Despite its small size and lack of natural resources, Singapore manages to meet the water needs of all its residents.
One of Singapore’s popular spots to rest and exercise is a vast green park near the mouth of the Marina Channel. On late afternoons, residents can be seen jogging around the area or having a picnic. “It’s a nice place for families to spend time,” said Nora Busra, a 35-year-old Singaporean mother.
This is not an ordinary park. It is located on the circular rooftop of a building, which houses Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) or national water agency. Next to it, the Marina Barrage, wide as a two-road lane, keeps out the seawater from the 350- metre wide channel. It creates a 10,000 hectare freshwater lake, known as the Marina Reservoir, and provides 10 percent of the local water supply.
“The Marina Barrage was conceived to have the 3-in-1 benefits of providing water supply, a lifestyle attraction as well as for controlling floods,” said George Madhavan, PUB Director of the 3P (People, Public and Private sectors) Network Department. During heavy rains and when the tide is low, nine crest gates at the dam will be activated to release excess storm water into the sea. During high tide, giant pumps capable of pumping an Olympics-size swimming pool per minute will drain excess storm water into the sea.
A densely populated 750-square kilometer island, with over 5 million people, Singapore needs to innovate and find ways out of its water problems. Singapore has no large lakes or rivers, nor space to collect water. Until now, they have relied on imported water from Johor, Malaysia. During the 1960s and 1970s, like many tropical urban cities, Singapore also suffered from polluted rivers, water shortages and widespread flooding.
A historic event prompted the architect of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, to prioritize water management, even before the country’s independence in 1965. During World War II, the British bombarded a bridge to halt the Japanese advance, breaking a pipe under it, which transported water from Johor. “They realized that they were going to be vulnerable without their own water,” said Cecilia Tortajada, Senior Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Water Policy. Fifty years later, everyone now has access to drinking water and proper sanitation amounting to 400 millions gallons per day (mgd). Despite its small size, two-thirds of Singapore’s land is now a water catchment area. They basically collect all the rainwater and store it in 17 reservoirs, before it is treated. Some 50 mgd of waste-water are purified and saltwater desalinated at around 100 mgd.
The two latter technologies are combined in the world’s first Variable Salinity Plant. “It is able to operate as a desalination plant, but incorporates the flexibility to automatically switch to treatment of freshwater at a much higher output without stopping production,” said Madhavan. A demonstration plant has been set up at Sungei Tampines.
Singaporean leaders see water not as a separate sector, but a very important element of the city’s development. Technology, political commitment, strong leadership, implementation and interagency collaboration as well as an ability to engage the public, are key to address Singapore’s water supply problem. But one of Singapore’s strongest suits is planning. “They might be the only country that plans for 50 years ahead,” said Tortajada.
This can be seen at the separate collection system for used water and rainwater. It would have been easier and cheaper to build a single system. “This has allowed us to integrate the drainage system and channel water to our reservoirs, without affecting water quality,” said Madhavan.
But the looming threat of climate change combined with increased service expectation and population growth will put pressure on Singapore more than other countries. “But they would not be taken by surprise,” concluded Tortajada.
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