Harvesting Every Drop: The Singapore Water Story

Singapore is pioneer in Urban water harvesting and has become a model for other countries to follow

Water is a critical resource for Singapore. Even though we get ample rainfall – some 2.4 metres a year – our big problem is that we don’t have the land to collect and store all this rain. We also don’t have other natural sources of water, such as groundwater sources. When Singapore gained independence in 1965, its survival depended heavily on our ability to have an assured supply of water. Our founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, made this a top priority and he took strategic, as well as practical, steps to tackle the problem.

PUB: Pioneer of urban water harvesting

Lee set the vision – harvesting every drop of rain became the main goal of the PUB, which pioneered urban harvesting on a large scale. People talk about urban stormwater harvesting, but there is no city or country in the world that does urban stormwater harvesting on the scale that Singapore does. This started with our experiment with the harvesting process at the Bedok Reservoir in the late 1970s. Today, two-thirds of Singapore is used for water catchment, with the rainwater being collected in 17 reservoirs, including the Marina Reservoir, which collects water from the central business district.

Collecting water from these urban areas would be impossible if it was dependent on the efforts of one agency  it is only possible due to an integrated approach that sees multiple agencies working together in land-use planning and environmental management, to ensure that the catchments are clean and that stormwater drains are separated from the sewage network.

The rivers had to be cleaned up. That was the easy part. The difficult part was, and still is, tackling the sources of pollution on land. And that’s where all the regulations on land use and environmental management had to come in, including clearing the pig and duck farms, the backyard factories and the shipyards. Lee Kuan Yew set a 10-year target from 1977 to 1987 to clean up the rivers, and he gave an incentive. He said, ‘I will give gold medals to the people who will accomplish this task on target’. He kept to his promise and 10 civil servants, including the current chairman of the PUB, Tan Gee Paw, each got a gold medal when the clean-up was completed. At the presentation ceremony in 1987, Lee predicted that technology would make it possible for us to dam the Singapore and Kallang rivers to create a freshwater reservoir in the heart of the city. Twenty years on, the Marina Barrage and Reservoir have made Lee’s prediction a reality.

The key: Separating rainwater and used water

The holistic approach to managing water and creating the infrastructure to collect rainwater and used water separately meant that Singapore, being 100 per cent connected by sewers, was ready for large-scale recycling of water using membrane technology when it became possible. Today, we have NEWater. NEWater is not just about technology. We would not be able to produce NEWater if we had not set about separating our storm water and sewage network so that we collected the used water of the sewage separately on a large scale. And that made it possible for us to create NEWater.

I once briefed a former Malaysian water minister, and he said it would be very difficult to do NEWater in Malaysia. I think that applies to many developing countries, because the catchments have not been properly managed, and separate sewage systems have not been put in. If you do not have separation of stormwater and sewage, it is not possible to recycle water on a large scale. So, it’s not just about technology, but also about an integrated approach to management. In addition, we now desalinate seawater efficiently at a comparatively lower cost. So the ‘water loop’ has been closed. In 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong opened our second desalination plant in Tuas, which has more than double the capacity of the first desalination plant.

However, integrated water management is not just about supply. Lee Kuan Yew also focused on water conservation; demand management through campaigns to encourage people and industries to save water; introducing legislation to use water-saving devices in homes and commercial buildings; and pricing water correctly at the full economic cost. This integrated approach is unique among the cities of the world and it is why PUB has won international accolades including the Stockholm Industry Water Award in 2007.

A new paradigm: Water as environmental asset

Beyond managing water as a resource, PUB now sees water as part of the larger urban system. Water is now managed as an environmental asset, to improve our dense urban landscape. The blue map of Singapore shows all our 17 reservoirs, 32 rivers and 8,000 kilometres of drains and canals. It’s blue, but right now the blue is not visible from ground level because most of the rivers are canals, often huge concrete canals or monsoon drains – not very good to look at.

PUB’s Active, Beautiful, Clean (ABC) Waters programme will gradually make this blue a reality. With the re-naturalising of waterways, such as in our Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, what used to be a concrete canal has been turned into a meandering river in the park. Lee Kuan Yew endorsed the ABC Waters programme. When he visited the ABC Waters exhibition in 2007, he told the PUB that the initiative was good as it will enhance property values and, hence, be supported by the people.

PUB’s goal in the ABC Waters programme is to bring water closer to people and to encourage them to be stakeholders, taking care of water through community projects, especially involving schoolchildren.

Beyond that, our significant investment in water technologies has spawned a water industry. It was given a boost in 2006 by the National Research Foundation, which allocated $330 million to fund water research. The water industry has now become a strategic growth industry for Singapore, with more than 130 companies forming the water cluster. Singapore has become a bit of a hub for water. Lee reminded us that we didn’t achieve this by ourselves; we climbed on other people’s shoulders, we brought things together, improved on them, and, in turn, we are happy to have other people climb on our shoulders. It’s a collaborative effort. The world will need this because what we had previously assumed about having a limitless, endless supply of water was not correct.

In essence, the water story is not dissimilar to the other stories of Singapore’s physical transformation: urban planning, housing or greening. We were a kind of ‘basket case’ of urbanisation in the 1950s and 1960s with all sorts of urbanisation problems. But over 50 years, we’ve become one of the more liveable and sustainable cities in Asia, if not the world. At the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), our mission is to document what Singapore has done and to distil some of the principles, so that these principles can be shared with the next generation of Singaporeans who are going to be our urban leaders, as well as with other city leaders who will be interested in creating liveable and sustainable cities.

Singapore is one of the few cities that has a high density population in a highly liveable place. Most of the liveable cities in the world that are ranked by indices like Mercer’s tend to be cities such as Melbourne and Vancouver, which are low density and somewhat sprawling. I think future cities of the developing world – China, India, Africa and Latin America – are less likely to be like Melbourne and Vancouver and probably closer to what Singapore is. So I think what we have done has value as an example for other cities.

Khoo Teng Chye is the Executive Director of the Centre for Liveable Cities, and a former Chief Executive of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency. The article was adapted from Mr Khoo’s chapter in “A Chance of a Lifetime: Lee Kuan Yew and the Physical Transformation of Singapore”, published by the Centre for Liveable Cities and the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house