Singapore’s biggest threat? The water crisis at its door

Photo: Nishanth Jois/CC BY 2.0

Singapore’s Prime Minister has warned citizens of the urgent need to conserve water, a timely reminder of the crisis brewing on the country’s border. 

By Tan Zhi Xin

Linggiu Reservoir sits in Johor, Malaysia but is built and run by the Singaporean authorities. This quiet man-made pool has a direct impact on the amount of water Singapore can get from the Johor River, a vital waterway for the county’s fresh supply. But due to climate change, Malaysia has been experiencing frequent dry spells, and the level at the reservoir has dropped to an unprecedented level. The consequence is clear – Singapore’s water supply is at stake.

Just recently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted an image of Linggiu Reservoir at 25% capacity on his Facebook, along with a comment urging people to conserve water. The supply is “still at the mercy of the weather,” he warned. But one resident explained acceptance of this enormous issue was a problem saying “I know there is a possibility of a water shortage but because we have not come close to water rationing for several decades, it just does not seem real.” But ignoring this pending crisis could bring ASEAN’s most developed nation to its knees.

The Prime Minister clearly recognises the danger ahead and during his time in power has worked hard on moving Singapore towards attaining water sufficiency. Sadly he has not done enough, mostly because there is not enough that can be done.

Exploring alternative sources

Singapore was already toying with the idea of recycling water as early as the 1970s. However, the first experiment failed and the pilot treatment plant closed down after only a year due to high costs and technology issues. It was not until much later, in 1998, that the Singapore Water Reclamation Study successfully determined the suitability of reclaimed supplies as a source of raw water.

When NEWater, the brand name of reclaimed water, was officially launched in 2003 it was described by the former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as the “elixir of life”. However many people, especially the older generation, scoff at NEWater for being “shit water” and avoid using it. But even with its low consumption rates, NEWater continues to be a major source of raw water for Singapore, providing up to 30% of its needs.

Today, Singapore has four “national taps.” These are water from the local catchment area, imported water, NEWater, and desalinated water. And diversifying to four options has been important for promoting resource security but the country, and its residents have grown callous as a result. In 2011, Singapore decided it could afford to let its water agreement with Malaysia expire because it had achieved self-sufficiency. However, disappointing as it may be, the truth is that this sense of security is false. And something must be done.

Although the four taps have helped mitigate water scarcity, Singapore remains vulnerable. Today, the island nation still relies heavily on imported water to meet almost 60% of is needs. And this is problematic. The reliance on NEWater and desalinated water, in turn, creates another problem – the need for energy. While these two sources alone are expected to make up 80% of Singapore’s water needs in 2060, both are highly energy-intensive. And as well as being short on water, the natural resource-poor country is short on power too.

Preparing for the future

Singapore is actively making preparations to avoid a scenario whereby it has to choose between water and energy. Currently, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) is trying to reduce reliance on fossil fuel; producing energy through biogas at water reclamation plants. Initiatives are also increasing solar energy production, and investing in research and development to lower the energy consumption of desalination plants.

Nonetheless, it is an undeniable fact that Singapore is a small country without natural resources. As water becomes an increasing issue in politics around the world, relations between Singapore and its neighbour Malaysia could become strained on the issue of water collection. “Malaysia has made veiled threats that it might cut off the supply of water or repudiate the water agreements when relations became strained along other fronts,” says Jackson Ewing, Director of Asian Sustainability at the Asia Society.

So no matter which direction Singaporean authorities turn, they are constrained. The country could invest heavily in technology to reduce reliance on energy but at the end of the day, the desalination process is very expensive. Meanwhile, NEWater is stigmatised regardless of the government’s effort to commercialise it; and Singapore does not have sufficient land to rely on rainfall as a water source. Relying on its neighbour Malaysia is also a difficult proposition.

As such, it is critical to conserve water; both for the good of the people and the country’s regional relations. Reducing consumption is the first step in ensuring sufficiency and security, and this is an important message for the government to convey to the public. They must listen. There is no other choice for Singapore to survive.