Pulau Semakau – Singapore’s First Landfill Island

Pulau Semakau – Singapore’s First Landfill Island

So the story goes that the other day I happened to be looking at a hydrographic map of Singapore’s waters when I saw Pulau Semakau on the map and thought to myself: “I wonder if I can visit that island…” I simply googled for Semakau, found out that it is apparently possible to visit Pulau Semakau (but only “by joining activities conducted by designated interest groups”). Fortuitously, I found a tour for that very same Sunday, organised by Nature Trekker. A few phone calls later… after rustling up enough people to make a boat-full of visitors, we were all set for Sunday!


We started our journey from West Coast Jetty, where we met up with Ben Lee of Nature Trekker, who was our guide on this journey. Turns out that the West Coast Jetty is literally a stone’s throw from NUS (where I used to live in Eusoff Hall) but if confused on directions, it is just a short taxi ride from the nearest MRT which would be Clementi.

On a brand new super fast powerboat
It took us about 20 minutes to get to Semakau instead of the expected 45 minutes to get over via water taxi because the boat was just so new and fast.

Jurong Island


Pulau Bukom
Smokestacks upon smokestacks. Jurong and Bukom are both LPG processing islands. So how do we tell the islands apart? Well Bukom has a built-up area with apparently “luxury” housing and a bowling alley and food court. Jurong Island does not. Also if you look on a map you will see that Jurong Island is further away so that’s why its much smaller and we do not go as close to it when going on a straight journey from the mainland to Semakau.

Approaching Semakau


Map of Semakau


Chart of Recreational Areas on Semakau


At Semakau Landfill’s Visitor Centre


Explanation of how the incineration plant works at Tuas South. Do note that no rubbish is put into landfill at Semakau, only incinerated ash, which reduces the volume of refuse by 90%.


Grand Opening of Semakau for Recreational Activities in 2005


“Love on the Bund” – apparently a couple took their wedding photos on Semakau some years ago, because it basically looks like a nature reserve – once you get over the idea that its a landfill site for the incinerated ash (and non-incinerable rubbish) of all the rubbish in singapore.


Star-gazing on the Bund
I’ve included the plant in the picture to emphasize its mundane nature. There was something strange about arriving on an isolated island, with display boards and backlit signs which all point to it being an island explicitly made for show and having been renovated for the purpose of welcoming visitors. I suppose that it is actually a rather “Singaporean” thing to create a showpiece room with tons of plastic plants and information boards. But Its just that I hadn’t gone on such a school-tour-style trip in such a long time…

Model of people going Bird Watching. NOTE ALL OF THEM HAVE THE SAME ARM POSE
Sad to say once all the cells are filled up there will not be as much fishing or bird watching going on. Perhaps this is also why the place is not welcoming as many visitors these days, as the island changes rapidly over the decades of use as a landfill site.

Where Semakau is in relation to the Mainland (Pulau Ujong)


The Road to the Tipping Site
Finally, after spending quite some time in the classroom, we finally embarked on a small bus tour of the bund. The sun was shining, the sky was bright blue, and the road was empty except for our bus. There were no other buses. There were no other visitors.

Filled cells
These are actually cells which have been filled in an earlier phase of the project. The landfill was operational since 1999 and has a landfill area of 350 hectares. After the cells are filled they are covered in topsoil so plants can grow on top of them.

Manmade Mangrove
These mangrove trees were replanted back into the area after the building of the landfill in order to serve as a kind of bioindicator. THEY REPLANTED A WHOLE MANGROVE FOREST. I read that it did not succeed at first but they tried very very hard to replant the mangrove trees and finally succeeded. Should there be leakage of landfill leachate into the surrounding waters, the mangrove trees will react adversely as they are very sensitive to pollution.

Map of Intertidal Zone


Walking in the forest next to the intertidal zone


To be honest, there was almost no point walking in the forest because there was not enough time in the guided tour to walk through to the other end. I should like to walk all the way to the intertidal zone one day, perhaps on another trip.

Unfilled cell
Each cells can range from 3-20m deep and takes anywhere from 1 to 5 years to fill. Before they are filled they look like lagoons. The bund surrounding these lagoons and cells cost SGD 400 million to build.

“MW” – Monitoring Wells
All around the bund you will see the MW pipes – these are monitoring wells for checking the quality of the water below. Landfill material may have “leachate” or liquid that comes out from the material which may pollute the surrounding waters. Hence the cells are lined with marine clay and an impermeable membrane to keep the leachate out of the surrounding environment.


Notice this characteristic of breakwaters in Singapore? They are always filled in. When I see breakwaters that consist of MASSIVE ROCKS THROWN TOGETHER WITHOUT CONCRETE FILLING (i.e.: all other breakwaters around the world besides Singapore), I don’t know why but it instantly gives me rock vertigo. You know how some people get vertigo from standing on top of tall buildings? I get vertigo just from standing on low-lying rocks that look like they’ve been naturally thrown in a pile but haven’t been meticulously stuck together with cement like this. No matter how I rationalise it in my mind, I cannot shake off the feeling that rocks that have naturally stacked up together must be HORRIBLY UNSTABLE AND THAT IF I STEP WRONGLY IT WILL ALL CRUMBLE! This is why if you take me hiking you will find that I will become stuck to the rock face like a snail or lizard, retardedly unable to walk upright like a normal human being over the stacks of rocks. I blame you, Singapore, for cementing all our breakwaters together; now I have grown up expecting all breakwaters in the world to be glued together.

Tugboat which brings the barges over from Tuas Marine Incineration Plant. (They do not tug the barges, they actually push.)


Clear waters!


Well not so clear. I see a line which seems to be the path that the tug boat and barge have taken.
Funny that the water should appear to have some “memory” of the path taken by boats…


The Blue pipe is for water, the red pipe for diesel.


What it used to be…
Pulau Semakau is actually formed from the amalgamation of Pulau Sakeng and Pulau Semakau.

Pulau Sakeng (also known as Seking, and Pulau Kelapa or Coconut Island) is thought to have been originally named after a woman called Keng (Mak Meleking/Yang Leking) who as legend would have it, helped islanders fight off pirates and healed the sick who were poisoned by water from a poisoned well. Until the 1980s, Pulau Sakeng was home to 400 villagers, some of whom worked at Pulau Bukom on the oil refinery.

Pulau Semakau was said to have been named partly after the mangroves around the island (“bakau”). It was predominantly populated by subsistence fishermen and farmers, but in the 1960s received an influx of islanders being relocated from Bukom where the oil refinery was being built. There was even a primary school and according to NEA’s book on Pulau Semakau, there were about 200 families living on Semakau so it was significantly larger than the population on Sakeng. (I couldn’t find total number of people previously living in Semakau though). However, most of the islanders were relocated to the mainland in 1977, and the “forest” that we walked through was actually the site of the original village. The site of the former village was apparently taken over by mangrove trees as a lot of it had been originally constructed on stilts within the intertidal zone, as many residents were fishermen. By 1987, the Singapore government moved in to relocate all remaining residents on Semakau to HDB flats on the mainland in Bukit Merah and Telok Blangah. Following that, by 1994 all the remaining residents on Sakeng were also relocated to the mainland so that the landfill site could be constructed…

Composition of the “Bund”. Sometimes when you walk along the bund you will see black fabric sticking out of the edge of the road – that’s the geofabric layer.


Transfer Point


At the Evacuation Point


Leaving Semakau…


Pulau Jong



Reaching the Port at Pasir Panjang
So what are my thoughts on Pulau Semakau? Well, to me, this picture sums it up:

Potted Plants next to field
There is an undeniable sense that beneath all this, there has been a very concerted effort to make this island very presentable indeed. Everywhere you turn, the island is covered in perfectly manicured potted plants, even far out in the open where no one else is. There are even thoughtfully placed porta-loos, expectantly waiting for users to come by, although we understood that no one else would be visiting the island besides us that day. In a way, this is NEA’s masterpiece, the showpiece they would bring foreign dignitaries to visit – it simply screams “COME LOOK AT OUR BEAUTIFUL AND ECOLOGICALLY SENSITIVE LANDFILL! ISN’T SINGAPORE SO CAREFUL AND THOUGHTFUL?” And I guess I’m proud on their behalf that its possible for such meticulous solutions to be realised in Singapore, although I can’t imagine other countries spending so much time and money inventing such intricate solid waste management systems if they have the luxury of space to make big splashy landfill sites. A phenomenon only to be seen in Singapore then…

As for the future of Semakau – they say that they aim to find uses for the ash as they try to progress towards a zero landfill policy (and surely the bottom ash must already have uses as some sort of aggregate for building materials). I wonder who is currently doing the research on the ash material, or if there is a way to get involved in researching and finding uses for it? I also wonder what will happen to Pulau Semakau after all its cells have been filled up in 2045, assuming the site lasts until its projected date of 2045…

Thanks to Ben and John from Nature Trekker for organising this and taking us there.

More photos of Pulau Semakau on Flickr

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