Water is at the heart of who we are, and everything we do. We live through water. On one level it is very simple – around two thirds of your body is water. Three or four days without it and you die.
Khoo Teng Chye, the Chief Executive of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, said: “I think there’s probably some intrinsic, maybe almost primeval, bond that human beings have with water.”
Yet this most essential of resources cannot be taken for granted. Quenching our collective thirst is one of the great human and technical challenges of this century.
Water analysts predict that by 2030 we could face a 40 percent worldwide shortfall between supply and demand.
Rita Padawangi, Research Fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, says we all have a part to play in conserving water: “I think the most important question is – what is the role that people can play in urban water management? Many cities are still treating rivers as their junkyard, and this is very challenging environmentally.”
Singapore, with its multitude of high-rise skyscrapers of steel and glass, is a monument to modern, ambitious Asia. It is the very embodiment of capitalism.
But when it comes to the basic resource of water, its vulnerability is exposed, says Khoo Teng Chye: “Even before we were independent, during the days of the British, we already had to import water from Malaysia and so from day one of our independence, I think trying to be sure that we could be sustainable in water has always been a strategy, a priority.”
One of those strategies is large scale recycling. Used water is treated and cleaned resulting in what is called NEWater.
It is increasingly important and now supplies a third of Singapore’s needs.
The visitor centre next to the water treatment plant is a key resource in explaining to people why every drop counts.
Awareness is key, says Rita Padawangi: “The most direct way that you can think of is you have to really put it into the education system. So people are learning that water is not something that can be easily obtained, it’s not as easy as turning on the tap, and then you go from there.”
Making water management a public process is one way to increase awareness.
The Marina Barrage dam project is an expression of how Singapore’s water policy trickles through everyday life. It is an engineering project turned public park.
Khoo Teng Chye explained: “Initially the idea was to create a barrage, which is really a flood barrier to prevent the high tide from flooding the lower parts of the city, but with the advent of membrane technology and our ability to be able to clean the water for drinking, the barrage also began to double up as a dam, so that we could keep the water as a source of water supply. Then once you’ve done that, you in fact create a nice recreational lake in the heart of the city as well.”
It is one thing to recycle and conserve water. Finding fresh supplies is a different matter, yet it could be that the most obvious source surrounds many of the world’s urban populations, says Khoo Teng Chye.
“We are an island, we are surrounded by the sea, and I think there are many coastal cities in the world that would need to rely on the sea for their source of water.”
Ten percent of Singapore’s daily supply of water now comes from the sea.
Suppliers always respond to demand – that is the basic principle of business – and local firms have become specialists in turning salt water into drinking water.
Sam Ong, the Deputy CEO of Singapore’s Hyflux desalination plant, said: “Ten years ago we used to see only five or six desalination plants per year, and right now we are seeing 10 to 20 times that amount per year in terms of proposals, ranging from the traditional Middle East-North Africa region, to the USA, to Latin America, to India, to South East Asia, as well as, of course, China.”
Worldwide, cities are growing, especially in Asia, and with that the need to secure water supplies becomes increasingly important.
Cities often use the most, but have the least.
And water – whether too little, or too much – touches nearly every aspect of urban life.
Khoo Teng Chye concluded: “Singapore is a very dense city and we will probably continue to grow economically, and in population. There will always be new challenges and new problems to solve, and I think urbanisation and climate change are two of the biggest ones that confront us.”