Water in Singapore: the challenges ahead

Cecilia Tortajada and Asit K. Biswas

THE BUSINESS TIMES | March 19, 2013

Water is, and has always been, a multi-dimensional resource that crosses all other social and economic sectors. Its management, development and governance increasingly depends on policies in the other sectors. The case in Singapore has been no different.

At independence in 1965, the city-state was almost completely dependent on outside sources. Dilapidated buildings and squatter sheds in its business hub or “city centre” were basically slum colonies. Its riverways and canals resembled open sewers. Apart from the downtown core, other areas remained villages, with most of the population living in slums and kampongs without proper water supply, sanitation or adequate public transportation.

Water has remained a very sensitive issue for land-constrained Singapore because of its dependence on outside sources to some degree even now. Population growth, high living standards, and heightened urbanisation and industrialisation have resulted in increasing demand for clean and affordable water. Policy-makers have thus moved impressively towards reducing its reliance on outside sources and have strengthened Singapore’s own internal capacities based on some of the best managerial, governance and technological approaches globally. Within this framework, the work of the Public Utilities Board (PUB) has been crucial to the overall development of the city-state.

Singapore has efficient water institutions and policies that have been tailored to the changing goals and needs of the city-state. There has been efficient and effective management and governance practices and one of the best technological developments in the world.

Given this scenario, one would think that not many challenges lie ahead for the city-state. However, this is not the case.

While the water sector is highly efficient and effective, the challenges that await the city-state are coming mostly from outside the water sector, both locally and globally. These are urbanisation, increasing energy prices, potential impact of climate change and, most important, the daunting task of having to change social attitudes towards water use and conservation.

The growing urbanisation trend has increased the pressure to meet the water demands of a larger population for whom drinking water, drainage, waste water and sanitation services have to be provided. Restricted by land size, development of infrastructure will be increasingly more difficult and expensive as the different agencies will continue competing for land for different purposes. An important factor to consider now and in the future is the impact of heavy urbanisation on flood-prone areas. Low-lying areas –or flood-prone areas– have been reduced remarkably by more than 95 per cent over the last few decades even though urbanisation has intensified. From 3,178 ha of flood-prone areas in 1970s, there are only 48 ha at present. With floods being unavoidable natural events, more planning should go into urbanization of vulnerable areas.

On the energy side, Singapore is both water and energy deficient and thus externally dependent on the two resources. All over the world, the water sector is a major user of energy and vice versa, and the city-state is no exception. Energy is needed, for example, for pumping, treating, recycling and desalination as well as for production of NEWater; and water is needed for energy generation. The US Energy In Information Administration (EIA) mentions that Singapore is one of Asia’s main energy and petrochemicals hubs and one of the world’s top three oil trading and refining centres, with world-class refining facilities and infrastructure. It also mentions that Singapore’s total primary energy consumption in 2011 was 90 per cent petroleum and 10 per cent natural gas, all of it imported from different countries.

According to the 2010 Survey of Energy Resources of the World Energy Council, more than 90 per cent of Brunei’s oil output is exported, mostly to Japan, Thailand, Republic of Korea and Singapore. Some 70 per cent of Yemen’s crude production is exported, largely to Singapore, Japan, Republic of Korea and other Asia-Pacific destinations. Indonesia, the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, has been exporting supplies by pipeline to Singapore to the order of 6.65 billion cubic metres in 2008.

Given the close relations between water and energy, every strategy to make water and energy use more efficient will be highly beneficial to the city-state.

Finally, and of utmost importance, is the attitude of the public towards water use and conservation. Given the limited natural endowments of the city-state, water security considerations and future uncertainties emerging from global competition for resources and the potential impacts of climate change, further policy measures are needed to significantly reduce per capita consumption as well as industrial and commercial water demands. Tariff increases, efficiency measures and awareness strategies have been implemented for several decades but more needs to be done.

This will call for the PUB to continue developing innovative strategies to be able to meet an expected total water demand of 3.46 million m3/day by 2060, almost double the demand in 2011. Even for a country like Singapore with an excellent track record of urban water management, this would be a complex and most challenging task. Since economic instruments have proven successful in reshaping consumption patterns and human behaviour elsewhere, such measures should receive priority consideration to further bring down water consumption.

Overall, the challenge is to make the public realise the importance of using water sustainably for its long-term conservation even when immediate access to clean water may not be a problem. Since no production of water would ever be enough unless managed and used wisely, implementation of stricter water conservation measures is needed on the one hand, and more responsible attitudes and behaviour on the other hand. In the end, no matter how much water is drawn from the Four National Taps (water from local catchment areas, imported water, NEWater and desalinated water), the amount will never be sufficient if not consumed more efficiently.

Singapore has come a long way in its search for water security. Only time will tell to what extent the “water resilience” of the city-state on which its development is sustained, will be supported by the population and how much the public will want to become part of the continuous striving to achieve better human and natural environments.

Dr Cecilia Tortajada is the president of the Third World Centre for Water Management and past president of the International Water Resources Association. Prof Asit K. Biswas is the founder of the Third World Centre forWater Management and Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. Their latest book is ‘Singapore Water Story: Sustainable Development in an Urban City State’, Routledge, 2013.

Article published in The Business Times, March 19, 2013