From Geographic Weakness to Technical Strength: Singapore’s Water Policy

Every day across the world, we waste, pollute, and mismanage freshwater resources. With the global population growing – mostly in urban areas without consistent access to water – potable water scarcity is an issue of growing concern. As a result, governments on all continents are searching for innovative methods to both increase absolute access to water and curb wasteful behaviors.

Singapore has received international acclaim, including the Stockholm Industry Water Award presented at the 2007 World Water Week, for its creative and sophisticated approach to water management. The city-state – now covered two-thirds by catchment area and projected to grow to 90% by 2050 –is a model for water recycling and hydrological management. Singapore now even hosts the biennial International Water Week as a platform to share best practices and heighten the discourse on water management. These feats are particularly impressive when one considers Singapore has no natural aquifers or lakes.

How did such a dense city-state with few natural water resources achieve such success in water management?

Sharmishta Sivaramakrishnan investigates how Singapore’s unique governance structure and geographic constraints contributed to its successful strategy for sustainable water resource management. We then reflect on her piece to distill what the rest of the world can learn from Singapore’s experience.


From where does this water come?

Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) bases its water resources on four sources of supply. Called the “Four National Taps,” these are: local catchment water, NEWater, desalinated water, and imported water.

  1. Local catchment water comprises 20% of resources and includes rainwater and used water (water that has come into contact with humans). It is collected through the intricate sewage system in Singapore through drains, canals, rivers, storm-water collection ponds and reservoirs. All major rivers have been dammed to create reservoirs.
  1. NEWater represents an innovative and scientifically driven approach to water management and now represents 30% of Singapore’s water requirements. By treating reclaimed water through advanced membrane technologies and ultra-violet disinfection, Singapore has been able to support wafer fabrication processes, non-potable applications in manufacturing processes as well as air-con cooling towers in commercial buildings. The quality of NEWater greatly surpasses that of other water including water judged by World Health Organization standards and unfiltered water from local reservoirs.
  1. Desalinated water – seawater treated through reverse osmosis – began to serve as a water source in 2005, and now the two plants boast a combined capacity of 100 million gallons of water per day, 25% of Singapore’s water demand.
  1. Imported water comprises 25% resources and allowed Singapore to transform geopolitical insecurity into a model of diplomacy. Singapore’s two water agreements with Malaysia, specifically Johor, were signed in 1961 and 1962 respectively. The agreements guarantee Singapore a supply of imported water from Malaysia, with the first having expired in 2011 and the second expiring in 2060. Imported water from Malaysia for Singapore in 1965 made up 80% of the country’s water supply. However, in 2005, Singapore initiated a new relationship with Riau, Indonesia, which would guarantee an additional source of imported water. By 2061 Singapore will have progressed significantly towards self-sufficiency.

What about demand?

In addition to regulating the supply side of water in Singapore, the government has made an active effort to control the demand side as well. Figure 3 shows how per capita domestic water consumption per day has decreased from 166 liters per day in 1998 to 151 liters per day in . And the goal is to lower this yet further, to 140 liters per person per day by 2030.

Water chart

Source: Public Utilities Board, 2014.

Can anything be learnt from Singapore’s experience?

We believe the engineering and design of the “Four National Taps” can be exportable to other countries with similar geographic deficiencies, but it must be supplemented by political capital in three ways:

  1. Exhibiting political willpower: The success of Singapore’s water policy was largely driven by the determination of Lee Kwan Yew. His personal presiding over the 1960 draught spurred Lee to prioritize water policy decades before scarcity became a global issue. The construction of inter-sector partnerships between the government, private and public arenas has resulted in a more concerted devotion to water conservation.
  1. Molding public perceptions: Public acceptance is key, particularly with controversial efforts like the recycled NEWater. PUB marketed NEWater by publicizing the fact that it would reduce Singaporean dependence on Malaysian water. It also established a NEWater visitor’s center and employed documentaries, feature films, general media exposure and information sessions at schools and community centers to make public education a cornerstone of smooth water provision. Lastly, to bolster a two-year government study that found NEWater “purer than tap water,” water experts and government officials, including Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, were photographed drinking the recycled NEWater.
  1. Public-private partnerships and international collaboration: Singapore invited Japanese energy company Meiden Corporation last year to open the country’s first water recycling plant using “ceramic membrane” technology. Private investment across national borders is critical for both research and implementation of water management resources that will increase efficiency.

This article snapshot was prepared by the editorial team. It was based on a term paper at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs written by Sharmishta Sivaramakrishnan. For more insights and nuance, please see the full paper.

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