February was Singapore’s driest month – the longest since 1869. Till date, no rain in sight. Here’s a sobering reminder that if we hadn’t carved out our own future in terms of securing water supplies, a water pact with Malaysia would have expired this week.
It was the first day of a water rationing exercise that would last 10 months. An unusually dry spell both in Singapore and in the Tebrau River area in Johor – a primary water source for the island – caused water stocks to plunge dramatically, leaving the authorities with little choice but to impose restrictions.
For four days a week, depending on which area you lived in, you were either deprived of water between 8am and 2pm or between 2pm and 8pm.
People who did not ordinarily read the newspapers or listen to the radio suddenly found themselves having to scan headlines or turn knobs at least once a week – to stay informed about rationing schedules.Those who forgot to store water in pails at home during the allocated timings had to stand in queues to use public taps.
The cost of food went up.
A government advisory that called for the washing of cars and watering of gardens to be ‘kept to a minimum’ clearly did not stop some. A forum letter in The Straits Times on May 3 had one reader wondering ‘why the gentleman living opposite me still finds it necessary to water his lawn non-stop for 14 minutes’ a day.
Eerily, the spying on neighbours went further than that.
Another letter on May 17 read: ‘At a time when the state is facing an acute water shortage, is it proper for a person to bathe three times a day? That is exactly what my neighbour and his six children are doing every day of the week.’
Eventually, the rain returned and the reservoirs filled up. Curbs were finally lifted on Feb 28, 1964 – ironically, on a day when heavy rainfall caused an 11-year- old boy to drown.
Singaporeans who lived through that angsty period learnt a lesson they never forgot: that water, or the lack thereof, was a major source of weakness for the island-state.
This week, a no less momentous milestone in Singapore’s aquatic history was crossed, but with far less public interest. A 50-year water agreement signed in 1961 – one of just two between Singapore and Malaysia – drew to a close.
As a result, a catchment area in Johor more than five times the size of Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve ceased to serve Singapore’s water needs, but with nary an eyebrow raised.
Public indifference, however, can be seen in a positive light. It is arguably a testament to Singapore’s success in overcoming its water vulnerabilities.
What has happened since 1963?
In the words of Dr Joey Long of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, ‘the tables have turned’. ‘While in the initial years Singapore’s access to adequate water was viewed through the lens of security and survival, Singapore’s present circumstances should be viewed with more optimism,’ he said.
In 50 years, a virtuous mix of visionary leadership, meticulous groundwork and scientific advancements has helped Singapore exorcise her hydro-demons.
A tiny island-state ranked 170th out of a list of 190 nations in fresh water availability appears to be leapfrogging its way into water independence.
A matter of life and death
BUT there was a time when the situation was a lot more tense – and not just because people had to line up at public taps and tolerate dirty cars.
In 1970, seven years after that depressing drought, water security continued to keep Singapore’s leaders awake at night.
‘If these chaps do not observe the agreements, it will be a very serious matter for us,’ said then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, referring to the two Singapore-Malaysia water agreements, in a meeting with Professor S. Jayakumar before he took over as Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations.
‘It is a matter of life and death… it can lead to war,’ he added.
Never far from Mr Lee’s mind was the threat from Malaysian premier Tunku Abdul Rahman, relayed to him by the British, that ‘if Singapore doesn’t do what I want, I’ll switch off the water supply’.
Coming just days after independence, the threat – though never acted upon – convinced him that ‘as long as I was totally dependent on Malaysia’s water supply, we would always be a satellite’.
That, combined with the Japanese blowing up water pipes that carried water across the strait from Johor in 1942, was what drove him to seek water self-sufficiency from the get-go, he later revealed.
The cards dealt to Singapore in 1965 were not promising.
The bulk of its water came from Johor. Two agreements signed in 1961 and 1962 allowed Singapore to buy water for 3 sen per 1,000 gallons (4,546 litres), excluding land rental costs in the catchment areas.
The expiry dates of the two water pacts were 2011 and 2061 respectively.
The 1961 agreement gave Singapore full and exclusive rights to draw water from Gunung Pulai, Pontian, Skudai and Tebrau. The 1962 agreement allowed Singapore to collect up to 250 million gallons of water a day from Johor River.
In exchange, treated water was sold back to Johor at the price of 50 sen per 1,000 gallons, which was below cost.
The two agreements were confirmed by both Singapore and Malaysia in their separation agreement and promptly lodged with the UN.
The British also left behind three reservoirs – MacRitchie, Peirce and Seletar.
At once, Mr Lee and his Government swung into action. One of his first initiatives: forming a unit under the Prime Minister’s Office to coordinate water policy.
Singapore lacked natural aquifers and groundwater. But it did not lack rainfall, per se, receiving from the heavens 2,400mm annually, comfortably higher than the global average of 1,050mm.
Rather, what could not be found in abundance were water bodies and land that could ‘catch’ the rain.
In 1969, the capacity of Seletar Reservoir was enlarged and its catchment scope broadened.
The 1970s saw a flurry of activity.
The Government began studying the feasibility of various conventional and not-so-conventional water sources, and published in 1972 the Water Master Plan. This is seen by water experts as the first long-term blueprint for water resource development here.
Upper Peirce Reservoir was completed in 1975. That same year, Kranji River was dammed to separate seawater from freshwater. This created Kranji Reservoir – one of the first of several reservoirs formed this way. But the Government also took chances with the not-so-likely. It constructed an experimental plant to recycle used water – a predecessor to Newater.
Unfortunately, the requisite technologies, such as reverse osmosis, were still premature. The tests failed to persuade policymakers that the idea was sufficiently economical or reliable and no permanent plant was built.
As the economy grew rapidly, it soon also became clear that Singapore could not simply expand reservoirs indefinitely. Industry was competing for land use.
A concerted effort at promoting conservation began. The first ‘Water is precious’ campaign, launched in 1971, reduced water consumption by 5 per cent.
Four decades on, the public education drive continues in schools, factories and the media, whether it is exemplifying ‘water efficient homes’ with toilets that use cistern water-saving bags or mandating self-shutting delayed action taps in buildings. To drive home the message, a water conservation tax was later introduced. It is levied today at a rate of 30 per cent for the first 40 litres per month. Beyond that, the tax rises to 45 per cent. The Government’s aim is to cut per capita consumption from 155 litres today to 140 litres by 2030.
The 1980s and 1990s
THE 1980s saw both bright spots and dark ones in bilateral ties. From time to time, threats to fiddle with Singapore’s water supply, whether serious or not, emanated from Malaysian society or officialdom or both.
In 1986, for instance, the visit of Israeli President Chaim Herzog to Singapore stoked anger across the causeway, prompting some to call for the treaties to be revoked or at least re-negotiated.
There was good reason for optimism in the late 1980s, when the two sides penned an agreement supplementing the 1962 one. Singapore was given the go-ahead to build a dam across Johor River and to buy water over and above the original limit of 250 million gallons a day.
A decade passed. As it considered its long-term water needs, Singapore’s leaders decided to negotiate supplementary agreements to extend the supply of water from Johor beyond 2061.
In 1998, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, the two sides came close to an agreement on a ‘water-for-funds’ deal, which was later called off.
Another round of talks took place in 2000 but differences remained over the sale price of raw water from Johor. There was initial agreement to raise the price from 3 sen per 1,000 gallons to 45 sen, and later to 60 sen.
Malaysia then said it wanted to unilaterally revise the price to RM6.25 per thousand gallons, a move Singapore insisted was not legally sound. After rounds of strongly worded exchanges in various forms, the matter quietened.
Ambitious new strategy to add two big taps
Four big taps
THE Singapore Government had been hard at work exploring alternative sources of water.
Even as talks with Malaysia ran into an impasse, efforts on another front were headed for a breakthrough that would ‘change the whole equation’, in the words of Dr Lee Poh Onn, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
After the failed 1974 experiment, Singapore decided to give recycled water another shot, sending two engineers to the United States in 1998 for a study trip.
Upon their return, they reported findings that suggested recycling had become viable, thanks to, among other things, advances in membrane technology. Subsequent studies corroborated the findings, prompting the Government to construct the first demo plant in Bedok in 2000.
The three-step process eventually adopted for the production of Newater involved filtration and reverse osmosis, removing particles as small as 0.001 microns before disinfecting the water under ultraviolet light. The water met US and UN standards and was, indeed, purer than tap water.
By May 2002, the Government was finally ready to go public with its bold new water strategy.
It was an ambitious plan to double the different types of water sources Singapore relied upon from two to four by 2011, the year the 1961 agreement with Malaysia expired.
Instead of relying only on water collected in reservoirs here and bought from Johor, there would be ‘four big national taps’ within 10 years. The two new ‘taps’ were desalination plants and Newater or water-reclamation plants.
In his speech to Parliament, then Environment Minister Lim Swee Say declared: ‘Singapore certainly can become completely self-sufficient after 2061, if need be.’
The year 2061 was significant as it was when the 1962 water agreement with Malaysia would expire.
A toast to the future
FOR Newater to succeed, the public had to be willing to drink water that was previously sewage.
‘Public acceptance is not guaranteed at the start. Recycled water has been rejected in Australia, where people term it ‘yuck’ water,’ said Dr Eduardo Araral, assistant dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
‘Singaporeans accepted it both because they are are pragmatic and because they trust the Government’s promise that Newater is safe to drink,’ he added.
Some 60,000 ‘toasted’ with bottled Newater during the 2002 National Day Parade, including Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was then Prime Minister. Singapore now has five Newater plants, the largest of which is at Changi. Newater is used both in industries and indirectly for households, after it is mixed into reservoirs.
The next significant breakthrough came in desalination technology, although some call this success story a work in progress.
As the cost of desalting seawater fell by more than half in the decade leading up to 2002, PUB called for and received tenders to build a plant. In 2005, a desalination facility using reverse osmosis membranes was commissioned in Tuas. It was built by SingSpring, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hyflux. A second desalination plant in Tuas should be ready by 2013.
Of the current daily consumption of 380 million gallons, Newater and desalination now make up 40 per cent. PUB aims to raise that to 80 per cent by 2061, when all agreements with Johor expire.
Meanwhile, work on other fronts continue.
The completion of Marina Barrage in 2008 increased Singapore’s water catchment area from half of its total land area to more than two-thirds. Studies are under way on the possibility of increasing this in future to 90 per cent through the use of treatment plants that handle both salt water and fresh water. There are now 17 reservoirs – up from three in 1965 – including Marina, Punggol and Serangoon.
Less visible upgrades may not be any less important. PUB has an ongoing programme to replace leaky asbestos cement water pipes with more corrosion-resistant ones. Also, an underground system of pumps and pipes connecting Singapore’s reservoirs was completed in 2007 to prevent wastage by transferring water from full reservoirs to less full ones.
Turning weakness to strength
‘I NEVER imagined we could progress from a situation of crisis to the situation of opportunity today,’ said Dr Lee.
A dramatic turn of events, which he ultimately puts down to political will, means the water issue is now more likely to evoke hope than anxiety.
Research and development projects are creating jobs and expertise that can be exported. The PUB expects the GDP contribution from the water sector to grow from $0.5 billion in 2003 to $1.7 billion in 2015, with the number of jobs doubling to 11,000 by 2015.
To be sure, some latent risks remain.
Dr Araral warns, for instance, that skyrocketing energy prices in the future may yet cause problems for the much-vaunted but relatively fuel-guzzling desalination project, although that may in turn spur the development of other sources of water.
Terrorism, too, could derail the most carefully constructed of systems.
‘Security experts note that water reservoirs are attractive targets of terrorists,’ he said.
Nevertheless, most agree that whatever happens in the future, the achievements as they stand today already exceed the wildest of expectations – not least among them those of the water rationing generation.
Singaporeans can rest with the firm assurance that their secure access to this life-giving commodity is no longer in the hands of others.
Reservoirs: There are now 17 reservoirs, up from three in 1965. The completion of Marina Barrage in 2008 increased Singapore’s water catchment area from half of its total land area to over two-thirds.
Newater and desalination: Of the current daily consumption of 380 million gallons, Newater and desalination now make up 40 per cent. PUB aims to raise that to 80 per cent by 2061, when all agreements with Johor expire. Singapore now has five Newater plants. A second desalination plant in Tuas should be ready by 2013.
Imported water: In the 1980s, Singapore was given the go-ahead to build a dam across Johor River and to buy water over the original limit of 250 million gallons a day.
‘While in the initial years Singapore’s access to adequate water was viewed through the lens of security and survival, Singapore’s present circumstances should be viewed with more optimism.’
Dr Joey Long of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
The water story
Straits Times 3 Sep 11;
1857: Philanthropist Tan Kim Seng donated $13,000 to construct Singapore’s first waterworks and piped water supply.
1867: Singapore’s first reservoir, MacRitchie, completed.
1927: Water agreement signed between British-controlled Singapore and Johor Sultan. This agreement is superseded by the 1961 agreement.
1961: First water agreement signed between Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore gets full, exclusive rights to draw water from Gunung Pulai and three other areas for 3 sen per 1,000 gallons.
1962: Second Singapore-Malaysia water agreement signed, allowing Singapore to buy water from Johor River at the same price.
1963: Public Utilities Board (PUB) set up to take charge of water supply. Also, start of 10-month-long water rationing due to drought.
1965: Singapore separated from Malaysia. Both countries agree to abide by 1961 and 1962 agreements.
1971: First water conservation campaign launched.
1977: Start of 10-year-long Clean Singapore River campaign.
1990: Signing of supplement to 1962 agreement, allowing Singapore to build a dam across Johor River and to buy water over and above original quota of 250 million gallons a day.
2000: The beginning of Singapore- Malaysia water talks that end in stalemate in 2003. The two sides could not agree on price.
2001: Restructuring of PUB so it took charge of not only water supply, but also drainage, water reclamation plants and sewerage systems.
2002: Launch of Newater – or recycled water – technology, which decisively paves the way towards water independence for Singapore.
2005: First desalination plant completed in Tuas. A second plant, also in Tuas, is expected by 2013.
2008: Inaugural International Water Week, which became an annual conference on water solutions. Also, Marina Barrage was completed, the first reservoir here in the heart of the city.
2011: 1961 water agreement with Malaysia lapsed. Singapore returns all land and facilities, saying handover does not affect adequacy of water supply.