The Economist : Singapore Is #1 In Water Management
Friday, May 21, 2010
NO COUNTRY manages its water as well as Singapore. Admittedly, it has high rainfall and it is a tiny country, but that is exactly the trouble. As an island-city-state, it has little land on which to collect enough water for its 4.8m people, and not much room to store it. To supplement its bounty from above, it takes the salt out of sea water and imports supplies from Malaysia. But relations with its big neighbour are often strained; the two treaties under which the water is provided, both about 50 years old, will expire in 2011 and 2061 respectively; and Lee Kuan Yew, the father of the nation, has never forgotten that the invading Japanese blew up the water pipeline when they seized Singapore in 1942.
The first measure taken to escape foreign dependency in the years after independence in 1965 was a general tidy-up. Industry and commerce were shifted into estates and messy pig and duck farms closed down. That made it easier to purify the rainwater that in Singapore is fastidiously collected wherever it can be—in streets and ponds, even on tall buildings and bridges—before being taken by drains to reservoirs, and thence to treatment plants where it is cleaned to drinking-water standards. The catchment area is being increased by the creation of a pair of reservoirs, the first of which, due to be finished next year, will mean the rainfall-catchment acreage will extend to two-thirds of the island’s total land area. Little is wasted in Singapore. Used water is treated and then either safely disposed of, reused for industrial purposes or air-conditioning, or mixed with reservoir water for drinking. Together, recycled waste and desalinated water are expected soon to meet 25-30% of demand, and local industries, many of them with a need for the cleanest supplies, are more than happy to use it. Most of the discarded sewage, once treated, is carried 5km out to sea. Demand is also being contained. Subjected to constant water-consciousness campaigns, Singaporeans are obliged to install low-use taps and loos, and expected to be equally thrifty with their showers and washing-machines. As a result, domestic water use per person has fallen from 165 litres a day in 2003 to 155 today. The pricing system also encourages virtue. Both the tariff and the water-conservation tax rise for domestic users after the first 40 cubic metres a month, and there is a fee for various sanitary appliances. Industry faces much higher charges.
How is all this achieved? The most important ingredient is a sense of seriousness about water at the highest levels of government and a society that is generally regarded as pretty free of corruption. Then comes an autonomous water authority, professionally run by excellent, highly paid professionals (the boss is said to receive $700,000 a year). They are not afraid to bring in private-sector partners, and do what they believe needs doing, not what politicians want done. So money is invested in everything from dams and drains to membranes and bioreactors. Singapore’s water industry—over 50 companies, both local and foreign—is now thriving. Nanyang Technological University has three water-related units, and Singaporean companies are winning contracts in such countries as Qatar and Algeria. Singaporeans still import 40% of their needs. Even so, they have a supply of water that is clean, predictably delivered and reasonably secure . Sixty years ago they had floods, pollution and rationing.