Disrupting dependence in water, food, fuel


Audrey Tan

THE STRAITS TIMES  | July 2, 2016

On the surface, it would seem a no brainer that a large country blessed with mountains, rivers and lakes would have a more ready source of water to rely on than a tiny city state.

And yet this year, in the midst of a blistering heatwave and drought in Malaysia that saw water levels in reservoirs fall to new lows, it was tiny Singapore that supplied additional potable water to Johor to help it tide over a shortfall.

For the record, Singapore is by land area 460 times smaller than Malaysia. The city state’s 17 freshwater reservoirs combined are but a fifth the size of Johor’s Linggiu Reservoir, which when rainfall is as expected is able to meet 60 per cent of Singapore’s water needs.

So how has the city state managed to overturn conventional wisdom on water supply?

The story of how it broke a cycle of water dependence that once threatened its very survival is a tale of determined and astute planning, learning and innovation which, after 50 years of unceasing effort, has wrought a disruption that has won it international acclaim. Today, Singapore is not only steadily moving towards greater self-sufficiency in water supply, but also exporting water purification technology to countries around the world.

Its ambition for security of supply is not limited to water alone but extends to food and energy, two other essentials whose shortfall has long been the bane of small states since their production is usually tied to the amount of land a country controls.

So it is no mean feat that Singapore was last year ranked in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index as the second-most food secure country, behind the United States.

And yet, this is no time to sit back and relax for climate change and political instability in various parts of the globe pose new threats to supplies of water, food and fuel.

Just how does Singapore hope to further disrupt its dependence in these areas, and what are its chances of success?


Out of sheer necessity, Singapore became an accidental pioneer in the logistics and technology of weather-proof water supply. For that is precisely what Newater and desalination are – water sources that do not depend on rainfall from one year to the next. This quality has turned out to be a great virtue in a world plagued by increasingly unpredictable weather patterns due in part to global warming.

Singapore has four sources of water. The lion’s share is raw water from Malaysia, largely from Linggiu Reservoir; followed by Newater or treated used water; then treated sea water or desalination; and finally local catchment water from the reservoirs here.

The recent decline of water levels at Johor’s Linggiu Reservoir, which fell from 80 per cent at the start of last year to a record low of 33 per cent last month, has added to the urgency of finding new sources or enhancing the efficiency of recycling and desalination. One other consideration is that Singapore’s remaining water treaty with Malaysia expires in 2061.

Singapore’s small size limits the amount of rainwater it can harness and store. Going by this measure, it is water challenged. That could be why last August, Washington-based think-tank World Resources Institute (WRI) ranked Singapore among the countries in greatest danger of running out of water by 2040, against a backdrop of climate change and rapid population growth. The ranking was based on an index that measures competition for and depletion of surface water, such as lakes and rivers.

As it is, two-thirds of Singapore’s land area is water catchment. The PUB, the national water agency, plans to increase this to 90 per cent of the island by 2060. A future reservoir could be created between Tanjong Pagar and Pulau Brani to retain rainwater from the Greater Southern Waterfront, a new precinct in Marina South.

But what the WRI overlooked was Singapore’s ability to treat sea water, which it is surrounded by, and re-use water, thanks to the technology behind Newater and its building of a Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS).

Phase 1 of the DTSS was completed in 2008 at a cost of $3.4 billion. Planning work for Phase 2 began two years ago and tenders for various parts of it are expected to be called from this year.

This is a superhighway to channel used water to a centralised water reclamation plant and allow Singapore to close the water loop. It can then, in theory, recycle 100 per cent of its water infinitely – and go without rain.

That is why water experts here were quick to rubbish the WRI’s findings, saying scientific developments will boost the Republic’s water security.

Currently, Newater and desalination can meet up to 55 per cent of Singapore’s water needs. But PUB says they could together make up up to 85 per cent by 2060, when water demand is expected to double from the current 430 million gallons used daily. Singapore is already building its fifth Newater plant, and PUB had in April called for a tender for Singapore’s fourth desalination plant, set to be completed by 2019. PUB is also exploring the possibility of a fifth desalination plant on Jurong Island.

It is this foresight that has allowed Singapore to turn a weak spot into a competitive advantage.

Research in this area is ongoing and to date, PUB has been involved in 467 R&D projects with a total value of $323 million. Singapore has developed more cost-effective and energy-efficient ways to filter water. These technologies have travelled far.

How far? A water purification membrane developed at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is now being tested in the International Space Station. It contains aquaporin, a protein found in all living things, including the human kidney, which speeds up water flow and acts as a gate that allows only water molecules through, filtering out pollutants in the process. And a self-cleaning membrane is being used by a dye factory in Qingdao, China, to clean waste water before it is discharged back into rivers and lakes.

“Singapore’s experience,” says Professor Ng Wun Jern, executive director of NTU’s Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute, “has helped us prepare in advance… We are now in a good position to offer our technologies to meet the needs of other developing countries which are facing water stresses due to climate change, increasing populations from rural-urban migration, and development.”


Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food but does so from more than 160 countries, a diversification strategy that acts as a safeguard against shortages and price volatility. That means even if a country were to impose a restriction or ban on food exports to Singapore, as Malaysia has done with fish exports during festive seasons such as Chinese New Year, Singaporeans can still enjoy food at stable prices.

In contrast to its water strategy where it has moved to reduce imports over time, it has actually cut local food production, phasing out over the last few decades farms where pigs and other animals were once reared, to free up land for housing and industry. The share of land used for agriculture has fallen from 25 per cent in 1965 to barely 1 per cent today.

Yet, Singapore was last year ranked the second-most food secure country, behind the United States, in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index. Food security is measured in terms of food availability, affordability and quality and safety.

There are only three food items for which the Government has set a target of being partly self-sufficient: eggs for which the target is to have 30 per cent produced locally, fish at 15 per cent and leafy vegetables at 10 per cent. Thanks to R&D, it is moving steadily towards meeting these targets. Last year, Singapore produced 24 per cent of eggs consumed, 10 per cent of fish, and 13 per cent of leafy vegetables.

Singapore can aim for partial self-sufficiency in these three items because they do not require lots of land to produce – egg and leafy vegetable production can be done in layers, and fish farms are offshore, says Dr. Cecilia Tortajada, senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Local farmers also receive government help to boost productivity. Between 2012 and last month, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) disbursed more than $15 million to local farms for R&D to boost productivity and capability. “With limited resources and land, there is a need to harness technologies and innovations to produce more with less,” says the AVA.

The goal? Intensive farming that maximises space and resources and needs minimal manpower.

The AVA has worked with farm entrepreneur Sky Greens, for example, to do research on a vertical farming system that could offer 10 times the yield, compared to traditional land-based farming. “Our agricultural sector, though small, plays an important role in Singapore’s food security as it helps to buffer against sudden supply disruptions,” the AVA says.

Dr. Tortajada, who conducts research into food security, says: “There is no country in the world that is self-sufficient when it comes to food, as it is more important to invest in diversifying sources of food that are safe and reliable from countries where they grow more readily.” On Singapore’s strength, she says: “It started planning as early as 1965, which has helped the country stay resilient.”


Imagine if Singapore could capture and store every ray of sunshine that falls on the island. In this scenario, the ubiquitous covered walkways may light a way forward.

Scientists at NTU are working on flexible solar panels that can be installed on the curved roofs of these walkways, as well as on building facades and windows. Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of NTU’s Energy Research Institute, says innovations like these are ways to overcome land constraints – long cited as a factor limiting widespread solar adoption.

Even though solar energy has been touted as the most promising source of renewable energy for Singapore, the sun now accounts for less than 1 per cent of electricity generated. The plan is to ramp up solar energy to 5 per cent by 2020. Most of Singapore’s natural gas supply – which powers about 95 per cent of the country’s electricity – comes from Malaysia and Indonesia via offshore pipelines as well as liquefied natural gas imported from farther afield and stored at the Jurong Island terminal.

Scientists are also looking into other forms of renewable energy, such as from wind and the tides.

Yet another NTU project at the offshore Semakau Landfill, called the Renewable Energy Integration Demonstrator Singapore, is the region’s first micro-grid to integrate multiple renewable energy sources.

Long-term efforts could include an Asean power grid, a planned network to connect the national grids of all 10 Asean countries. It is still in the works even though the idea was floated as early as in the 1980s. The research being done on Semakau in the area of grid integration could pave the way for Singapore to tap various renewable energy sources outside the city state. These could include solar, wind, marine or even geothermal energy from neighbouring countries, says Prof Subodh.

With the Paris Agreement to mitigate climate change by cutting carbon emissions, it is vital that Singapore continue to innovate in this area.

Earlier this year, the Government announced that it will over the next five years pump in $900 million, out of the $19 billion of new public sector R&D funding, into urban solutions and sustainability. These include research into water and clean energy.

As Mr Goh Chee Kiong, executive director of cleantech and cities, infrastructure and industrial solutions at the Economic Development Board, puts it: “Singapore has had to develop its own sustainable urban solutions for many decades to address constraints such as the lack of land, water and energy, long before sustainability became a megatrend.”

That has allowed the country to stay ahead of the curve. It is not, however, resting on its laurels but working hard to meet fresh challenges and exploit new technologies.

This article was published by The Straits Times, July 02, 2016.