Singapore’s freshwater obsession

With few natural sources, the tiny island nation spends billions to develop innovative ways to supply its own water.

Singapore - water
Children show off 'water badges' after visiting Singapore's water-recycling complex [Kris LeBoutillier/ Al Jazeera]

Singapore, RoS – Drinking water has always been a strategic resource, all the more so in this tiny nation, as it lacks many natural sources of its own. Singapore has, however, recently employed technology, including introducing a rainwater-capturing scheme, to help quench its thirst.

For decades, Singapore has relied heavily on neighbouring Malaysia to transfer water, a situation that caused diplomatic tension between the two and spurred concerns the Malaysian government may one day turn off the tap.

Desalination and recycling – which now account for 40 per cent of the city state’s water – have become vital sources, and Singapore even envisions water self-sufficiency in the coming decades. That will likely be necessary, as a long-standing water agreement with Malaysia expires in 2061.

A deal signed in 1962 guarantees Singapore 946m litres of Malaysian water each day – an agreement that has become a source of political friction.

Singapore is a city of 5.3 million people [Heather Tan/Al Jazeera]

“In 1965, when Singapore was declared independent, water was a strategic issue,” George Madhavan, a director at the country’s Public Utilities Board, told Al Jazeera.

Long-serving Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew made water a priority in 1977, ordering the clean-up of the few natural sources that had been heavily polluted.

“By 1987 much of the job of cleaning the rivers and repairing the sewers had been completed,” said Madhavan. “The next stage was to create a series of reservoirs and to utilise the rainwater catchment.”

Ben Goldfarb, editor of Sage Magazine, wrote that it would be in Singapore”s best interest to break free from water reliance on its neighbours.   

“While Singapore benefits from access to cheap Malaysian water, its dependency is also a weakness that Malaysia exploits for political leverage,” Goldfarb wrote.

‘Marina Barrage’ and reservoirs

The city state uses 1.7bn litres of water each day. Since 2006, Singapore has spent between $493m and $655m annually on research and technology to develop alternative sources of freshwater.  

Singapore currently has four sources, termed “Four National Taps” by the Public Utilities Board. The first is a series of 17 reservoirs around the island, constructed to collect and store rainwater from canals and drains.

The second is the import of water from Malaysia through a large pipeline. An innovative water recycling effort, branded as NEWater, is the third, and desalination is the fourth. Depending on the season and the average rainfall, each “tap” provides a varying proportion of the freshwater consumed each day.

Currently, NEWater and desalinated water make up around 30 per cent and 10 per cent of water demand respectively. The remaining 60 per cent comes from local catchment water and imports.

The catchment has become the most revolutionary and most vital source for Singapore. In the heart of Singapore’s tourist and central business district, at the confluence of five rivers, the Marina Barrage dam has been created to capture water that drains down canals and eventually pours into a reservoir an estimated 100 square kilometres in size. 

Political will to manage water is extremely important. Singapore has taken this as a strategic challenge.”

– George Madhavan, Singapore official

The Marina Barrage was once a tidal saltwater river and bay that ran through the heart of the city. Now, surrounded by business and tourist developments, the giant freshwater lake was created by the dam, which lets rainwater displace seawater.

The engineering is simple. When it rains during low tide, the dam’s gates are lowered to release excess rainwater from the marina into the sea. If it rains heavily during high tide, the gates remain closed and seven giant pumps are activated, clearing up to 40 cubic metres of water per second.

The water is then pumped to a reservoir, cleaned and filtered, and distributed throughout the city into homes and businesses – completely safe to drink.

Before the barrage was created, during periods of high tide and heavy rains, much of the area around the bay would flood, including Boat Quay and China Town, both popular tourist destinations. Now, the water levels can be controlled through the barrage system.

“It’s mismanagement that has led to water shortages around the world,” says Madavan. “Political will to manage water is extremely important. Singapore has taken this as a strategic challenge.”

A NEWater education

In addition to capturing rain, freshwater production and recycling has become a top priority for the Southeast Asian city-state of more than 5 million people.

Singapore also has a massive desalination project underway that is set to expand next year. Desalination plants here currently create 114m litres of water per day. A second plant will come online in 2013 that will supply a further 265m litres daily.

Desalination production has become much more environmentally friendly in recent years. In the past, flash distillation – the most common method – required 15 kilowatt hours of power to convert one cubic metre of seawater to freshwater. The current reverse osmosis seawater desalination method used by Singapore requires just four kilowatt hours of energy. The Public Utilities Board is working with Siemens, the German engineering conglomerate, on a new system that uses only 1.7 kilowatt hours per cubic metre of water. 

Singapore demands water sustainability and we are teaching young Singaporeans and all our visitors that it’s everyone’s responsibility.

– Mas Shafreen Sirat, Public Utilities Board 

NEWater, on the other hand, is simply recycled water that has been highly purified and cleaned, then piped to commercial buildings – specifically wafer-fabrication plants. Recycled water is a crucial element in the wafer fabrication and semi-conductor industry in Singapore, because it is ultraclean after reverse filtration, osmosis, and ultraviolet treatments.

NEWater is also seen as a way to teach Singaporeans about the importance of water conservation. A complex that opened in 2003 has been designed as an interactive and fun way to tell the water-production tale, as well as a way to drive home what happens if Singapore runs out. More than 100,000 people visit the complex each year.

Mas Shafreen Sirat from the Public Utilities Board’s community relations division said Singaporeans currently use an average of 153 litres of water per day, and the government is trying to reduce demand to 140 litres by 2030.

“It is a scarce resource and it doesn’t come easy,” Mas said. “Singapore demands water sustainability and we are teaching young Singaporeans and all our visitors that it’s everyone’s responsibility.” 

Source: Al Jazeera