Singapore as livable city

How managers are tapping into new ideas for Singapore’s water supply

Imagine standing at the edge of a lake. The water is dotted with a rich variety of birds. It’s weekend, and you are enjoying a lazy afternoon with your family, ambling along the paved walkway that runs like a neat pencil-line along the lake. Now imagine that the lake is actually a water treatment plant. Tough to believe? In Singapore, this is no fantasy; it’s part of a world-renowned water management strategy.

Water management in Singapore
In central Singapore, PUB transformed a concrete canal into a lush meandering river (Bishan Ang Mo Kio Park, Kallang River). (Image supplied by PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency.)

As we’ve said (in this article on how cities developed, and what went wrong), a key step to develop a city with enough water, where people want to live, is new approaches to old problems . For this, Singapore is setting the trend. The city-state is at the leading edge of innovative water management strategies.

PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency is developing a set of different sources for their water. They key? Thinking outside the proverbial traditional water tank. In the process, a healthy and satisfying place to live and work is being created. It’s even more remarkable, seeing that they have a relatively small amount of land and water to work with.

Enough water, but nowhere to put it

Singapore receives an average 2200 mm of rain every year. This is much more than the global average of about 1 000 mm, but this perk is counterbalanced by the limited land available to catch and store the water.

The islands that carry the city also don’t have natural aquifers and lakes. Water stress is such a certainty here that in 2015, the World Resources Institute identified Singapore as one of 33 out of 167 countries most likely to face extremely high water stress by 2040.

Yet Singapore’s 5.6 million people enjoy affordable, high-quality water. And, they are likely to do so far into the future. The road to get there has not been without challenges.

Singapore water management
Marina Reservoir is Singapore’s 15th reservoir and the first in the heart of the city. With a catchment area of 10,000 hectares, Marina catchment is the island’s largest and most urbanized catchment. (Image supplied by PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency.)

A city always on the lookout for more water

When Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819, one of his first orders was to dig a well. But the settlement soon grew thirstier. A reservoir followed, that was replaced by a system of wells as more and more water was needed. (This trend remains a constant in the development of Singapore: the search for more water, followed with more development and more people, and the cycle being repeated again.)

In later years, Singapore became dependent on water imported from Malaysia. With Singapore’s total water demand likely to double from the current 430 million gallons a day (or, 1 627 million litres per day), city managers have decided to find other sources of water by the time the remaining agreement with Malaysia ends in 2061. The decision has blossomed into a world-renowned water management strategy. It rests on three principles.

Three principles for water management in Singapore

Singapore water management from four new taps
A different view to managing water ins a city: Marina Reservoir. (Image supplied by PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency.)

First, the water that the city itself ‘produces’ is maximised. The PUB, which manages water supply, used water and stormwater drainage, tries to collect every drop of rain that falls on Singapore.

Second, water is seen as a resources that can be reused endlessly. Every drop of used water is reclaimed, and much of it turned into drinking water again.

Third, Singapore has turned its eyes to the most palpable source of water around: the sea.

The strategy is personified in a diverse set of water sources, known as the Four National Taps.

Four taps to manage water in Singapore

The first tap is water from the local catchment. For this tap, Singapore has geared development towards becoming one of the few countries in the world to harvest urban stormwater on a large scale, to be treated for drinking water.

With limited land and ever-growing urban areas, a network of rivers, canals and drains have been built to change as much as two thirds of Singapore into a water catchment. The runoff and stormwater is channeled to a system of 17 reservoirs before it is treated for drinking water.

The second tap is imported water, based on agreements signed with Malaysia. The 1961 Water Agreement between the Johor State Government and Singapore expired on 31 August 2011, but water is still imported under the 1962 Water Agreement. This allows the city to draw up to 946 megalitres/day from Johor River. In return, Singapore is obliged to provide Johor with up to 2% of the imported water that they treat.

However, Singapore’s future water security is dependent on the development of the last two taps.

Singaporeans see the potential in used water

Tap three is highly purified reclaimed water. Known as NEWater, it’s produced from treated, used water that is further cleaned with advanced membrane technologies and ultraviolet disinfection. The water is safe to drink, but is mainly used by industries, unless Singapore experiences drought.

Then NEWater is added to reservoirs where it is blended with raw water, which is then treated at waterworks before it is supplied to consumers as tap water. There are five NEWater plants supplying up to 40% of Singapore’s current water needs. By 2060, NEWater is expected to meet up to 55% of water demand.

Singapore water reclamation plant
Changi Water Reclamation Plant located in eastern Singapore treats used water by effectively removing the solids and nutrients that are present in used water, before channeling it to NEWater factory to be further treated into highly purified NEWater. (Image supplied by PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency.)

An underground superhighway for used water will streamline how Singapore collects, treats, gets rid of or reclaims used water. Called the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS), its construction spans two phases, with Phase 1, 48 km long, completed in 2008.

The construction of a second 40 km is in progress. By 2025, whenever Singaporeans flush the toilet, take a shower or wash the dishes, this water will flow into the water highway. Then, it will be channeled to one of three coastal water reclamation plants (WRPs) for treatment. When it is completed, the DTSS will shrink the land occupied by used water infrastructure by 50%, freeing up precious land for higher value uses.

Then, they look to the sea

In September 2005, Singapore turned on its fourth national tap when the SingSpring Desalination Plant opened in Tuas. Singapore currently has three desalination plants with two more coming up in 2020.

Singapore water desalination plant
Tuas Desalination Plant, is Singapore’s third desalination plant and the first to be owned and operated by PUB. It can produce up to 30 million gallons a day of drinking water. (Image supplied by PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency.)

While the PUB is continuously working towards a sustainable water management plan, Singaporeans are also expected to use water wisely. Public education campaigns to drive water conservation are common. There are also water efficiency standards in place, while water is priced to reflect its scarcity. These are all ways PUB employs to drive down household water use. This has dropped from 165 litres per day in 2003 to 143 litres in 2017. The new target is to reach 130 litres by 2030.

Always working towards a sustainable future

Still, the work is not done. Rather, its an evolving process. The government is making the city greener, and PUB has come to the party. For their part, they are working towards a vision of waterways and reservoirs as beautiful recreational facilities for Singaporeans.

As a result, more than 100 projects have been identified for completion by 2030. Called the ABC Waters (Active, Beautiful, Clean) programme, most projects include pleasing and practical green features, such as rain gardens to soak up rainwater and treat it before it reaches waterways. In this way, they also aim to bring people closer to water. If Singaporeans are more aware of water, they can help protect and conserve it.

Singapore water management from four new taps.
An ABC Waters project at Kallang River- Bishan Ang Mo Kio Park in central Singapore. It’s one of PUB’s iconic projects. (Image supplied by PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency.)

PUB is constantly working towards ensuring that the Singapore water management, and the systems this relies on, remain adequate, sustainable and resilient.

In his foreword for PUB’s Our Water, Our Future publication in 2016, its Chief Executive, Mr Ng Joo Hee said, “ This is entirely practicable as long as we remain coldly realistic about our circumstances and do not shy away from pursuing and employing hard-nosed policies. It will require that we apply our intellect and imagination, researching and testing continuously, and use science and technology to overcome our water challenges. And it will require judicious consumption and increased frugality on the part of Singaporeans and residents.”

Dear reader, now it’s over to you

So, what do you think about water management in Singapore? Would you be happy to live in a city that uses reclaimed water? Leave your comments below – I’d like to hear what you think.

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