FIRST mention of Pulau Semakau and you may well want to cover your nose as it is the only offshore dumping ground, situated along the chain of isles in the south-west corner of Singapore.
But the last decade, the National Environment Agency (NEA) — which plans to utilise the island as a waste-disposal ground until 2045 and beyond — distinctly changed the island’s landscape to cultivate and sustain the ecosystem.
Today, this island, just eight kilometers south of Singapore, is home to some of the best nature-related recreational activities.
“Semakau is clear proof that landfills are not always about rubbish and since it was opened to the public in 2005, visitors have hailed it for its spectacular sports fishing, bird-watching, clean air, cycling, pristine water, star-gazing and island walks,” says schoolteacher Hamidah Yusoff, 35, of Yuhua Primary School, who conducts regular island-visits.
“You’ll be surprised how tranquil and pretty this landfill is. Instead of rubbish piled high and a stench that fills your lungs, you’ll find thriving mangrove swamps, exotic marine life and rare and migratory birds making this island their home.”
Her father, retired religious teacher Ismail Yacob, 72, a native of Semakau, remembers in the 60s when prior to reclamation, both Pulau Sakeng and Pulau Semakau were home to small communities of Malay and Chinese villagers whose livelihood depended mainly on fishing. In 1977, the majority of residents on Semakau were resettled to Bukit Merah and Telok Blangah housing estates and the last villager moved out in 1991.
“It was so quiet with a kampong-style lifestyle. Most of the villages were built on stilts over the sea, since most of the residents were fishermen, making a living from a lot of marine life. The natural mangroves sheltered a wide variety of plants and animals, many no longer seen on the mainland or other islands,” he says.
Semakau has also been hailed as a wildlife haven that is rich in mangroves and coral reefs by world-famous marine ecologist Zeb Hogan, who hosts National Geographic’s Monster Fish programme.
“The anemones, sponges, crabs and some of the fish here are different from what I’ve seen in other places. What’s here is unique,” says Dr Hogan, who is an assistant research professor at the University of Nevada in Reno, in an interview with Channel News Asia in June.
A NEA spokesman says Semakau is unique because it is the first landfill in the world not connected to the mainland. Operations began in 1999, and it receives about 1,773 tonnes of incineration ash and 557 tonnes of non-incinerator waste daily.
But it showcases the unique co-existence with rich biodiversity and the landfill boasts of natural habitats that have been carefully preserved to be home to more than 300 species of plants and animals, some of them rare in this region.
He adds: “Contary to popular belief that Semakau would be like the Lorong Halus landfill, dirty and smelly, much care was put into the design and planning to ensure it would remain free of smell and as scenic as previously was.
“We’re proud that just beside a secluded ecological zone that harbours dozens of rare plant, bird and fish species lies the world’s first ecological offshore landfill.”
Today, the island offers a variety of nature-related activities run by different groups. These include intertidal walks by the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR) and licensed tour guide Robert Heigermoser, bird-watching by the Nature Society (Singapore), stargazing by The Astronomical Society of Singapore (TASOS), and sports fishing by the Sports Fishing Association (Singapore).
The only way to get to the island is by a 20 or 35-minute sea journey from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal or West Coast Pier, respectively. But the downside is that the island is accessible only to various interest groups.