The 9 August 1965, Singapore took its independence from Malaysia, or so it thought.
In fact, at the time, it sounded a bit like that teenager that claims to be independent of his parents while relying on the pocket money he receives every week.
Except that it wasn’t Money that tied Singapore back to Malaysia but Water.
50 years later, Singapore finally cut the first cord that still attached it to its neighbor, yet if the Garden City wants to safely cut the last one as expected in 2060, it will have to further leverage the 8 tools we’re reviewing today.
Let see how they leveraged water treatment technologies ⬇️
Table of contents
- The origins of Singapore
- Tool #1 Water & Wastewater for All
- Tool #2 Industrial Water Reuse
- Tool #3 Indirect Potable Reuse
- Tool #4 Reducing Water Consumption
- Tool #5 Desalination
- Tool #6 Becoming a Global HydroHub
- Tool #7 Collecting Every Drop of Water
- Tool #8 The Active Beautiful Clean Waters Programme or ABC Water
The origins of Singapore
When we think of Singapore today, we easily forget how the country looked like in the 60s. It had no hinterland, no natural resources, and it was, at best, a developing economy.
Talking of natural resources, almost all its Water was drawn from the State of Johor in Malaysia under two agreements, one from 1961 that gave Singapore full access to the Gunong Pulai and Pontian catchments and Tebrau and Scudai rivers until 2011.
Water from Malaysia… but with a deadline!
The second agreement, from 1962, provided the Garden City with 250 million gallons – about one million cubic meters – of Water per day from the Johor River until 2061.
So why bother? Well, for a simple reason, synthesized in this quote from Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s Prime Minister in 1965. “if Singapore’s foreign policy is prejudicial to Malaysia’s interests, we could always bring pressure to bear on them by threatening to turn off the water in Johor.”
Hence from Day 1 as an independent country, Singapore had a north star: reaching water autonomy as fast as possible, which all started with tool number one:
Tool #1 Water & Wastewater for All
Tap Water was already well advanced in Singapore in the 60s, with an estimated 80% connection rate and a 24/7 delivery. Those are actually the perks of being a city-state, even if still an economic dwarf at the time.
But sewage connection wasn’t at the same level, with less than 45% of the household’s wastewater that was collected. Worse, many pig and poultry farms were also discharging directly into river catchments, leading to poor-quality surface water and water runoffs.
Yet Singapore had an ace up its sleeve, with its Public Utility Board, nicknamed PUB. Founded in 1963, it proved over the past 60 years to be probably the most forward-looking utility in the World (but we’ll come back to that).
Singapore’s Jack of all Trades (and Master of All): PUB
PUB set itself at work, and access to sewerage services raised to 51% in 1970, and 75% in 1980, while universal household coverage was reached in 1987.
Treatment capacity doubled between 1960 and 1970 and doubled again over the next two decades. Meanwhile, the poultry and pig farms had been closed; so that river and reservoir water reached good quality.
By 1990, the water and wastewater infrastructure in the Garden City had reached the level expected in fully developed economies. Yet, long before that, Singapore had been looking into the next steps with its tool number two:
Tool #2 Industrial Water Reuse
Industrialization in Singapore began in the early 60s, essentially around the Jurong Industrial Estate, an area of about 140 million square meters located on the southwest coast.
With activities like biscuits or chocolate factories up to pharmaceuticals and early electronics, the industrial park needed a lot of Water to thrive.
Hence, already in 1966, the city-state’s government commissioned the Jurong Industrial Waterworks, which further treated wastewater from the Ulu Pandan treatment plant to supply the park with an inexpensive source of lower-quality Water.
The first trials to reuse water beyond just industrial applications
In 1971, the experiment extended to a trial of reclaimed Water for toilet flushing in flats at Taman Jurong, Pandan Garden, and Teban Garden. However, that wasn’t exactly a good idea, as it required high maintenance, which led the program to stop in 1990.
But at the same time, the first tests of using drinking water processes such as coagulation, flocculation, clarification, and filtration on wastewater led to the production of industrial Water of higher quality, that’s still used to this day.
Yet, the most spectacular trial was still to come, with the pilot plant built in 1974. This time, treated Water was fed to reverse osmosis, an ion exchanger, and an electro-dialysis treatment step, producing Water that complied with the World Health Organization’s drinking standards.
Now to be honest, that process was somehow to modern reuse, what the IBM Simon is to the iPhone. A good idea, with all the right components, yet a bit too much ahead of time.
The trial was stopped in 1976, as membranes were still too expensive, both in capital and operating costs. But it had set the path for our tool number three:
Tool #3 Indirect Potable Reuse
After a short attempt to relaunch the 70s concept in 1988, PUB really rolled out its indirect potable reuse program in 1999. It is well known today because of its name – NEWater, and its droplet mascot, yet, its most impressive feature lies in Singapore’s underground.
At the turn of the 2000s, PUB indeed decided to rethink its six water reclamation facilities to replace them with three NEWater plants, almost quadrupling the overall treatment capacity and connecting them through the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System. Phase one was completed in 2008, while phase two will be finalized by 2025.
On the process side, treated wastewater flows through an ultrafiltration pre-treatment, followed by reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection. Now you might wonder, after such a treatment, why is it still indirect potable reuse?
Couldn’t Singapore directly reuse its water?
In fact, that Water is fully compliant with any kind of drinking water standards in the World. Yet, there’s a psychological aspect to factor in, as soon as you consider water reuse.
Indeed, if treated wastewater is rejected into a river, we’re all ready to drink Water that’s produced from that same river, somewhere downstream. So Singapore applies that same principle by mixing NEWater into its freshwater reservoirs and treating it again to drinking water standards.
Technically, it’s overkill, yet to get everyone’s buy-in, it’s a must!
Talking of people’s buy-in, that leads us straight to tool number four:
Tool #4 Reducing Water Consumption
Since Singapore’s independence, the country’s population has been multiplied by 3, water use by 5, and GDP by 26, which helps to finance all that infrastructure work.
Yet, if the total water demand is expected to double again between now and 2060, it is first due to the further expansion of Singapore’s industry. In the meantime, to strike a balance, PUB leads a wide array of saving water campaigns, ranging from automated meter reading all the way to school education through labeling and raising awareness.
As a result, consumption per capita that had raised from 75 liters per person and day in 1965 to 165 liters per person and day in 2000, has since decreased again to reach 141 liters and an expected 130 liters by 2030.
Let’s do a short check here after our first four tools: all of those combined should cover 55% of Singapore’s water needs by 2060. That’s great, but it’s still not sufficient for full sustainability and independence. This is why the Garden City added a fifth one:
Tool #5 Desalination
Singapore’s first desalination plant was built in 2005 and features the World standard technical approach with reverse osmosis. It was then followed by Tuas South in 2013, Tuas in 2018, Marina East in 2020, and, anytime soon, Jurong Island, which should be commissioned this year.
Altogether, these 5 facilities should cover another 30% of the country’s water needs.
By now, you should also start getting how intentional Singapore is with its Water, so it’s no surprise that they are looking for ways to disrupt desalination to cut the energy bill. That’s how PUB is currently involved in research on electro-deionization and biomimicry. Two great examples of tool number 6:
Tool #6 Becoming a Global HydroHub
Every two years, all the finest brains in the Water Industry gather in Singapore for the International Water Week, one of the many sector conferences to be held in the city-state.
(by the way, giving a conference here was the real reason for me being in Singapore – oh, and if you want to make sure you understand water and all it involves, I have much more videos like this one for you, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel!)
PUB and the National University of Singapore are among the leading water research bodies, companies like Ecolab or SUEZ have their regional hub in the city, and a vibrant start-up ecosystem bubbles with ideas supported by famous accelerator’s local offices like Imagine H2O Asia.
To round it off, the local government invested half a billion dollars in research credits over the past 15 years to ensure they keep introducing cutting-edge technologies to their water mix.
Yet, one of the most spectacular successes of Singapore’s water policies may be hard to notice at first sight. Actually, I walked through it, and it’s tool number seven I wanted to show you:
Tool #7 Collecting Every Drop of Water
Back in 1965, only 11% of Singapore’s 733 square kilometers were a water catchment area. So, despite 2’400 mm of rainfall per annum, not much was collected and used.
In an urbanized environment like the Garden City, nature needed a hand to optimize the natural water cycle’s yield. This is why Singapore built its first water reservoirs in the 70s and kept extending the network until reaching 17 of them today, turning 90% of the country into a water catchment area.
Everywhere around the city, a separate network collects rainwater to feed the reservoirs, which are then used for drinking water production.
The one I’m walking through is probably the most famous one, it’s called Marina Reservoir, and it was the vision of the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.
And if you look around, you’ll probably notice tool eight in action:
Tool #8 The Active Beautiful Clean Waters Programme or ABC Water
That one is somehow the icing on the cake. Launched in 2006, it aims to further turn the Garden City green and blue by integrating nature-based solutions into the overall water management scheme.
As a result, Water is kept on the surface whenever possible to improve its quality while enhancing the citizen’s quality of life. And last but not least, it keeps every Singaporean in connection with Water so that they never forget how central it is to the state’s welfare.
Because remember, it rains about 124 cubic meters of Water per capita in Singapore, while the United Nations define extreme Water Scarcity as every place that’s blessed with less than 500 cubic meters a year.
Does Singapore feel like a Water Scarce area? No. Probably a sign that they save Water the right way. Wanna do so, too? Check this video.