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. Continue reading