Singapore to Become Water-Sufficient

When Singapore’s newest reservoir was opened last weekend, it was billed as the garden city’s latest leisure hub, designed to attract boaters and picnickers keen to escape the hectic pace of urban life.

But the Marina Reservoir, the 15th to be built in Singapore and the first to be located in the city center, has a much more important role to play. It is the latest advance in the city-state’s drive to wean itself away from imported water from Malaysia and its concomitant political entanglements. In the process, Singapore has emerged as an unlikely world leader in water conservation, reclamation and desalination.

Singapore still sources around half of its water from Malaysia and frequent disputes over the water supply have dogged relations between the two neighbors virtually since the two became independent countries. But after billions of dollars of investment into transforming its water supply, Singapore is getting ever closer to the day when it will become totally self-sufficient, finally kicking one of the most poisonous bilateral issues into the long grass.

With no proper rivers of its own and a land area too small to collect enough rain water, Singapore has been dependent on water brought across the Strait of Johor ever since it gained its independence from the British. But despite the two long-term supply deals signed in 1961 and 1962, once Singapore was unceremoniously booted out of the nascent Federation of Malaysia in 1965, the water issue began to drive a wedge between the two.

It wasn't long before Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first post-independence prime minister, was threatening to turn off the taps if Singapore pursued a foreign policy that was "prejudicial" to Malaysia's interests. Singapore's first post-independence leader and current Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, also said that he would have been prepared to send the troops in, if Malaysia had carried out an "act of madness" like cutting off the water.

As the imposing figures of Lee Kuan Yew and his long-time sparring partner, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, have begun to fade – neither is there yet – the tensions over water have dissipated somewhat. However, with the first water agreement set to expire in 2011 and no replacement deal in sight, the Singaporean government has moved ahead at a fearsome pace with its push to reduce its dependence on imported water.

"Singapore seems to be doing quite well and I think it will be self-sufficient within the next five-10 years," explained Chan Ngai Weng, a geography professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia who specializes in water supply issues. "If Singapore is able to do this, then there will be no problem between the two countries. Malaysia will lose some money but there will not be any issue any more."

"I think it’s unlikely that there will be more problems between Malaysia and Singapore over water," added Kog Yue Choong, a Singaporean engineer and academic who has written on water security in Southeast Asia. "Many of the problems happened when Mahathir was in control but now the game has changed because the additional water sources Singapore has developed will reduce its vulnerability."

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Singapore's Public Utilities Board has spearheaded the campaign, investing S$4.9bn (US$3.3 billion) over the last five years alone in its four-pronged approach: increasing the area used to catch and store rainwater, recycling sewage to produce 'NEWater', building new desalination plants and working to reduce water usage. In 2005, the government opened the biggest desalination plant in Asia, delivering 110,000 cubic meters of desalinated seawater a day, enough to meet 10 percent of the country’s national water demand.

The Marina Reservoir, which was first suggested by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew back in 1987, is a vital part of the plan. It will supply another 10 percent of Singapore's water needs and, together with two further reservoirs that are currently being built, it will expand the catchment area used to collect rainwater from half to two-thirds of the island’s land area.

Yet despite the apparent easing of tensions between Malaysia and Singapore over recent years, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s current prime minister and Lee Kuan Yew's son, hinted at the importance of continuing to reduce the country’s reliance on Malaysian imports at the opening ceremony of the reservoir last Friday.

"Through the concerted efforts and ingenuity of government agencies, and the full support and cooperation of the population, we have become more self-sufficient in water, and can become completely self-sufficient should we need to," he said. "We have also turned our vulnerability into a capability."

While disputes over water have done much to harm Singapore-Malaysia relations over the last 50 years, the silver lining for Singapore at least has been that the tensions have spurred the development of a world-leading water technology industry.

With industrialization, urbanization and climate change all threatening to put ever greater pressure on water supplies in Asia and around the world, Singapore has positioned itself to capitalize on the demand for technological solutions to the growing water shortages.

“More and more countries want to industrialize and the West is exporting pollutive industries to developing countries that don’t have the same capacity to deal with the problem,” noted Dr Kog. “Water supplies are increasingly being polluted and with global warning, it will be a big problem that may develop to an extent that it rivals the issue of oil.”

Australia, where farmers have been hit by severe droughts over recent years, is already looking at Singapore’s NEWater as a possible solution to its woes. More importantly, India and China, which have been developing at a lightning pace, are facing serious water crises in the coming years. The growing water shortages are a massive threat to China, where the World Bank estimates that more than half of the 660 cities are already facing supply issues, but a big opportunity for Singapore. Companies that honed their expertise in water technology while working on Singapore’s own water problems, such as Hyflux and Keppel, have expanded into China, where the World Bank has argued that billions of dollars more must be invested to head off a major water crisis.

But while Singapore has seemingly defused the potential for further disputes over water with Malaysia, it remains to be seen if relations between the two countries will continue to improve. Although the global financial storm ought to push these neighbors closer together, there is the very real danger that a deepening economic slowdown pushes both to take a more protectionist and antagonistic approach to each other.

Much will depend on the extent of the economic slowdown and the eventual outcome of Malaysia’s continuing political crisis. But, for the first time in many years, some Singaporeans and Malaysians are starting to believe that their bilateral problems could be water under the bridge.