Singapore: Water Short No More

As Singapore raced toward urbanization just four decades ago, water shortages were a recurrent part of daily life. Fast forward to the present, and the situation could not be more different: Today, the city state enjoys reliable, diversified and sustainable sources of water, thanks to a long-term water policy driven by the exigencies of national survival.


Rowing on the new reservoir. Image courtesy PUB and taken by Darren Tong.

As a small island nation with no natural aquifers and lakes, and little land to collect rainwater, Singapore needs to maximize whatever water it can harvest. It does so by drawing on a pervasive network of drains, canals and rivers that channel rain water to 15 reservoirs and managing its total water supply in an efficient, integrated manner.

Singapore’s national water agency PUB has built an internationally acknowledged model of successful water management based on a Four National Taps strategy, with water from four different sources: local catchment areas, imported water, reclaimed water and desalinated water. The opening of the Marina Barrage in 2008, which created the Marina Reservoir was a technological triumph: Singapore’s fifteenth reservoir and the first one in the heart of the city not only shores up the nation’s water supply and acts as a flood defense but also functions as a lifestyle attraction for social and water activities, thus creating a greater affinity between the vital water medium and its consumers.

With 100 percent modern sanitation, Singapore is able to collect and treat its used water and turn that into high-grade reclaimed water it calls NEWater, the quality of which is well within the World Health Organization standards for drinking water. Most of it is used for industrial and air-cooling purposes, but a small percentage is mixed with reservoir water before being treated for the drinking water supply.

Ensuring an adequate and secure supply of water continues to be a national priority for Singapore, as it is for other industrializing and urbanizing cities. Growing demand for low-cost, potable water in the regional and global context is driven by several key factors, namely:

  • population growth (this is a primary driver of water demand, with many of the world’s most water-scarce nations also having the fastest growing populations);
  • increased industrial output (as economies grow, they need more water to fuel their industries, and power generation is a major consumer of water);
  • rising incomes (domestic water usage increases in tandem with incomes); and
  • urbanization (the greater the population density, the lower the precipitation per head – hence cities, even in relatively “wet” countries, often struggle to manage their water resources).

According to the United Nations' World Water Development Report, by 2050, at least one in four people is likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of freshwater.

The figures bear up the facts. In Singapore, the total population at mid-year 2009 amounted to 4.99 million, from 4.03 million based on the 2000 census, according to the latest data available, while its industrial production index rose 39.4 percent in January 2010 on a year-on-year basis.

According to a report released by the Asia Society Leadership Group on Water Security in 2009, the rural population in Asia will remain almost the same from now to 2025 but the urban population is likely to increase by a startling 60 percent. This rapid urbanization rate raises an urgent signal that practical solutions must be found to address water shortage issues before the situation deteriorates, with unhappy effects for economic growth.

As such, sustainable water solutions will be a subject very much on participants’ minds at the forthcoming Singapore International Water Week 2010, to be held from June 28 to July 2. With the theme of Sustainable Cities – Clean and Affordable Water, this global platform for water solutions will bring policymakers, industry leaders, experts and practitioners together to address challenges, showcase technologies, discover opportunities and celebrate achievements.

The annual event comprises the Water Leaders Summit, Water Convention, Water Expo, Business Forums and the highlight, the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.

Water availability and balancing economic, social, and future needs without adversely affecting the Earth's natural resources is one of the most important issues facing the world. It is therefore important for global water leaders to share their experiences and learn from one another to develop sustainable initiatives. The Water Leaders Summit brings together ministers, mayors, top government officials, global water industry leaders, heads of international organizations, leading researchers and practitioners to consider pressing water governance, technology and business issues that affect communities worldwide, providing the impetus for innovations to address these challenges.

Water Week 2010 culminates in the presentation of the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, which this year goes to the Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC), for its remarkable transformation of China’s second longest river in just 10 years, to secure water supply for more than 100 million people. The prize honors outstanding contributions toward solving global water problems by either applying groundbreaking technologies or implementing innovative policies and programs that benefit humanity.

Despite the paucity of renewable water resources in Singapore (it is listed by the World Bank as the 165th country out of 173 in the amount of water available per capita), the city state leads the world in virtually every aspect of water management. While its water management experience may be unique and difficult to duplicate, a good number of the measures can be implemented in countries looking for sustainable water solutions.

Securing an adequate supply is only half of the water equation ─ managing the demand side is just as crucial. In Singapore, strict regulations ensure that water usage is 100 percent metered, while the installation of water-saving devices such as water-saving toilets and water taps is par for the course. PUB’s water conservation programs have managed to reduce Singapore’s per capita domestic water consumption from 165 liters per day in 2003 to about 155 liters per day currently. The plan is to further reduce per capita water consumption to 140 liters by 2030.

Turning water from a scarce resource and strategic vulnerability into a showcase success story and potential money spinner is no mean feat. Countries must manage their use of water better or face increasingly severe shortages as a result. Addressing water sustainability and meeting thriving demand for efficient and cost-effective solutions to provide affordable, potable water will present great opportunities for the world’s water industry in the years to come.

(Initial image of 2009 Expo courtesy of Singapore International Water Week.)

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