Water management: the Singapore way

Water management: the Singapore way

With a 720 sqkms of land area accommodating around 5.6 million citizens, Singapore has made water management, which covers recycling waste water, harvesting rainwater, desalination, and avoid flooding in case of heavy downpour one of its priorities.

Rapid development over the last five decades under the leadership of the inimitable Lee Yuan Kew who was the prime minister from 1959 to 1990, and later on stayed in the cabinet as a senior minister, gave the nation a very long spell of stability.

It was one of the most significant factors in Singapore's remarkable economic growth as a result of which it has a per capita GDP of around $90,000, and they all demand first world service from the government, including supply of potable water.

Blessed with 19 natural waterbodies which can store rainwater and are also a source for drinking water, it has   added another very large waterbody which has been reclaimed from the sea. In 2008 roughly 8 sqkms of Singapore's Marina bay, an estuary on its east coast has been closed by a barrage which keeps the salt water out, converting the hitherto sea into a fresh water lake fed by the Singapore river.

The area, thus converted, has become a recreational space in which boats provide a 40 minute tour around the lake during evening hours for tourists as well as residents. Two more such dams are under construction on the western estuary which will not only provide the city with fresh water, but also protect against flooding during high tide.

Harvesting rainwater in Singapore has been in vogue since the colonial era when the British built the MacRitchie Reservoir more than a century ago. By law, two-thirds of Singapore's surface area is now protected and classified as drainage basins, with land use being regulated facilitating collection of rainwater.  

Source, pathways and receptors are the three basic key ingredients of  Singapore's water management initiative. Source can be rainwater or waste water from residences or industries. These two streams are carefully kept separate, the former being directed through pathways or canals into the receptors, the 19 naturally occurring waterbodies and 17 reservoirs for purified water, while the latter goes into treatment plants which then produce "new" water fit to drink.

In 2001 Singapore's Public Utility Agency (PUB) had taken charge of the drainage system which resulted in better water management. It opened its first recycled water plant in 2002 of which there are five of them now meeting almost 30% of its drinking needs for the City.

Four stages

These water treatment plants have four stages consisting of conventional treatment, micro-filtration, reverse osmosis and UV treatment, and the clean water thus produced, is branded as new water, which is drinkable. In addition, a deep 50-km pump-free sewage system is under construction to provide these plants with waste water for treatment.

Since the British days, Singapore has been dependent on water imported from Malaysia. Of the two favourable import agreements, one expired in 2011 and lack of any satisfactory resolution between Malaysia and Singapore on the future price of water resulted in Singapore scrambling to get its water management in order so as to become self-sufficient before the second contract expired in 2061.

Keeping its options open, Singapore has also gone in for desalination of sea water, building one of world's largest plant, which provides 10% of the city's water supply. Its long-term goal is to multiply the production of desalinated water, with setting up another one double the size of the present one in the process becoming a science and technology hub regarding water recycling and desalination.

Singapore's ultimate goal is to become self-sufficient, with smart water management meeting 40% of its needs from recycling, 30% from desalination, and 20% from rainwater collection.

In 2006 a sustainable water management plan called ABC Waters (Active, Beautiful, Clean), was drawn up with a view to integrate water management more closely with the urban environment. This plan covers over 100 projects to be completed in the next 10 years. Undoubtedly, such a long term planning with milestones being carefully monitored, will be the key to their success.

(The writer is former member, Railway Board)

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