Singapore's Water Journey: An Inspiration for HKH Countries

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Temasek Water Leadership Programme group attending a seminar
Photo Credit: Hari B. Thapa

In today's global development discourse, Singapore is taken as an inspiration for developing and least developed countries (LDCs). In the past five decades, Singapore’s prosperity has had amazing growth, and its experiences can be useful for development planners, politicians, people, and think tanks in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Researchers argue that, in spite of multiple hardships, pragmatic policies, clear vision, long-term planning, forward-looking strategies and political will, as well as the relentless drive to improve can result in strong foundations for the sustainable development of countries. Countries along the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) which have geophysical attributes that are similar to Singapore’s, and which have uncertain hydrological regimes can learn from Singapore's good practices on water-related issues such as water management, disaster risk management, and livelihood improvement. The contexts, time periods, requirements, and potentials of different countries for development are different and unique. The HKH is currently facing severe water related challenges such as hydropower generation, domestic water and sanitation, droughts, floods, and irrigation. Singapore is said to be as water stressed a country as many in the HKH. But with better water management and an appropriate strategy, it has been addressing water-related challenges with a clear vision.

At the time of independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore, which covers a mere 580 square kilometers of area, was fully dependent on Malaysia for water. Water was piped in from the Johor state of Malaysia per the treaty signed at the time. The treaty was renewed in 2011, securing water rights for Singapore until 2061. The country gets 2,340 mm of annual rainfall on average, but retaining such a significant amount of water within its catchments for future use is not easy. Singapore has had to manage its water resources as best as it can to reduce its dependence on Malaysia. The island country is surrounded by saline water but desalination for use is technologically complicated and costly. Singapore’s water supply hasn’t always been adequate for all its citizens, and the country has had to grapple with sewerage treatment – its management being a challenge for municipalities, in the past. Such water related challenges forced Singapore to make a long term strategy for water resources management. Singapore formulated and implemented a public water policy incorporating technological solutions which went a long way towards reducing its reliance on outside sources and strengthening its internal capacities.  

In the initial years of independence, the country faced many problems related to domestic water supply, sewerage, and recurrent flood and droughts. These inflicted hardship on the population, and posed a major impediment to the economic growth of the country. For example, in December 1969, floods claimed five lives and caused damage worth an estimated at USD 4.3 million. The government started building drainage systems and implementing flood-prevention measures in flood-prone areas covering 6,900 hectares of land (about 12.75% of the main island area at the time). Today, the people of Singapore proudly say that it has been over five decades since anybody has had to stand in a queue to get their share of rationed water during prolonged dry spells or heavy downpours that destroy lives and property. The Water Resources Institute (WRI) ranked Singapore as one of the most water stressed countries in the world last year. Recent forecasts predict that water demand in the country will double by 2060, when their  agreement with Malaysia comes up for renegotiation. Considering the challenges of managing water demand and supply, the country has implemented a strategic long term policy with a clear vision, political commitment, technological advancement, and resource mobilization. 

Field visit to a desalination plant
Photo Credit: Hari B. Thapa

At the time of independence, Singapore’s total water consumption stood at 70 million gallons per day. Today, Singapore’s daily water demand is about 430 million gallons per day, of which the domestic sector demand is 45% and non-domestic sector demand is 55%. Water is being supplied principally from four sources. Singapore plans to allocate more water to the non-domestic sector; hence, its emphasis on technological advancements, legal instruments, and behavioral-change awareness, including pricing modalities to reduce per capita water use. In 2003, the average household water use was 165 liters per day. This fell to 151 liter per day in 2015, but the country is expected to cap it at 140 liters per day by 2030. It is estimated that the domestic sector water demand will be reduced by 40% and 30% in 2030 and 2060, respectively.   The first source of water is Malaysia, the second source is local catchments, the third source is recycled water (up to 30%), and the fourth source is desalinated water (up to 25%). According to the water strategy adopted by the country, more of the water demand will be increasingly met by internal supply sources to reduce dependency on Malaysia. It is expected that by 2030, up to 50% of the water demand will be met by recycled water and up to 30% of the demand by desalinated water. According to the country’s ambitious strategic plan for 2060, 85% of the total water demand will be met by treated and desalinated water and the rest by water from local catchments or imported water. According to the 99-year agreement between the State of Johore (Malaysia) and Singapore in 1962, the latter may draw up to 250 million gallons of water per day.

Singapore's implementation of its key strategy for sustainable management of water resources has three parts. First, by valuing and conserving every drop of rainfall within its territory and improving its catchments, it has enhanced the storage of fresh water in 17 reservoirs covering two thirds of the country, as opposed to only three reservoirs that were functional initially. Second, used water is treated and recycled under the corporate brand ‘NEWater’. In this process, used and waste water is subjected to microfiltration and reverse osmosis to remove contaminants, bacteria and viruses, and then disinfected with ultraviolet light. It is a sophisticated and costly technical process, followed by 130,000 scientific tests and well within the drinking water guidelines set by the United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) and World Health Organization (WHO). Third, desalinated or treated sea water has been given top priority. Today, two desalination plants meet about 25% of the total water demand of the country. Desalination will be more cost effective and viable once its investments in research and development find better and cheaper ways of desalinating sea water. Singapore is struggling with water stress; however, it does not look water scarce at the user level:  adequate water is supplied to the users, plenty of water spews from fountains in parks and recreational centers, reservoirs seem to be overflowing with clean water, the streets are clean, and the city looks green. All this has been made possible by Singapore's clear vision, long term policy and strategy, collaborative efforts, political will, and resource optimization. Singapore's water journey has been exemplary, and it can serve as a model for countries in the HKH intent on replicating the country’s success in their own respective contexts. 

*The author is Senior Divisional (Irrigation) Engineer with the Government of Nepal. He holds a M.Sc. in interdisciplinary Water Resources Management. He was a recipient of the HUC Mobility Grant, which provided subsidiary fund for his participation in the Temasek Water Leadership in Singapore in 2016.


References: 

  • Fourth Water Leadership Programme (10-22 July, 2016) resource materials, Lee Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy 
  • Our Water Our History: PUB Singapore’s National Water Agency
  • The Singapore Water Story (Cecilia Tortajada, Yugal Joshi, Assit Kumar Biswas)-LKY