Interview with Asit K. Biswas
By Shelia Ng
Ethos | Issue 2 | April 2007
One of the world’s leading authorities on water, Professor Asit K. Biswas is also the President of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico. Speaking to Ethos, he argues that Singapore has the know-how and track record to position itself as the water hub of the world.
Given that Singapore is a small water- scarce nation, how can it better manage its water resources?
Biswas: Overall, Singapore’s water management is already one of the best in the world. In water management, Singapore has made a transition from a developing country to a developed country in only 30 to 40 years. In contrast, much of the developing world has made only incremental progress during the past decades. In areas such as technological innovation, institutional arrangements, pricing, leadership, and stakeholders’ participation, what Singapore has achieved during the last 30 years is most commendable.
Of course, it is much easier to manage a small city-state like Singapore compared to big countries like India, China or Brazil. However, size itself is not the only consideration because most of the Central American, Caribbean and Pacific Island states are often no bigger than Singapore, and yet none of them have managed to make a fraction of the progress that Singapore has made in water and wastewater management in recent decades.
It will be progressively more difficult to improve radically on what Singapore has already achieved, especially when you consider that the rest of the world is still trying to achieve much of what Singapore has already accomplished. There is, of course, always room for improvement. For example, per capita water consumption in Singapore can be further reduced to around 135 litres, from around 158 litres at present. With increasing population and industrial activities and limited freshwater resources, further reduction in water demand will be necessary. Already, a few European cities have brought down their per capita water consumption to the 130 to 135 litres range.
How well does Singapore’s water management compare with best practices around the world? What can we learn from other approaches elsewhere?
Biswas: Water management in Singapore is now significantly better than the rest of the developing world and much of the developed world. Indeed, it is often claimed that the private sector manages water better than the public sector, yet Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) is a public sector organisation, and its performance record is simply superb. In fact, private sector companies would do well to emulate a public sector institution like PUB.
Let us compare the performance of PUB with the performance of private sector water companies in England, which have been privatised completely for about 20 years. In Singapore, the water loss from the system is around five per cent. For Thames Water, the biggest UK private sector water company, the loss is nearly six times this amount. PUB, a public sector company, has been performing much better than a major international private sector company with a long track record. The whole of Singapore is now sewered. Wastewater and storm-water are now collected and reused much more extensively than in nearly all other developed countries. The local population accepts the idea of properly treated wastewater for domestic consumption. Viewed from any perspective, these are remarkable achievements.
Singapore, in my view, now has some unique opportunities in the water sector which it should consider pursuing. Because Singapore has succeeded so well, it should consider very seriously how these management techniques, technology, economics, pricing policies and public participation processes can be used in other countries, both developing and developed. Singapore needs to carefully and objectively document what it has already done, how it has done this, and with what costs and results. These analyses will be of great value to the rest of the world.
For example, there is a great deal of discussion on the advanced technology used in Singapore for managing its water cycle. But with NEWater, the most important issue is not technology, though it is important. The technology is well-known and can be bought off the shelf. The critical issues are public psychology, institutional dynamism and leadership, and public acceptance of the use of treated water.
Technologically, it has been known for years that if wastewater is treated properly, its quality should be better than drinking water. Globally, however, we have failed to convince the public that there is nothing wrong in using properly treated wastewater. Major industrialised countries like the United States and Australia have thus far failed to get the public to accept the concept of reused water. Yet Singapore has managed to successfully marry technological possibilities with public acceptance. How this has been done is of great interest to the world.
What opportunities are there for Singapore to take advantage of its head start in the field of water management?
Biswas: Singapore, in recent years, has been a trendsetter. It now has a tremendous economic opportunity to export its know-how to many other countries. They can significantly improve their water management efficiencies by adopting the Singapore experience with appropriate modifications. These countries will be willing to pay for good technical and management advice from Singapore to improve their water management practices and processes. Such an approach will benefit Singapore as well as the rest of the world.
But most of the world at present does not know what Singapore has achieved. Thus, considerable effort needs to be expended to make the world aware of the progress made. In my view, PUB has decisively outperformed the multinational companies that are now providing water management services to the world.
A small state like Singapore must find good market niches, and urban water management is a very special niche that Singapore can now exploit. The country needs to make a determined effort to market its expertise to the rest of the world. This is being done to a certain extent, but much more could be done. In my view, the current effort needs to be increased by 60% to 80% within four or five years to show positive results.
The second possibility is to be a knowledge hub for water — something the world lacks at present. Many universities in the US and the UK are doing good theoretical research; yet these types of research will not solve the developing world’s water problems promptly or cost-effectively, because the boundary conditions are very different. These problems can be solved only by applied research that is specifically focused on the circumstances of the developing world.
Asia’s water problems, for instance, climate-wise, are very different. Countries like Singapore, Japan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan are all in the monsoon region. If we compare the annual rainfall figures, for example, between London and Delhi, they are not that dissimilar, differing by only about 15%. But the main difference for water management between these two locations is this: in Delhi, nearly all the annual rainfall occurs in about 80 hours (albeit not consecutively), whereas in London, it occurs over the entire year. Thus, water management practices needed in Delhi are very different from those in London. For monsoon areas like Delhi, the main consideration has to be how to collect this immense amount of rainfall within a very short period, then store it, treat it and use it over the entire year, most of which is rainless. Thus, the water management requirements for the monsoon regions are very different compared to countries in temperate climates.
Regrettably, very few institutions in Asia and the developing world are engaging in good quality research that will solve their own water problems; many institutions from India to Japan and China are mostly trying to follow the type of research conducted at Oxford or Harvard. Asia needs to develop its own research agenda which will help to solve its own water issues, and should not adopt Western practices and solutions blindly.
In addition, no single water institution exists anywhere in the world that is looking at the water problems of the future, either for developed or developing countries. They invariably focus on how we did things in the past, and expect developments to occur only incrementally. But there is no question that within the next 20 years, water management practices and processes will change more than what we have witnessed during the past 2,000 years. There is a big gap between what is being done and what should be done in terms of water research.
Singapore has a golden opportunity right now to become the water knowledge hub for the world, including focusing on applied research on water management and looking into future water problems and policies needed to solve them. It already has outstanding institutions like PUB. There is absolutely no reason why an established institution in Singapore should not become the pre-eminent global authority in the area of water policy and governance, which the world at present simply does not have.
Singapore also has extremely good tourism infrastructure. It is surrounded by water. It has done remarkably well in urban water planning and management. Perhaps it could also consider a water festival where the main focus could be on water-related activities. The city could become a tourist destination during the water festival.
But along with the water festival, Singapore needs a main event, similar to an international forum such as the World Economic Forum, held in Davos, Switzerland, every winter. There is nothing similar to the Davos Forum in the field of water anywhere in the world, but it is now needed. The Singapore Water Forum would attract leading water policymakers, experts from public and private sectors, academia, industry, as well as non-governmental organisations and the media from across the world.
There are many water-related professional associations in the world at present. They could be invited to come around the time of the Singapore Water Festival and Singapore Water Forum to discuss water-related issues. It should be possible to make Singapore a model for the water world, and a centre for knowledge on water for the world. It can be done, and should be done.
There is already some thinking in this direction but it could be more ambitious. There is no question that great potential exists to put Singapore on the world map in terms of water-oriented knowledge generation, synthesis, dissemination and application. Singapore can contribute a great deal of knowledge and management expertise, which is now missing in the water field.
My view is if Singapore can synergistically combine the water expertise it currently has with new activities like a Singapore Water Festival, or a Singapore Water Forum, and a few similar water-related activities, it can become the water capital of the world within the next five to six years. This is a very exciting prospect.
This article is excerpted from an interview conducted in Singapore (15 January 2007) by Sheila Ng, Assistant Editor, ETHOS.