Water Management: A Unique Singapore Perspective

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CHUA TERENCE's picture

1 Introduction

Drinking water from the toilet bowl might seem like a grotesque idea to many, but for people in Singapore, that is exactly what they are doing. (The wastewater is treated, of course.) During the 9th of August National Day Parade in 2002, the Prime Minister of Singapore, other senior leaders and 60,000 people attending the event toasted with NEWater (the term coined for treated wastewater in Singapore). In a strong show of acceptance amongst the public that they had embraced the idea of NEWater, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) of Singapore produced and distributed five million bottles to the community for public sampling in the three years after it was first producedi. Singapore's NEWater was also recognised by the United Nations (UN - Water) Best Practices Award in 2014. This astounding success far exceeded what the United States and Australia had tried to achieve with limited success as they encountered lukewarm response from the public. This begs the question, what did Singapore do in its quest for water self-sufficiency?

2 Four National Taps

Singapore, being a country with no natural resources, and a city island state with one of the world's most densely populated cities faced a strong challenge to her survival when she was separated from Malaysia in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore then foresaw the difficulties that Singapore will face meeting her water needs, they then insisted that the separation agreement include a guarantee that Malaysia would honour the two water accords to import water from Johoriv. The first agreement has expired in 2011 while the second agreement will expire by 2061i. The quest for self-sufficiency therefore gained crucial importance to ensure that Singapore can remain self-sustainable after the expiration of the two water agreement.

One of the reason behind Singapore's immense success in water management is, in my view, the relentless pursuit of obtaining water from as many sources as possible. At the present moment, Singapore derives her water from four sources, (1) the local catchment area, (2) imported water from Malaysia, (3) highly purified reclaimed water, known as NEWater, and (4) desalinated wateri. Over the years, Singapore has worked tirelessly on increasing their supply of water to meet the needs of Singaporeans. The seriousness of the water availability situation can be realized by looking historically when in 1965, when Singapore became independent, it only had three reservoirs. Then, these sources could only meet less than 20 percent of the island's water needs. Perhaps not surprisingly, meeting the country's water demands from national sources became a paramount national strategic priority.

Today, Singapore has a total of 17 reservoirs to meet her water needs. The building of the latest and largest NEWater plant was also completed in 2010. NEWater is a high-grade reclaimed water produced from treated used water that is further purified using advanced membrane technologies and ultra-violet disinfection. Together, the four NEWater plants can meet up to 30% of the nation's water needs. By 2060, Singapore plans to expand the current NEWater to meet 55% of the future water demand.

3 Water Demand Management

Like other fast growing and emerging economies, water demand in Singapore has grown over the years from 70 million gallons (Mgal) per day in 1965, to 380 Mgal/day by 2011, a more than four times increase. Unlike most other countries however, that focus solely on the supply side of water management, Singapore adopted an array of demand management policies to ensure the prudent use of water. Pricing, mandatory water conservation requirements and public education are some examples of the policies being adopted.

3.1 Pricing - Water Tariff

It is generally established that since human behaviour is difficult to change, economic incentives can foster attitudinal shifts. This can be achieved by raising the prices for higher water consumption which will in turn encourage lower water consumption. See table 3.1: Singapore's Water Tariffii.

Table 3.1: Singapore's Domestic Water Tariff Table

Source: PUB Singapore

The tariffs last revised in the year 2000 reveal the block pricing mechanism adopted by the PUB. The tariff/m3 before GST for the first 40m3 per month is charged at 1.1700, coupled with a 30% water conservation tax on the tariff. Subsequent usage above 40m3 in the same month will attract a higher tariff of 1.4000m3, 20% higher than the previous block and a higher water conservation tax of 45% of tariff. As has been proved, economic instruments can foster changes in consumption patterns and human behaviour, pricing remains an important tool in the PUB's demand management policy.

3.2 Public Education

Engaging the public and producing behavioural change is a fundamental part of any process seeking sustainability. Public engagement begins by supplying information and strengthening awareness on the crucial need to reduce water usage. After this initial level of engagement has been established, the larger aim would be to persuade informed and well-educated citizens to participate in or take action to tackle the water management issue on a more advanced level.

In Singapore, public education begins in schools and school going children are educated since young on the importance of water conservation to ensure future sustainability. Public campaigns by the PUB to engage the public is also an ongoing process all year round. Their latest initiative, the ABC (Active, Beautiful and Clean)  water program has the vision of engaging kayakers to paddle leisurely in the streams with clean waterways flowing and thereby increasing awareness of water scarcity.

According to the PUB, the number of lifestyle events held at reservoirs increased a staggering six fold over the same period. This reveals the engagement efforts by the PUB to engage the public for events such as the above. The results are telling, in contrast to various disputed US and Australian projects involving wastewater, in Singapore, public acceptance of NEWater has been a much smoother process. This has been the result of more than three decades of sustained and continuous water conservation campaigns have helped the local population understand that recycled water is a crucial part of their sources for water.

In addition, to overcome the psychological apprehension of people in accepting NEWater, deliberate attempts were made to shift public attention away from the source by placing particular focus on the treatment process instead, involving state of the art membrane technology. The PUB also consciously avoided using terms carrying negative connotations and replaced them with positive ones. One example of the above is the words wastewater and sewage water being dropped and the new term Newater being coined.

4 Strong Political Leadership

Lastly, strong political will is in my view, the most important equation in the entire Singapore water story. When Singapore first became independent, the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew decided that in order for a small country like Singapore to survive, they had to ensure they were self-sufficient in meeting their need for water. Therefore, throughout the entire 31 years in office, he personally and regularly received all relevant water news, and the water situation was coordinated directly from his office. No ministry could make any decision that could in any way jeopardise the country's quest for water security: they were simply vetoed by the Prime Ministeriv.

This consistent support from the highest political level means that by the time Prime Minister Lee retired from office, the country had managed to put in place one of the most efficient and effective water and wastewater management systems in the world. It had the main objective of increasing water supply by every means available. Subsequent governments have since taken cue and have consistently made water self-sufficiency an important cornerstone of their term.

5 Conclusion

According to a study done by the UN, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world population live in areas of water scarcityvi. Governments around the world will do well to emulate the success of nations in tackling the issue and in this regard, Singapore offers important lessons for the world. Singapore's water story has been one of careful and calculated long-term development planning. Pragmatic policies, long term planning along with strong political leadership has enabled the city state to progress towards its overall development goals. Over the years, water supply and demand strategies have been tailored to suit the needs of the country. She has converted one of her greatest vulnerability of no natural resource into an opportunity, to manage their resources significantly more efficiently than most other countries. If Singapore can do it, there is no reason to suggest other economies cannot.


i) PUB - http://www.pub.gov.sg/about/Pages/default.aspx

ii) PUB Water Tariff Pricing - http://www.pub.gov.sg/general/Pages/WaterTariff.aspx

iii) Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize - http://www.siww.com.sg/lee-kuan-yew-water-prize

iv) The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew

v) From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965 - 2000: Lee Kuan Yew

vi) United Nations on Water Scarcity - http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/scarcity.shtml