It has been 10 years since BlueTech Research chief executive Paul O’Callaghan published the article Singapore International Water Week 2011 – a Glimpse into the Future for Urban Water Management. The exploration of why we should look to Singapore for a glimpse into how cities of the future will manage water is just as insightful now as it was 10 years ago and we are pleased to re-share with the water community:

Singapore International Water Week
A glimpse into the future for urban water management

Visiting Singapore is a glimpse into the future. It is a glimpse into how the cities of the future will manage water.

Singapore is a City State. The total size of the State is just 26 miles wide, 14 miles north to south, and is home to five million people. The world is increasingly living in cities.

Singapore is classified as a water scarce state. More of our cities are likely to experience water scarcity.

Singapore has no natural waterways passing through it and is classified as a water scarce state and at the time of independence in 1964, Singapore was largely reliant on piped water from Malaysia to meet its needs. As the demand for water in Malaysia grew there was always the concern that one day water costs could rise, supply could be limited or worst-case scenario, ultimately be cut-off altogether. This drove Singapore to look for options to become more self-sufficient in terms of meeting its own water needs.

Today Singapore meets 60% of its water needs without the need to import or desalinate sea water. How have they done this?

Approximately 30% of the water needs of Singapore are met with rainwater, 30% with NEWater; the amount imported from Malaysia varies but is typically in the order of 30% and seawater desalination is used to meet just 10% of demand. The overall success in water management, which makes Singapore a model for urban water management, is a combination of the following:

  1. Per capita water reuse in Singapore is among the lowest anywhere in the world at 154 litres per head per day.
  2. Water leakage rates in Singapore are 6%.
  3. Wastewater is converted to NEWater and meets 30% of demand.
  4. Urban stormwater run-off is treated as a water resource and two thirds of the area of the State is a rainwater collection area.

There is a high level of water awareness at the highest political levels and among the general public

The opening address at Singapore International Water Week was given by the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan and displayed a much deeper level of awareness than you would see in the average political address.

Unlike typical political addresses, which are often simply a PR exercise with some general banal observations and highlight some recent government projects. The speech by Dr. Balakrishan was succinct and well informed and demonstrated a much deeper understanding of water issues and a very high level of awareness.

Singapore has one distinguishing feature from a political perspective. It functions more or less like an autocracy. There is one ruling political part, the People’s Action Party, that has been in power since 1969. It is only in the most recent election that the opposition party made any gains at all, and although they were modest, they were enough to cause rumblings about political change.

In any case, an autocracy is not tied to a 4-year election cycle. They can take a longer term, 10-year, 20-year, 40-year view on strategic planning, and this is exactly what Singapore did. They set a long-term goal and they set about implementing the steps necessary to achieve this goal.

Singapore is reaching the limits of what can be achieved through water conservation

The water demand per person in Singapore is 154 litres per head per day. Very few people have gardens in Singapore, as most people live in apartment blocks, so that is pretty much all indoor water use.

Their goal is to reduce per capita water use to 147 litres per head by 2020 and 140 litres per head by 2030. Water use is elastic, to a point, and thereafter it becomes very inelastic, i.e., in terms of water demand side management, the first gains are easy, but the law of diminishing returns applies . I think the figure of 154 litres per head per day in Singapore is starting to bump up against that inelasticity limit. Over the next the ten years they plan to reduce this by 4.5%, and in the next ten years by a further 4.5%, so diminishing returns.

But if you look at Europe and North America, there is long way to go before we hit that limit of elasticity.

In Europe average per capita water consumption is approximately 183 litres per head per day and in North America average per capita indoor water use is far higher, at 262 litres per head per day. So, the average Singaporean uses about 16% less water than their European counterpart and 40% less than the average North American.

As key takeaway here, it should be possible to reduce per capita urban water use figures to those in line with Singapore, but it is probably going to be very difficult to realize significant gains after that as we reach those limits of elasticity.

Singapore has made drinking recycled water fashionable and cool

NEWater is essentially advanced treated wastewater. The latest flowsheet incorporates an MBR for wastewater treatment, followed by UF/ microfiltration, followed by reverse osmosis and UV treatment.

At present just 2% of the NEWater which is produced goes into the water reservoir for direct potable reuse. The other 98% is used for non-potable use, e.g., use in industry.

The reason that they add 2% to the reservoir is not that they need to augment the water reservoir by 2%. The reason they do this, is to pave the way for public acceptance. If they can start with 2%, and win over public acceptance, then they are creating the opportunity to increase this in the future. They are taking baby steps. And take baby steps one must, as this a highly sensitive issue in the minds of the public. But that is all it is. This is not a technical issue. This is not a health issue. This is a public perception issue.

Having visited the Bedok NEWater treatment plant, I had absolutely no hesitation in drinking bottles of NEWater. I even brought some home for the kids. The amazing thing about the Bedok New Water treatment plant was not so much the technology, (it’s UF + RO + UV). It was the amazing job that they do on education and awareness. It’s more like going to Disney World than a water treatment plant. You walk though interactive displays where the process is fully explained. They have tours of school children going through this plant daily.

Talking to some people who live in Singapore, they say that their children think it’s hip and cool to drink NEWater. That is probably the single greatest achievement in relation to NEWater, it’s how they have branded this and through education and outreach, have made this not only acceptable, but actually cool.

Singapore has converted the city, into a rainwater catchment and uses stormwater as a resource to meet water demand

Cities around the world are grappling with stormwater management issues. This is one of the next water issues facing regulation and creating a water technology opportunity.

Rather than treating stormwater as a wastewater issue and treating and discharging it, Singapore has converted two thirds of the area of the State into a rainwater catchment area, so that stormwater run-off from much of the urban areas is collected in reservoirs which are then used to help meet demand.

To do this, they had to move some types of polluting industries out of certain city areas to help manage the quality of the stormwater.  Interestingly, I heard this piece of news, not at Singapore International Water Week, but on a morning news talk show while travelling in a taxi. This gives you an idea of how mainstream this is.

Stormwater is a particularly nasty type of material to deal with. Much worse than municipal sewage, which is a relatively innocuous dilute mix of organic materials, suspended solids, and nutrients. Stormwater by comparison contains sediments, hydrocarbons, and chemicals (nutrients, pathogens, metals, oil and grease, pesticides and synthetic chemicals).

Singapore is a global centre for water research

One of the other benefits of a government which functions like an autocracy is that if you decide to do something, you can actually do it. As well as the power to make decisions, you do also need money of course, and Singapore is a wealthy State. Singapore set out to attract the world’s leading water technology companies to locate research centres in Singapore, and they succeeded.

I visited the GE Singapore Water Technology Centre (SWTC) which is located at the National University of Singapore (NUS). This is an extremely impressive centre with equipment that would be the envy of any water lab worldwide, complete with the equivalent of ‘clean rooms’ for analysing extremely low levels of contaminants in water.

Siemens has located its Global Water Research and Development Centre at PUB´s WaterHub building. Speaking with some of the Siemens Technology researchers at SIWW, they indicated that they had achieved a very high level of support and co-operation from the Singapore PUB in the development of their lower energy capacitive deionisation desalination technology.

The Singapore PUB has ambitious targets to reduce the energy used for desalination to 1.5 kWh per m3.

Harry Seah, of the Singapore PUB, is a central figure in relation to water innovation in Singapore and is the dynamo behind Singapore International Water Week.

We were honoured to have Harry as a speaker at the BlueTech Forum in San Francisco, June 1st and it was extremely enlightening to hear of the gains, in terms of increasing efficiency and reducing water energy use, that the Singapore PUB has been able to achieve, through a consistent program of continual and sustained improvement and process optimization.

The Singapore PUB achieved a 3-fold reduction in membrane bioreactor (MBR) energy consumption between 2003 and 2009, hitting 0.37 kWh per m3 in August 2009, which is a global benchmark.

They have actually been researching the technologies for producing drinking water from treated effluent since the 1970’s and embarked on the NEWater project in 1998. In 2003, just four years later, they opened two full-scale NEWater treatment plants. They now have five NEWater plants in operation.

They are also working on low energy desalination. Currently, the existing desalination plants in Singapore have an energy footprint is 3.5 kWh per m3. The Singapore PUB has a short-term goal of reducing this to 1.5 kWh/m3 by utilizing technologies such as membrane desalination and electro-chemical desalination.  The longer-term R&D goal is to try and achieve energy footprints of 0.75 kWh/m3, it remains to be seen if they can ever achieve the long-term goals, but they should be able to hit the short-term goals, which would really start to de-bunk the myth that desalination is too energy intensive to ever become mainstream.

The Singapore PUB also views water R&D expenditure as an investment which delivers a good ROI. They report that an investment of $14M in R&D in the NEWater plant has delivered an annual cost saving of $102M per year.

So, the trip to SIWW was very worthwhile and gives on great optimism for the future of how the Cities of the Future will manage water.