The Straits Times says

Thinking strategically about water

The country's decision to build a fourth water desalination plant puts it on course to producing a total of 160 million gallons of water a day through treated seawater. That might provide comfort, but should not lead to complacency, given the global shortage of water - the very stuff of life forming up to 60 per cent on average of the human body.

Desalination is one of Singapore's four metaphorical water taps, the others being rain water from local catchments; imported water from Malaysia; and reclaimed water, known popularly as Newater. Desalinated water meets up to 25 per cent of current water demand and is expected to continue meeting up to 25 per cent by 2060.

That date is significant because Singapore's agreement to obtain water from Malaysia ends in 2061. Simultaneously, as well, by 2060 the Republic's water needs are expected to be around double the 400 million gallons a day figure now.

Even as it stands, Singapore's water planning is subject to seasonal pressures. Last month, prolonged dry weather in Malaysia caused the water level in Johor's Linggiu Reservoir to fall to an historic low of 54.5 per cent of the reservoir's capacity. This affects Singapore's ability to draw its full 250 million gallons a day entitlement from the Johor River. The onset of an El Nino season, which portends drier weather for Malaysia and Singapore, is a threat to the concerted way in which the two countries work to fulfil their water needs.

The lurking danger of political pressure across the Causeway to "get tough" with Singapore's water requirements is a possibility that never can be discounted entirely , especially in the wake of prolonged droughts. Even as Singapore reduces its dependence on Malaysian water progressively, the natural resource remains one of the most important residual sources of possible friction between the two countries. A sobering backdrop to current affairs is provided by the way in which disputed access to diminishing sources of water has become a political irritant in international relations. Water has poisoned relations even between constituent states of a country. There is no need for more material than the desire to quench thirst and irrigate lands that produce food.

Those who view water as an entitlement or mere commercial commodity need to keep such troubling realities in mind. In truth, water is a strategic asset to be treated with the care reserved for basic necessities. As Singapore's water catchment grows to 90 per cent of its area by 2060, every stream, canal and rivulet should be seen as a precious source of water destined for one's tap.

Desalination is an attempt to shore up Singapore water defences, but it will not suffice unless it is accompanied by a new mindset, in which people treat water as a prized guarantor of their lives. Technology can help, but it should not lull Singaporeans into a false sense of water security.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2015, with the headline 'Thinking strategically about water'. Print Edition | Subscribe