From The Editor | May 1, 2014

Looking To Singapore For Water Scarcity Solutions

Laura Martin

By Laura Martin

As the U.S. struggles with water scarcity in California, Nevada, Texas, and other western communities, finding a solution that will work for every state and every industry seems nearly impossible.

But with Singapore International Water Week approaching June 1 to 5, now is the ideal time to look overseas for potential answers. Singapore — an island with no natural aquifers or lakes — has taken an innovative approach to solving its water scarcity challenges over the past five decades, virtually erasing the extreme scarcity challenges the country once faced.

At the forefront of this innovation is Singapore’s national water agency, PUB, which is responsible for the collection, production, distribution, and reclamation of water in Singapore.

PUB oversees the diversified supply of water now used in Singapore.  Known as the “four national taps,” this supply consists of local catchment water, highly-purified reclaimed water known as NEWater, desalinated water, and imported water. In the spirit of Singapore International Water Week and to shed light on possible U.S. water scarcity solutions, Water Online takes a closer look at each of Singapore’s four national taps and the island nation’s extensive ratepayer outreach program.

Imported Water

Because of its lack of natural water resources, Singapore has historically relied heavily on imported water from Malaysia. Several water trade agreements have been made between the two countries, one that expired in August 2011 and another that will expire in 2061, according to PUB. But  severe drought in Malaysia means water supply there is dwindling. In addition, the two countries have had difficulty reaching financial agreements regarding water trade over the past decade. As of now, Malaysia has not committed to continuing to provide water to Singapore past 2061. To reduce its dependence on imported water, PUB has focused its efforts on securing adequate water sources for Singapore by other means. They aim to attain complete water self-sufficiency before the latest water agreement expires.

Local Catchment Water

One technique that has been successfully growing Singapore’s water supply is rainwater/stormwater harvesting. Singapore is one of just a handful of countries in the world to harvest urban stormwater on a large scale. This is even more of an achievement considering that Singapore has little land to collect and store rainwater. Using innovative techniques to overcome a lack of space, water agencies in Singapore collect rainwater/stormwater through a network of drains, canals, rivers, collection ponds, and reservoirs and then treat the water to drinking water standards.

Since 2011, water catchment areas have been increased from half to two-thirds of Singapore’s land surface with the completion of the Marina, Punggol, and Serangoon reservoirs. PUB refers to local catchment water as a “pillar of sustainable water supply” in Singapore.


NEWater — highly purified reclaimed water — is another prominent source of water supply in Singapore. Currently, NEWater is used to meet up to 30 percent of Singapore’s water needs. PUB reports that it plans to triple the current NEWater capacity by 2060 so that it can meet up to 55 percent of future water demand. NEWater is created from wastewater that is purified using advanced membrane technologies, including reverse osmosis (RO), and ultraviolet disinfection. The end result is safe for human consumption, but most NEWater is used for wafer fabrication processes and other manufacturing processes, and in cooling towers.  This frees up other sources of water for drinking water use. The first NEWater plants were opened in in 2003, and today there are four NEWater plants in Singapore. The latest, build in Changi in 2010, has a capacity of 50 million gallons of water per day.   

Desalinated Water

According to PUB, Singapore has one of Asia’s largest RO plants, which produces 30 million gallons of water a day and meets about 10 percent of Singapore’s water needs.  In 2013, a second desalination plant was built, increasing Singapore’s desalination capabilities to 100 million gallons of water per day, or 25 percent of Singapore’s current water demand.  The goal of PUB is to maintain this rate of production past 2061.

Community Outreach

While embracing new technology has been key to Singapore’s water success, there is another critical element that those looking for water scarcity solutions should take note of: consumer outreach. PUB runs a comprehensive campaign that encourages everyone included in what they call the “3P” — people, public, and private sectors — to take joint ownership of managing Singapore’s water resources. The campaign is centered on PUB’s tagline, “Water for All: Conserve, Value, Enjoy.”  Encouraging consumers to be smart about their water use is a large part of PUB’s message.  Through a variety of measures, consumers are challenged to cut their water use by 10 percent every day. As a result, Singapore’s per capita domestic water consumption has gone down from 43 gallons per day in 2003 to the current 40 gallons per day, according to PUB. The goal is to lower it to 38 gallons by 2020 and around 36 gallons by 2030.

The campaign also focuses on reminding Singapore residents how important it is to keep waters in the reservoirs and catchment areas clean.  A program known as “Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters” (ABC Waters) has been put in place to transform Singapore’s reservoirs into beautiful community spaces where the water is the focal point. The program has the dual goal of keeping water clean and promoting greater community appreciation for water.  Over 20 ABC Waters projects have been completed across the nation, and over 100 potential locations have been identified for the implementation of the program by 2030.

While an identical water model may not be the answer to U.S. water scarcity, lessons can certainly be learned from understanding why Singapore’s approach works for them.  Do you think a combination of any of these approaches could work for the drought-stricken Western U.S. and elsewhere? Which ones?