Surviving in Sungei Pandan

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The view of Sungei Pandan from across Holland Grove View.

Nature subjugated. That was how Sungei Pandan, the river that winds its way southwest from Commonwealth before spilling into the sea at West Coast Park, appeared to me during my walk along the Ulu Pandan Park Connector. Near its mouth the river sprawls into a small mangrove swamp, but here its path appeared sadly strait-jacketed by bare concrete banks. This river (‘Sungei’ means ‘river’ in Malay, so it can otherwise be called ‘Pandan River’) was one of many that had been canalised in the 1970s and 1980s to provide more resources for the island’s growing freshwater needs. I don’t discount the urgency of our local freshwater needs. Nevertheless, it does make me a little sad to see a river being reduced to a straight channel with its murky brown surface clouded over with soap suds and plastic flotsam.

That said, I was surprised to detect signs of life still flourishing within this urbanised environment. Walking along the river, I was intrigued at the sight of large black shapes swimming around in the waters below. There was a huge group of male tilapia that had gathered in the waters just before the river forked out towards Buona Vista. I used to go down into the canal to catch fish with my siblings using home-made nets, and the only haul we ever brought in were guppies and mosquitofish, which made it all the more surprising to me. I found it curious that they should only gather at one specific part of the river, only to learn later that they were actually gathering at a lek where they would compete for the affections of the more drably-coloured females. Squinting, I also scanned the water for telltale glimmers and ripples: signs of smaller aquatic life that also shared these waters. Although the tilapia is an introduced species  – it had been cultivated on the island for food – I found it heartening that there was still life that could thrive in a river that had been long past its former glory.

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Part of a gathering of male common tilapia at a lek.

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Close-up of a male tilapia swimming next to a pair of mosquitofish (the latter are native species).

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The odd Midas cichlid. These are not native to Singapore either, having been introduced along with other species of African cichlids as ornamental fish.

Suddenly, I caught a flicker at the corner of my eye. An bright blue blur swooped down from the trees on the opposite bank towards the water, before arcing back and coming to rest on the top of a row of green fencing. It was a collared kingfisher – a bird rarely found in the most urban parts of the city, and typically associated with the wilder mangroves near the coast. Part of me felt immensely proud that such an uncommon, beautiful bird should choose to make this stretch of the river its hunting grounds. I watched it as it sat, un-moving. Then, unable to restrain myself from taking a closer took, I climbed over the fence and down to the bank. When I looked up, it had vanished. Off, I presumed, to find its next meal.

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A collared kingfisher sitting in wait.

Further down, however, there were few visible signs of life. Plastic bags and empty drink cartons littered the bleak shores, and there were sprawls of psychedelic stains where pipes discharged household waste water into the river. The only movement I detected would be of soap bubbles gliding down on their way from the pipes, or a few strands of plastic waving frantically in the breeze. Yet I knew that if I climbed over the fence and crawled down the steep slopes flanking the canal to look into the river itself, I might still be able to spot schools of guppies flickering beneath the surface – as I had on many an occassion. The unintentional pollution that had resulted from this industrial discharge has made the waters even more inhospitable. And at the same time, it makes these species’ ability to survive even more incredible.

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A colourful soap stain discharged from one of the many pipes feeding into the river.

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A lagoon of leaf litter and twigs that had formed partway down the river.

Despite all the unpleasant sights that appeared to line the river, there were still moments where I saw an odd beauty, in the unique ways that surrounding channels of water had been moulded by their urban environment. One could also say that there is beauty in the way nature is somehow able to turn adversity into oppurtunity, as evidenced by my sightings of the tilapia and kingfisher who had managed to find from the river a way to survive. Many people would dismiss this unassuming channel as just another canal, but a closer examination could turn out to reveal pleasant surprises.

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