A Holistic Approach to Water Management: The Singapore Water Story Book

It is highly appropriate that the Singapore Water Story is being published on March 22, World Water Day. Many countries aspire to emulate Singapore’s achievements. Singapore can be considered unique, as a wealthy country able to afford the technology and the extensive infrastructure developments. But that is missing the main point which comes across strongly in the book, that economic success was achieved because water and environmental developments were essential parts of Singapore’s sustainable development.

The authors were extremely fortunate in being able to interview Lee Kuan Yew. They were able to obtain a first‐hand account of the problems faced and motivations during the early difficult years of Singapore’s independence, and the determination to pursue policies of sustainable development.

Lee Kuan Yew saw water as so important, as part of strategic independence from Malaysia and key to the development of the city‐state, that he placed the water planning unit under his direct control within the Prime Minister’s Office. The continuity of commitment and leadership was vital during a period of relative poverty when faced with major water resource problems and serious pollution.

When looking at Singapore today, it is important to recognise that back in 1965, the city‐state was facing the same problems of water rationing and industrial pollution, while being relatively poor, as many other countries are facing today. An encouraging message for other countries which emerges from the book is that the problems can be solved, but solutions require continuity of political commitment and time.

The authors also had access to other people directly involved in policy development, including the current chairman of the Public Utilities Board (PUB), Tan Gee Paw. Tan Gee Paw was one of the members of the Water Planning Unit responsible for the Water Master Plan produced in 1972. This plan was far‐reaching, considering not only those surface water sources which could be utilised in the immediate future, but also others such as re‐use for consideration later. The plan provided the blueprint of water resource development for nearly 30 years, and was reviewed and developed at the instigation of Tan Gee Paw when he became chairman of PUB in 2001.

At that time, water, wastewater and drainage all came together under PUB facilitating integrated water planning. This was probably the most important institutional development in this Singapore Story but also another example of continuity of leadership.

There is willingness to think “outside the box” and to seek the best information and technology available worldwide. There was willingness to experiment, accepting that there could be failures.

Back in 1974, there were experiments with membranes for water re‐use. The plant was shut down in 1976 as the membranes were unreliable and the process was too expensive. However, that experiment provided the experience to pursue membranes when the technology had advanced.

Major advances

The use of advanced technology was not limited to treatment processes. In water distribution, which receives less publicity, there have been major advances in leak detection and good use of trenchless technology. This willingness to use new technology stimulated the private sector to invest in technology development, knowing that in Singapore there was a potential market and a potential shop window for advanced products.

Success required the population of Singapore to respond to signals from government. These signals were partly educational and information based. To reduce water consumption the use of water saving appliances and devices in houses were promoted. A visitors centre was set‐up to promote the safety and acceptability of re‐use (NEWater) water so that schoolchildren and other visitors could learn about water treatment and how wastewater could be made safe to drink. As part of giving public reassurance on the safety of re‐use water, an international group of experts was formed.

There was also very strong enforcement of legislation and regulations particularly on pollution control. The processes for enforcement and issue of penalties were non‐bureaucratic and fast, giving very clear messages that infringements of regulations would not be tolerated.

Inspections were unannounced and easy to measure tests were used to assess compliance. Over the years, 29,525 people were prosecuted for various environmental legislation infringements. The number of infringements fell dramatically after that period.

The steps taken in Singapore were pragmatic, not ideological. For example, achieving a good environment was not driven by “greenness” as such but by recognition that it was necessary as part of sustainable development long before that term was coined.

That pragmatism is still alive today with regulations being modified as necessary to reflect changing requirements. Equally, although water and wastewater operations have remained firmly public under government, there has been extensive use of the private sector, with decisions based on what would provide the best delivery.

This is partly testament to the professionalism of the highly trained and honest administration, free from corruption.

With access to comprehensive archives at the National University of Singapore, the authors have provided a wealth of information on all aspects of the water story.

Integration lessons

The book is essentially a factual one and provides good data for academics and others to explore various aspects of water and wastewater developments. For example, each piece of legislation over the whole period of independent Singapore is covered and referenced.

Planners can consider the lessons for integration of city development, environmental and water aspects. Equally, the book provides the means whereby other countries can learn from the Singapore experience. In particular, to consider what in their situations is different from Singapore and how key fundamentals could be applied under different political and physical conditions.

Clearly, 2013 is not the end of the Singapore story and the authors comment on the challenges ahead. It is estimated that water requirements in 2060 will be twice that or 2011. The challenges presented by high dependency on imported energy and climate change considerations are recognised. The holistic approach to policies and planning continues.

What are the main takes from the Singapore Story? Lee Kuan Yew gives the success factors as determination to succeed, discipline, comprehensive planning, use of technology and administrative capability in implementation. This valuable book provides the opportunity for others to make their own assessments.

Michael Rouse
Distinguished Research Associate, University of Oxford; independent international adviser and past president of the International Water Association.
Published in The Business Times, March 20, 2013