A City of Gardens and Water

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published February 11, 2019 In Earth Island Journal

The trip started as something of a lark. My husband wanted to take one of the world’s longest airplane flights. He loves to fly; for me, it is near-torture. If I was going to travel halfway around the globe with him, the suffering had to count. I wanted to learn something valuable to bring home and share with environmentally-minded colleagues searching for resilient solutions to water management challenges. Singapore filled the bill.

This young, small island-nation of 5.7 million people has become a world-leading “hydro-hub,” and offers game-changing lessons for US cities facing growing threats to their water supplies, as well as more frequent and extreme flood events due to climate change. In Singapore, I knew I could see what fully integrated, high-tech water management looks like. What I didn’t expect was how much the people of Singapore appreciate and attend to their water. The tagline of PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency, is “Water for All:  Conserve, Value, Enjoy.” Singaporeans’ shared vision is to live in an active, high-touch relationship with their beautiful, clean city of gardens and water. They are well on their way.

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Water is existential. This was a phrase I heard repeatedly, from national water agency executives as well as from visitor center volunteers. In Singapore, water is a top-of-mind concern for political leaders and citizens, unlike in the US, where water is often “out of sight, out of mind” (until it isn’t).

It’s been a top concern since the earliest days of the nation, even before independence in 1965. The country has no significant rivers or lakes due to the extremely small size of the catchment (watershed), nor does it have any groundwater supplies. In the 1960s, it saw repeated episodes of drought-driven water rationing, even while demand for water doubled between 1966 and 1971. Additionally, the new nation was burdened by frequent, widespread flooding and extreme water pollution. There were no sewers for much of population, and polluting industries, such as pig farms, were common. The precarious water situation led Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s founding father and long-time Prime Minister, to recognize that “every other policy had to bend at the knees for water survival.”

In the early years, the government built the infrastructure to respond to these everyday concerns. Engineers began by constructing reservoirs for water supply, pipes for drinking water and sewage, and concrete canals to move flood waters quickly away. By the early 1970s, almost everyone had a piped water supply; by 1980, the whole island was linked to the main sewer system. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew ordered a thorough cleanup of the extremely polluted Singapore River.

In the 1990s, with basic water infrastructure in place, Singapore turned its attention to building a sustainable, integrated system, consisting of four “National Taps” to improve water self-sufficiency — local catchment water, imported water, reclaimed water, and desalinated water. (The incentive for self-sufficiency is high: Prior to independence, Singapore secured a long-term agreement with Malaysia to provide freshwater from the Johor River, which today meets about 50 percent of the city’s water needs. But, this agreement runs out in 2061.) By 2001, PUB had consolidated authority over the entire water cycle — rain capture and drainage, sewerage, water treatment, and distribution. This comprehensive approach, known as “One Water” in the US, is fully realized in Singapore.

The most striking example of Singapore’s integrated water management is recycling of wastewater, branded NEWater in Singapore. PUB uses advanced membrane technologies to produce ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water from treated wastewater, much of which is utilized by high-tech industry. The biggest users of NEWater are industrial plants fabricating wafers for electronic devices, which require water quality even more stringent than water for drinking. NEWater is also added to public water supply reservoirs, and treated again before being supplied to consumers as tap water. While the idea of treating and reusing what is commonly called wastewater in the US has been a hard sell to Americans, Singaporeans have embraced this high-tech solution to water scarcity. Perhaps this is because PUB consistently refers to “used” water, rather than wastewater, to avoid the “yuck” factor. As one PUB executive, George Madhavan, remarked, “we don’t sell you water, we rent it to you.”

In addition to ensuring high quality water through state-of-the-art water recycling technology, PUB has invested heavily in public education and engaged political leaders and the media to build widespread support for the program. NEWater was launched in 2002, at the National Day Parade, with then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong leading 60,000 Singaporeans in raising a toast with the reclaimed water. Today, five wastewater recycling plants supply up to 40 percent of Singapore’s current water needs.

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