The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

From Singapore: A Lesson in Water Management

Posted in NTS Plus by NTSblog on September 19, 2011

Singapore is an interesting example of a water scarce country that has overcomed the odds and emerged as one of the recognised global leaders in water management. The city state has long relied on Malaysia for 40 per cent of its fresh water needs under two water agreements namely the agreements of 1961 (expired in April 2011) and 1962 (to be expired in 2062). These two agreements are seen as fundamental to Singapore’s existence so much so that the city state is prepared to go to war with Malaysia if it ever dishonours the agreements. However, the general mood following the expiration of the 1961 treaty on 31 August 2011 is one of optimism rather than angst. What accounts for this optimism? It is Singapore’s growing confidence in its ability to meet its freshwater needs through local sources such as rain water capture, recycled water, and desalinisation that fuelled this optimism. We will consider them in turn.

Although Singapore enjoys heavy rainfall, it lacks sufficient watersheds and natural rivers from which to draw water. The country compensates this limitation by constructing a series of reservoirs all over the island. There are currently 17 such reservoirs covering two-thirds of the island’s landmass. Then there is NEWater which is essentially purified wastewater. There are currently five NEWater plants in operation and they provide 30 per cent of Singapore’s total demand for freshwater. This share is expected to increase to 50 per cent by 2060. Finally, desalinised sea water supplied 10 per cent of Singapore’s water needs. Singapore currently has one such plant in operation. With the completion of a second plant in 2013, desalination will account for 30 per cent of Singapore’s freshwater needs. In addition to improving water supply sources, Singapore has also introduced water conservation and efficient-use initiatives. The 10-Litre Challenge, for example, encourages households to reduce their daily water consumption by 10 litres. The 10% Challenge, on the other hand, encourages the business sector to reduce their water consumption by up to 10 per cent if not more. These initiatives allow Singapore to reduce its domestic water consumption from 172 litres per capita per day in 1995 to 154 litres today.

What are the lessons for other parts of the world? Water is the only resource that has no substitute. As such, scholars have increasingly identified the growing freshwater scarcity as a source of acute conflict or even war in the 21st century. Such link is most pronounced in regions such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). According to the Water Stress Index 2011, the 16 nations suffering extreme water stress all hails from the MENA region. MENA is not only the world’s most water-stressed region but also one of the most politically volatile. Growing water scarcity will further worsen the already dire socio-economic and political conditions of the region. Water stressed countries may well learn those aspects of Singapore’s water management practices that best suited them in order to turn weakness into strategic strengths as Singapore did.

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