A City of Gardens and Water

Learning from Singapore's holistic approach to water sustainability

The trip started as something of a lark. My husband wanted to take one of the world’s longest airplane flights. He loves to fly; for me, it is near-torture. If I was going to travel halfway around the globe with him, the suffering had to count. I wanted to learn something valuable to bring home and share with environmentally-minded colleagues searching for resilient solutions to water management challenges. Singapore filled the bill.

photo of Singapore marina
Singapore provides an example of fully integrated, high-tech water management and offers many lessons for cities in the US facing growing threats to their water supplies. Photo by Jean-Paul Beaudeau / Flickr.

This young, small island-nation of 5.7 million people has become a world-leading “hydro-hub,” and offers game-changing lessons for US cities facing growing threats to their water supplies, as well as more frequent and extreme flood events due to climate change. In Singapore, I knew I could see what fully integrated, high-tech water management looks like. What I didn’t expect was how much the people of Singapore appreciate and attend to their water. The tagline of PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency, is “Water for All:  Conserve, Value, Enjoy.” Singaporeans’ shared vision is to live in an active, high-touch relationship with their beautiful, clean city of gardens and water. They are well on their way.

***

Water is existential. This was a phrase I heard repeatedly, from national water agency executives as well as from visitor center volunteers. In Singapore, water is a top-of-mind concern for political leaders and citizens, unlike in the US, where water is often “out of sight, out of mind” (until it isn’t).

It’s been a top concern since the earliest days of the nation, even before independence in 1965. The country has no significant rivers or lakes due to the extremely small size of the catchment (watershed), nor does it have any groundwater supplies. In the 1960s, it saw repeated episodes of drought-driven water rationing, even while demand for water doubled between 1966 and 1971. Additionally, the new nation was burdened by frequent, widespread flooding and extreme water pollution. There were no sewers for much of population, and polluting industries, such as pig farms, were common. The precarious water situation led Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s founding father and long-time Prime Minister, to recognize that “every other policy had to bend at the knees for water survival.”

In the early years, the government built the infrastructure to respond to these everyday concerns. Engineers began by constructing reservoirs for water supply, pipes for drinking water and sewage, and concrete canals to move flood waters quickly away. By the early 1970s, almost everyone had a piped water supply; by 1980, the whole island was linked to the main sewer system. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew ordered a thorough cleanup of the extremely polluted Singapore River.

In the 1990s, with basic water infrastructure in place, Singapore turned its attention to building a sustainable, integrated system, consisting of four “National Taps” to improve water self-sufficiency — local catchment water, imported water, reclaimed water, and desalinated water. (The incentive for self-sufficiency is high: Prior to independence, Singapore secured a long-term agreement with Malaysia to provide freshwater from the Johor River, which today meets about 50 percent of the city’s water needs. But, this agreement runs out in 2061.) By 2001, PUB had consolidated authority over the entire water cycle — rain capture and drainage, sewerage, water treatment, and distribution. This comprehensive approach, known as “One Water” in the US, is fully realized in Singapore.

The most striking example of Singapore’s integrated water management is recycling of wastewater, branded NEWater in Singapore. PUB uses advanced membrane technologies to produce ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water from treated wastewater, much of which is utilized by high-tech industry. The biggest users of NEWater are industrial plants fabricating wafers for electronic devices, which require water quality even more stringent than water for drinking. NEWater is also added to public water supply reservoirs, and treated again before being supplied to consumers as tap water. While the idea of treating and reusing what is commonly called wastewater in the US has been a hard sell to Americans, Singaporeans have embraced this high-tech solution to water scarcity. Perhaps this is because PUB consistently refers to “used” water, rather than wastewater, to avoid the “yuck” factor. As one PUB executive, George Madhavan, remarked, “we don’t sell you water, we rent it to you.”

In addition to ensuring high quality water through state-of-the-art water recycling technology, PUB has invested heavily in public education and engaged political leaders and the media to build widespread support for the program. NEWater was launched in 2002, at the National Day Parade, with then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong leading 60,000 Singaporeans in raising a toast with the reclaimed water. Today, five wastewater recycling plants supply up to 40 percent of Singapore’s current water needs.

Another major step toward increasing water self-sufficiency has also helped with flood management. Instead of moving storm water out of the city and into the sea as quickly as possible, as many cities do, water managers in Singapore recognize the value of capturing every drop of rain that falls on the city. Today, two-thirds of the city is part of a catchment system that annually delivers millions of gallons of rainfall to 17 reservoirs through a comprehensive network of rivers, canals, and drains. The city has set a goal of tapping 90 percent of the land area for rain capture by 2060.

A third transformative change came in 2006, with the introduction of the ABC Waters Program. Instead of taking a utilitarian, single-purpose approach to managing storm water with grey infrastructure like concrete-lined canals, this program uses green infrastructure such as rain gardens and wetlands to capture and cleanse storm water runoff. The remaking of waterways and reservoirs has had the added benefit of creating beautiful green spaces, allowing people to connect to the water cycle and enjoy nature. The goal of ABC Waters is for Singaporeans to cherish their water, take steps to protect it, and actively enjoy being on, in, or near it. 

These programs have been transformative for the country. Fifty years after independence, Singaporeans can count on clean, safe drinking water at a turn of the tap. Children are learning habits of water efficiency and conservation at a young age through multi-faceted water education, and citizens of all ages are protecting and enjoying the waterways and reservoirs throughout the city. PUB is putting into practice the words of Senegalese conservationist, Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” 

***

My own immersion in Singapore’s water system began at the NEWater Visitor Center. After a long, hot walk from the nearest subway station, a cold drink was my top priority. I gratefully chugged a bottle of NEWater before starting my tour of this world-class visitor center. While I’m no water sommelier, the taste of NEWater was refreshing and pure.

The center is part of the Bedok NEWater Factory which produces 18 million gallons per day of ultra-clean NEWater, using microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection. Visitors experience the multi-step process of water purification with lively, interactive exhibits aimed particularly at children. For instance, balls of various sizes, from basketballs to ping pong balls, are used to show how water molecules go through increasingly fine stages of filtration. The tour concludes by asking for a personal pledge to value and conserve Singapore’s precious water supply. According to the exhibit’s American designer, Linda MacPherson, Singapore is the first place in the world with a vigorous commitment to educating people about water.

The next morning, I met a senior engineer from PUB’s Catchment & Waterways Department for a tour of the Kallang River at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in central Singapore. Until 2012, the park was bisected by an unsightly and usually empty concrete canal. Fortuitously, both the park and the canal were scheduled for renovation at the same time. PUB and NParks, Singapore’s Parks Department, worked through bureaucratic differences in mission and methods to restore three kilometers of the Kallang River as it flows through the park, creating a beautiful, natural environment for people and wildlife. I’d heard about otters in the area and assumed they had been introduced by humans. Not so. They came on their own, thanks to restored river habitat and clean water, and are very popular with people who live near the park.

We arrived at the same time as a boisterous group of school kids carrying equipment to explore the revived river. ABC Waters sites serve as outdoor classrooms where students can train as nature guides, develop learning trails, test water quality, and learn about clean water and wildlife. And the enrichment opportunities are not just for youth. We passed a dozen senior citizens playing ball on a field while others practiced tai chi. Stepping stones across the river allow close encounters with nature, while a path along the river provides a place for local residents to stroll, and also serves as part of the city’s broader network for pedestrians and bikers. The enhanced quality of life from a naturalized river also added economic value — privately developed apartments bordering the park increased substantially in value with the river’s restoration.

photo of Singapore river
Singapore's Kallang River. The city's many water bodies serve as outdoor classrooms for students and popular recreation sites for residents. Photo courtesy of PUB.

Besides restored rivers, I also visited freshwater reservoirs to see how people are using them for recreation. I watched dragon boat races in Kallang Basin and kayaking on Marina Reservoir. In 2008, Singapore realized an early vision of Lee Kuan Yew — the city converted a brackish bay (where the Singapore River enters the sea) to a freshwater reservoir by building a barrage (a low dam with gates that can be opened or closed) complemented by seven huge drainage pumps that can discharge water during high tide. The barrage serves to “protect against flooding, contribute to water supply security and provide recreational opportunities” and is a good example of high-tech, high-touch solutions that Singapore employs to build a strong relationship between its people and its water. Another slightly amusing example is PUB’s use of robotic SWANs (Smart Water Assessment Network), which resemble real swans, to monitor water quality in the reservoirs. 

I wrapped up my exploration of Singapore’s water system by meeting with PUB officials to explore why they think they’ve been so successful, both in integrating water management and engaging the public. George Madhavan, a long-time PUB engineer who now directs their Centralized Services Department, attributed the agency’s impressive track record to good leaders willing to work together. This is not just luck — Singapore has long rated high on the World Bank’s scores of good governance.

During my water explorations, I was surprised to learn that conserved water isn’t one of the four “National Taps.” Rather, using water wisely is considered a civic duty. To encourage conservation, PUB uses a three-pronged approach. First, they use full-cost pricing for water (the Singapore Government provides vouchers for lower-income residents). Second, they’ve introduced a water efficiency labelling scheme for fixtures such as water faucets and toilets and appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions and encourage suppliers to introduce more water efficient products into the market. And third, they’ve employed education and nudging to get people to use less water; for example, kids compete on taking shorter showers. And it’s working: in 2003, per capita water consumption was 165 liters per day, compared to 143 liters by 2017. PUB has set a goal of 140 liters by 2030. By comparison, per capita domestic water consumption in the US averaged 371 liters per day in 2005, and 310 liters per person per day in 2015.

Put it all together and Singapore is on track to achieve water independence by 2060.

***

Notwithstanding the enormous differences between US cities and the city-state of Singapore, there is great value in learning from the path they have taken to sustainable water security. Radhika Fox, executive director of the US Water Alliance, for one, thinks that despite the fragmented nature of water services in the US — which has 55,000 drinking water utilities, 18,000 wastewater utilities, and thousands of storm water utilities — there is much water managers can do to move in a similar direction.

She points to the Alliance’s Value of Water Campaign, a collaboration of water sector organizations aiming to build a 21st century water ethic in the US. According to Fox, the campaign grew out of a recognition that, in most places in the United States, water and the infrastructure that collects, treats, distributes and regulates it has been taken for granted. This puts our communities at risk from threats to the quality, reliability, and affordability of our water supply, as well as the increasing frequency and severity of floods and drought. 

The Value of Water Campaign encourages all utilities to speak with one voice on the value of water wherever it is in the water use system. To this end, the Alliance is also advancing a One Water strategy, which promotes the integrated and sustainable management of water, land, and related resources. While the Alliance doesn’t have data on the number of cities considering a One Water approach, Fox noted that nearly 230 cities sent representatives to a One Water Summit last summer in Minneapolis. 

Fox views institutional inertia as the biggest obstacle to One Water, given that water management traditionally has been very siloed in the US. But she sees a bright future for recycled water here, and “realistically, the only future we have.” The Alliance’s polling shows that younger people have no issues with recycled water and Fox believes that a generational shift in norms and values will open the door for many US communities to embrace recycled water the way Singaporeans have. Fox’s 10-year-old daughter captured this evolution, saying to her mother, “Well, of course, mom, because the water that we drink is what the dinosaurs drank.”

I took three main lessons from my short time in Singapore, lessons that can be applied to the US and just about any other place in the world.

First is the importance of having a comprehensive water management strategy to build resilience in the face of a changing global climate and increasing resource demands. Global warming increases the frequency and severity of flooding and droughts, exacerbating Singapore’s already significant water challenges. As early as 1972, just seven years into nationhood, Singapore had developed a far-sighted Water Master Plan to achieve water independence. Government leaders chose to value and manage all water — rainwater, wastewater, drinking water — through an integrated system. The holistic approach has paid off, and other cities would be well served by adopting it.

Second, integrating water resource management with other key public and private functions, such as housing, urban development, and parks, brings added benefits like increased property values and innovative, efficient use of scarce land. According to the Centre for Liveable Cities, “[d]ynamic urban governance is one key lesson … PUB understood the importance of working with other agencies and involved them accordingly to create visionary integrated landscapes.”

Third, everyone wins when you incorporate water in the life of your city. Combine the need for storm water drainage with open space for recreation and wildlife habitat. Seize opportunities to restore or mimic natural hydrological processes to sustainably serve multiple water management functions.  Engage citizens young and old through the magnetic attractiveness of water, creating opportunities to build social awareness of our linked fates in a climate-challenged world.

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