More eyes are always better. French philosopher Henri Bergson said, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” How true.

In this case, the NEA mind appears to have been conditioned to comprehend a rather fixed set of reality based on historical weather models; models which are not applicable in today's world anymore.

If it appears I am picking on the NEA, I am not. This problem exists in all our government agencies. They need to break free from historical models, and look at their data/stats with fresh sets of eyes. Today is a very different  world. Importantly, my plea to all the public agencies is that Singapore's interest is best served by placing much more institutional and government data in the public domain so that independent conclusions can be drawn about what is happening, so that more independent options for the future can be contemplated.


Anonymous said...


YOU are the one not thinking.

The more data the govt allow us to read/see, the more the ministries have to answer.

It it good for the public? Yes.

But, is it good for the govt (think General Elections, think LKY's "If I don't agree, YOU must be wrong.) No.

Singapore Civil Service aka operational arm of the PAP (think People's Assoc.)


sgcynic said...

"15mm per year between 1968 and 2008". That's an increase of 60cm of rainfall. There may not be a trend (boil the frog) according to the NEA but there's definititely an increase. Maybe the they think it is not Significant? Regardless, the outcome is floods where there used to be none.

Anonymous said...

haha...consider the frog boiled! Poor us!

Anonymous said...

this is the ministry whose previous perm sec went on a looooong holiday learning how to cook in france and brag about it in the papers. The whole lot of them - perm secs & ministers - are basically in auto-pilot mode.

Anonymous said...

I think you got it wrong. If you read the other article (published on the day before the one you linked to), the foreign experts agreed with NEA that the data was insufficient to conclude any climate changes.

It seems that lui pao chuen had to come out to talk about changing climates to give cover to pub as another "excuse" for the flooding

gigamole said...

Do you have the url for the news report you mentioned?

Part of the ambiguity stems, I believe, from not being clear about the type of rainfall data being collected and analysed. For example, the historical perspective has always been about seasonal rainfall measured monthly or annually. The pattern that seems to be seen now is that of torrential rain over a relatively short period of time, minutes or hours. It seems like it is this increased intensity that overwhelms the run off capacity. This trend towards increased intensity of rainfall may not be so apparent if you aggregate data over longer periods of time.

What this confusion says really is that we need to have the data in the public domain so that there can be independent examination of the trends if any. Who knows if NEA is right or not, or the expert panel.....or if Prof Lui is just defending the PUB. Rather than depending on the mainstream media to advance their own agenda, public access to the data will allow independent and objective opinions to be made about what is happening.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with you that better data transparency is required. Though this means that civil servants / government has to work harder..

As for the article, I quote here:

"Prof Chan said installing more rain gauges to measure rainfall - a project which national water agency PUB has already embarked on - will also produce more granular data on rainfall in specific areas.

But he noted that it would take time for such data to support any conclusions about changes in weather patterns. The panel had access to only 30 years' worth of consistent data, which it said was not enough.

Ms Elena Pison San Pedro, a meteorologist at research organisation DHI Singapore, said 30 years is the minimum for a climate change study, and phenomena that affect rainfall patterns, such as El Nino, can occur in cycles that take five to 20 years.

'Rainfall is still one of the most difficult variables to model due to its high... variability, especially in Singapore's tropical weather,' she said."

The article can be found in the following link:

Anonymous said...

Anyway, PUB has been complacent over the years.. Drainage was not a major concern of the CEO for the past few years.

He was more concerned with things that profile PUB (and himself), e.g. Corporate Communications, Singapore International Water Week (, which sucked up a lot of the staff's time and attention...

Good that he's been replaced..

Anonymous said...

The Barrage is the single biggest impediment to water flow in a heavy downpour.

Anonymous said...

Giving more data to the public will only show that Gerard has been very generous with the people's money as it will confirm that the ministers are mere mortals who are not what they claim to be. We like more data but they cannot live with the exposé.


dancingbunny said...

I got reminded of this incident that was on channelnewsasia.

For issues on pigeons being a nuisance and a threat to public hygiene, please contact NEA.

For issues regarding crows being a nuisance and a threat to public hygiene, please call AVA.

Mynah? Sorry, both sectors are not involved. They cannot tell you who to look for. Period.

But I do think that if they were to dig out any weather information that could have exists a hundred years ago when Singapore is still a fishing village (obviously there isnt any data) Rainfall would have been more.

If they dig out data 50 years before during the 1960s, rainfall would be more.

Actually there are more than enough years since they kept records to study the changes and patterns?

But I agree that since ice caps are melting...well, the issues of more "ponding", I mean flooding will occur more often worldwide. Not only Singapore.

gigamole said...

Anonymous, Thanks for the link to Wildsingaporenews.

Methinks the experts are sopt on when they point out that climate changes are difficult to study over short periods of time, and this especially so for rainfall. Nevertheless one has to make with whatever data you have.

Bergson was right in that you only see what your mind is prepared to comprehend. So if the NEA is conditioned to only see no change in the Changi, then that will be the inevitable conclusion. One wonders what they do with the data they choose not to see. Or why they bother collecting data for 28 stations that they have chosen not to see.

One is however comforted by their recent concessions that they will not only collect more data but will place more detailed data on the website.

*Hint to NEA and PUB: It is less about the big canals but the ponding that occurs because of the greater intensity of rainfall over minutes and the limited run-offs from the rapid ponding that occurs in random areas.

In medical terms....this is clinical heart failure. :)

Happy Lunar New Year all!