Water management strategies of Singapore

When it comes to small countries with big success stories, one has to acknowledge the story of Singapore. In just a few decades the city-state has managed to become a highly developed economy with a high standard of living, despite being only a small island with virtually no natural resources. One part of Singapore’s success story is its comprehensive water management system that is well integrated into urban life.

Singapore has no natural aquifers or lakes, and ever since independence the country has relied heavily on imported water from neighbouring Malaysia. But the situation is changing fast, and Singapore is on the path to self-sufficient water management. In addition to imported water, Singapore receives water from local rainwater catchment, recycling of wastewater and desalination of seawater. These are know as the Four National Taps, and together they provide the city-state with a resilient water management strategy that improves water security and addresses problems such as droughts, floods and water pollution.

Marina reservoir in downtown Singapore
Skyscrapers grab most of the attention at Marina Bay in downtown Singapore, but the fact that the bay is actually a man-made freshwater reservoir is probably more impressive.

Diversity in water sources

Singapore’s first water reservoir, MacRitchie Reservoir, was built 150 years ago and the amount of reservoirs for rainwater catchment has since then multiplied. Singapore is one of few urban areas in the world where rainwater is collected at a large scale, and the scale is indeed impressive. Three-fourths of the island is rainwater catchment area and an extensive drainage system channels the rainwater into the country’s 17 water reservoirs. At the same time the system provides flood protection.

Water management dam at MacRitchie reservoir
Singapore’s 17 water reservoirs are so well integrated into the city that it is easy to forget their purpose – unless you happen to pass by a part of the water management infrastructure, like this dam at MacRitchie Reservoir.

But the small land area limits how much rainwater can be collected, and imported water still plays an important role. In order to diversify its water sources, Singapore has invested in two innovative technologies: recycling of wastewater and desalination of seawater. These two water sources not only make it easier for Singapore to become independent of imported water, but they also provide resilience to changing rain and weather patterns.

Desalination of seawater has traditionally been very energy-intensive, but technological advancements have made desalination using reverse osmosis a viable option for Singapore. But Singapore has received more attention for its reclaimed water, called NEWater. NEWater closes the water cycle, and it is produced by purifying wastewater through membrane technology and ultraviolet disinfection. The resulting water is extremely clean and safe to drink, and NEWater currently provides for approximately one-third of Singapore’s water needs.

Holistic water management

Water management in Singapore is in the hands of the Public Utilities Board (PUB), Singapore’s water agency. One of PUB’s programmes is the ABC (Active, Beautiful, Clean) Waters Programme that aims to turn Singapore into a City of Gardens and Water. Concrete canals are turned into natural rivers and reservoirs into bodies of water that add value to the urban landscape and provide space for recreation. In this way water becomes a part of the urban environment, and this is thought to increase appreciation of water among the people. Education and different campaigns also raise public awareness about water and the environment.

Canoeing at MacRitchie Reservoir Park
MacRitchie Reservoir Park is Singapore’s oldest reservoir and it provides Singaporeans not just with water but also space for activities like canoeing and hiking.

Strict control of water pollution, economic incentives and other policies are also a crucial part of Singapore’s water management strategies. Singapore aims to be completely water self-sufficient by 2061 when the current water trade agreement with Malaysia expires. There are plans to further increase rainwater catchment, but NEWater and desalination will provide the bulk of water needed. There are still challenges to work with (such as reducing water usage per capita) but Singapore’s water story is impressive, and many other cities and countries could learn a lot from this small island nation.

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