Speech by Permanent Secretary (National Climate Change) Tan Yong Soon at the Nanyang Technological University and Michigan State University International Conference on the Economics and Policy of Water and the Environment
Professor Euston Quah,
Dean Marietta Baba,
Distinguished members of the academic community,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to join you at this two-day conference on the Economics and Policy of Water and the Environment jointly organised by the Nanyang Technological University and Michigan State University, ahead of the Singapore International Water Week next week.
Importance of Water
Water is one of the most important elements of our daily lives. It is required by every one of us for drinking, cooking, and washing. It is also used by industries for cooling and in manufacturing processes. In many countries, it is required by the agricultural sector for irrigation.
Apart from its role in creating and sustaining growth, water can also help in enhancing and beautifying the living environment. Indeed, water is vital to the survival and continued growth of mankind.
This has been a firm belief held in Singapore. Our first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, recounted during a dialogue session with delegates of the inaugural Singapore International Water Week in June 2008 that, “This (water) dominated every other policy. Every other policy had to bend at the knees for water survival.”
Principles Guiding Singapore’s Water Policy and Management
A natural resource as important as water requires prudent management. Circumstances in each country differ greatly, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to water resource management. Some of the challenges facing our region include improving basic sanitation coverage, sustainable management of large river systems such as the Mekong River, and extreme weather conditions such as floods and droughts. While Singapore’s challenges as a small city-state are unique, I would like to share our experiences with you nevertheless, with the hope that some useful lessons may be gleaned from them.
The fundamental principles and success factors that have guided our water and environmental policy making and management in Singapore from the onset are: (i) clear vision; (ii) long term planning; (iii) constant innovation; and (iv) practical and effective approach. I shall explain how these principles guided us as we went about ensuring a safe and reliable water supply.
Clear Vision and Long term Planning
Singapore’s national water agency, PUB, has diversified our water supply to include four National Taps. These are (i) local catchment water, (ii) imported water from Malaysia, (iii) NEWater, which is treated used water, and (iv) desalinated water. Initially, our foremost water supply challenge was one of increasing the yield from local catchment. We were faced with limited land, absence of large river systems and limited groundwater. We overcame our land constraints through long term integrated land-use planning. Water catchment and drainage considerations are included in urban planning processes, which also take into account transport, housing and industrial needs. The need to balance competing land needs later led to the creation of unprotected catchments, which enabled urbanised areas to be used as water catchments.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Singapore River was far from the picturesque water body you see today in the heart of the Central Business District. In 1977, PM Lee declared that: “It should be a way of life to keep the water clean, to keep every stream free from unnecessary pollution. In ten years, let us have fishing in the Singapore River and in the Kallang River. It can be done.” Ten years later, the clean up was completed. And PM Lee issued a new challenge to PUB: “In 20 years, it is possible that there could be breakthroughs in technology, both anti-pollution and filtration, and then we dam up or put a barrage at the mouth of the Marina and we will have a huge freshwater lake…a large strategic reserve of freshwater.” Today, that vision has become reality. It required resettlement of farms, industries and un-sewered squatters, and development of infrastructure to transform the previously polluted river into the clean water body which forms part of the Marina Reservoir today. It required clear vision, long term planning, practical and effective inter-agency cooperation and execution. And of course constant innovation through the use of technology and policy innovation.
Investing in Science and Engineering Technologies
Singapore invested heavily in research and technology to address our water needs. Key examples on the use of advanced technologies include using microfiltration (MF) and reverse osmosis (RO) to treat used water and desalt seawater to produce NEWater and desalinated water, respectively. The Deep Tunnel Sewerage System, a S$3.6 billion project by PUB to collect, treat, reclaim and dispose of Singapore’s used water efficiently and cost effectively is itself an engineering and technological feat.
There are ongoing R&D projects to develop more energy-efficient water treatment processes to reduce energy use. For instance, PUB has worked with Siemens Water Technologies to develop low-energy electrochemical desalting technologies. A pilot project has managed to reduce the energy required for desalination from 3.5 kWh/m3 (kilowatt hours per cubic metre) to 1.8 kWh/m3.
PUB is also cooperating with Keppel Seghers to pilot the use of membrane distillation as a cheaper alternative to conventional RO desalination processes. Membrane distillation utilises low grade waste steam from power stations, refuse incineration plants and other heat generating plants to produce near-distilled grade water from seawater through a vaporization and condensation process involving MF membranes. This is less energy intensive than the current conventional RO approach of “pushing” water through a membrane. It also provides us with a means to reuse waste heat from cooling processes which would have otherwise been vented off.
Through its own research efforts PUB has also developed a new water treatment technique by integrating desalination and NEWater treatment processes. Known as the variable salinity plant, the technology is able to treat estuarine waters, which vary from low-salinity river water to high-salinity seawater, to potable water and eliminates the need to construct expensive dams. Of course, such R&D efforts are deployable not just in Singapore alone, but can also be applied to and benefit other countries.
Such investments in the water sector have been the seeds for the creation of a new pillar of economic growth for Singapore. Through the Environment and Water Industry Programme Office (EWI), the National Research Foundation (NRF) has committed S$470 million from 2006 to 2015 to promote R&D in the water sector.
To further create opportunities for sharing and co-creation of solutions to address global water challenges, we also established the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW). Currently in its fifth year, the annual SIWW has been a successful platform in bringing together decision-makers, businesses and researchers to share knowledge, showcase technologies, discover opportunities and celebrate achievements in the water world.
Water Conservation to Reduce Demand for Water
Even as Singapore invests in securing a reliable water supply, we also promote water conservation as an important complementary strategy to ensure long-term water sustainability. This has been pursued in two ways.
Our water pricing regime takes into account the full cost of production and supply, and reflects the scarcity of water and the high cost of developing additional sources of water. Our tiered water tariff charges heavy users of water a higher rate. PUB also levies a waterborne fee and sanitary appliance fee to offset the cost of treating used water, and operating and maintaining the used water network.
We also aggressively pursue public awareness campaigns and schemes to encourage behavioural changes. For example, the 10-Litre Challenge administered jointly by PUB and the Singapore Environment Council aims to get every individual to reduce daily water consumption by 10 litres. The Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme (WELS) is a grading system of 0 to 3 ticks administered by PUB. This scheme informs consumers of the water efficiency of products, such as washing machines, taps and mixers, and showerheads. These measures have been successful in reducing our daily per capita domestic water consumption1.
Moving beyond providing water to individuals and businesses, PUB has initiated the Active, Beautiful and Clean (ABC) Waters Programme to encourage its Public, Private and People sector partners to take joint ownership of Singapore’s water resource management. Through integration of drains, canals and reservoirs with the surrounding environment in a holistic way, the ABC Waters Programme helps to create community spaces for all to enjoy and contributes to Singapore’s transformation into a City of Gardens and Waters.
PUB also runs community engagement programmes such as “Friends of Water” and “Our Waters Programme” to encourage a sense of ownership in people and encourage the community to spread the water message and take action.
Challenges Going Forward
Singapore’s limited experiences in water management, while applicable to some cities and countries, are just a subset of the challenges faced by others around the world. For example, we do not use water for agriculture and irrigation, nor hydropower. Our understanding of the intricacies of river basin management is also limited.
Nonetheless, one lesson that policymakers, academics and practitioners can collectively draw from our experiences is this – our current water challenges cannot be solved by policy or technology alone; rather they will require a multi-disciplinary and integrated approach.
Increasingly, this observation will also hold true for some of the new, emerging challenges in water resource management. I will cite two examples:
Effects of Climate Change on Water Management
Climate change is a global challenge. Its hydrological impacts are extensive and interrelated. Changes in precipitation patterns affect the reliability of water supply for domestic, industrial and irrigation purposes. Higher temperatures lead to rising sea levels, which may cause inundation of low-lying lands, increased storm surge damage, increased salinisation of coastal agricultural lands and saltwater intrusion into freshwater bodies. Higher water temperatures may also promote growth of algae and microbes, affect the ecology of streams and water bodies, and increase evaporation losses.
Extreme weather events, such as intense rainfall, hurricanes, drought, and storm surges, also pose as a threat to human life and property, as a result of flooding, landslides, and wildfire.
To address these impacts, adaptation actions must be taken to manage or reduce potential harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. Planning for such adaptation measures require expanding our knowledge about climate change impacts, and integration of adaptation measures into long-term land-use and infrastructural plans. We must also retain flexibility in the design of adaptation plans to facilitate updates over time, as climate science improves.
The Water, Food, Waste and Energy Nexus
The interdependence between water, food, waste and energy is another area of global concern. Water is required in food production for irrigation and production of feed for livestock. It is also required for power generation, particularly from biofuels and hydropower. Energy, on the other hand, is required in technologies to produce water, and for moving and distributing water for irrigation, household and industrial use. Waste can be harnessed as resources for the production of water or to generate energy. For example, waste heat can be used in membrane distillation for seawater desalination, while sludge produced from wastewater treatment can be further treated, forming methane gas for power generation.
It is increasingly apparent that the management of these resources – water, food, energy and waste – require a holistic approach. With a better understanding of the interdependence of these resources, trade-offs and synergies can be determined and mutually beneficial responses identified.
In conclusion, the challenges we face in water and the environment are increasingly more complicated. No single discipline or a single entity can hope to provide the solution. We need scientists and engineers working with economists and social scientists. We need the public sector working with the private sector and the NGOs, or what we call the people sector. We can all benefit from an integrated approach and increased collaboration in identifying new, innovative solutions.
I was thus heartened to learn of the opening of the new Interdisciplinary Graduate School in NTU earlier this week to encourage PhD students to combine two or more disciplines in their research. For example, incorporating chemistry and material science engineering to increase efficiency for solar harvesting. This conference, with so many distinguished academicians from diverse disciplines present today, is another important step towards fostering a multi-disciplinary approach. Your knowledge and expertise applied collectively to some of the greatest challenges confronting us will yield important solutions to humankind.
I wish everyone here a fruitful conference ahead.
1From 165 litres in 2003 to 153 litres in 2011. Our long-term target, set out in the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, is to lower consumption to 147 litres by year 2020