October 19, 2017 - From the October, 2017 issue

Singapore's Water Leadership: Building a Model for Sustainable Cities

The connection between Orange County and Singapore might not be apparent at first. But look below the surface, and it is clear that both places are models for sustainable water management, especially based on investment in water recycling. At the 2017 Science & Technology in Society Forum in Kyoto—where advancements in water management and technology brought together leaders from around the globe—Khoo Teng Chye, Executive Director of the Singapore Ministry of National Development’s Centre for Liveable Cities, spoke to TPR about how the small country went from being a case study of disastrous urban management to an international model for sustainability.

Khoo Teng Chye

“Singapore was once a hopelessly disastrous case of urban management gone wrong. Today, we have 5.6 million people, and yet I daresay we are more livable and more sustainable than ever before.” —Khoo Teng Chye

We speak today at the 2017 STS Forum in Kyoto, where you are a panelist. Share with our readers the Centre for Liveable Cities’ mission and accomplishments to date.

Khoo Teng Chye: The Centre for Liveable Cities is a government think tank. Our mission is to distill, create, and share knowledge on livable and sustainable cities. We do research and build case studies based on Singapore’s experience over the last four or five decades.

Singapore was once a hopelessly disastrous case of urban management gone wrong. We had less than 2 million people. We didn’t have enough water; we had pollution; we had droughts; we had crime, disease, and overcrowding. Today, we have 5.6 million people on essentially the same island, and yet I daresay we are more livable and more sustainable than ever before.

Before assuming leadership of the Centre for Livable Cities, you spent much of your professional career on water. What are Singapore’s challenges and priorities around water? 

Water is one area where Singapore has really been able to turn things around. We are a tropical country near the Equator. We get about 2.4 meters, or eight feet, of rainfall a year. Because we are a tiny island and highly urbanized, it’s very difficult for us to collect all that water. And we have no groundwater or other source of water, so we have historically had to buy water from our neighbor, Malaysia.

In recent years, we have been trying to build up a more diversified and sustainable water supply, to reduce our dependence on buying water from Malaysia. To do that, we’re harvesting as much of the water from the sky as possible. Today, two-thirds of Singapore is a water catchment. We have 17 reservoirs, which we built systematically over the years. We do recycling on a large scale, which we learned from Orange County. We have five recycling plants, and up to 40 percent of our water can be supplied from recycling. We also do desalination; it makes sense for us, since we are an island. Currently, up to 25 percent of our water demand can be met by desalination.

But even more important than the supply side is the demand side—managing people’s behavior to get them to conserve water. That has been a very important part of our strategy, as well as diversifying supply. 

Elaborate on what Singapore has learned about water recycling from around the world, including Orange County, California.

At the turn of the century, Singapore realized that we had to start recycling in a very big way. We had experimented with it in the 1970s, but the technology wasn’t really ready. But finally, we thought it was time we took another stab at it.

At that time, Orange County was successfully piloting the Groundwater Replenishment System, which grew out of the renowned Water Factory 21. We sent a team to look at it, and the team came back with the conclusion that we could do the same thing and scale it up. We began with a pilot plant. For about two years, we ran through all the tests and brought an international panel to verify everything we were doing. Then we built three plants and scaled up. Today we have five very big plants that can supply up to 40 percent of our water. We call that high-grade reclaimed water product NEWater.

Similar to California’s concept of “One Water,” we think of water recycling as “closing the water loop.” We look at water as a renewable resource that we can get from the sky, use, and reuse.

What technologies do Singapore’s water reclamation plants rely upon?

We use reverse osmosis membrane technology. We are also investing a lot in R&D to see where we can reduce the energy consumption involved in recycling water. Adding membranes is far more energy-efficient than tunnel distillation, but we still want to do more.

We are learning from nature through biomimicry methods: Can we learn from the mangrove? Can we learn from our kidneys? We are experimenting with a membrane protein called aquaporin that is found in kidneys. The idea is to learn from biology how we can be more energy-efficient, and there are some very promising results.

Given the array of global scientists and technologists attending the STS Forum today, share where Singapore looks to the most for scalable applications of water research.

Singapore tries to make itself a hub for water research. Our universities are involved, and we collaborate with companies and universities from all over the world. Today, we have 21 water research centers, including collaborative projects with major companies like GE, membrane companies like Dow Chemicals, and Japanese companies.

Over the years, we have worked closely with Israel, as well as with the Netherlands through their KWR Water Research Center. Other Dutch companies are also involved in Singapore, as are American companies, like CH2M Hill, Black & Veatch, and so on.


We bring all these actors together once every two years in an international forum that we call the Singapore International Water Week, which is held in conjunction with the World Cities Summit. The next one is July 8-12, 2018, and we’re expecting people from all the world, including Los Angeles.

Let’s pivot from water supply management to water conservation. How has Singapore approached reducing consumers’ demand for water?

When I was chief of the Public Utilities Board (PUB), the national water agency, we introduced a six-word tagline that PUB still uses: Water for all: conserve, value, enjoy. The idea is to help people, not just conserve water, but value it, too.

Water is a resource, of course, but in our very dense urban environment, we also try to see water as an environmental asset. We try to naturalize our canals and our concrete drains and turn them into natural rivers—and in so doing, bring water closer to the people and bring people closer to the water. We don’t just want to change people’s behavior to get them to conserve; we also want people to appreciate the natural and urban value of water—to have fun and enjoy it.

What role have water regulation and pricing played in encouraging conservation?

Our regulatory framework is very clear that water is a valuable resource—and therefore, it attracts zero subsidy from the government. The population pays what it costs for us to produce water. In fact, on top of paying for the costs, there’s what we call a “water conservation tax.” You have to pay a high price for water, because we want people to know that water is something to be valued.

Was that politically challenging?

Of course. The political leadership had to spend a lot of political capital to persuade people that it was important. But I think over the years—because it’s been going on for decades—people have come to appreciate why it’s important for our sovereignty, and for our survival, that we price water.

Address the nexus between your former work in water regulation and your new, broader responsibilities as executive director of the Centre for Liveable Cities.

The three basic elements of livable cities are: quality of life, sustainable environment, and economic competitiveness.

We talk about “closing the water loop” and managing water systems in an integrated way, but water is also a subset of the broader urban system. It’s not a closed system; it’s not just about pipes. It’s also about how to expose people to water in lakes, rivers, and so on. There’s a very close interaction between water and the city, and I think most mayors in cities understand that.

At the Centre for Liveable Cities, we are working to help the water field understand why they need to collaborate with urban planners. In Singapore, We have a program called Active, Beautiful, and Clean Waters, which manages the naturalization of canals that I mentioned earlier. Water engineers can’t do that kind of project on their own; they have to work closely with urban planners. It can be hard to do; they don’t always speak the same language. 

Finally, share how you have encouraged that collaboration among planners and engineers. 

It’s fortunate that I have experience in both urban planning and in water. When I was in charge of the PUB, I made it my mission to have engineers and landscape architects talk to each other and work together on projects.

In one case, we worked with the National Parks Board. Each of our agencies had had separate funding: The Parks Board had funding to upgrade a park that was next to a canal, and PUB had funding to upgrade the canal itself. So we said, “Why don’t we get together?”

We brought in people doing cutting-edge work, and we got a team to design the canal so that it would run through the park like a meandering river. To accomplish that, the engineers, the landscape architects, and the ecologists all had to work together. That became a signature project, and now, there are hundreds of these kinds of projects in Singapore.


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