Thirteen years ago today, arms raised in unison, 60,000 people gave three resounding toasts and drank to Singapore’s National Day.
The liquid they sipped was water – but it was more precious than champagne. For it was Newater, used water recycled to be made drinkable again, and a key achievement in Singapore’s drive to be self-sufficient in water.
At the urging of parade host Gurmit Singh, everyone present, from then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to those in the crowd, opened the now-iconic bottles of Newater and took a sip, marking its debut.
The team behind water agency PUB’s project watched anxiously. The technology to recycle household used water into Newater had been proven in trials. But it would all be for nothing if stomach troubles followed Newater’s National Day unveiling, said the PUB team’s key man, Mr Harry Seah.
“A lot of activities were going on: people selling drinks and precooked food around the National Stadium,” recalled Mr Seah, who is now PUB’s chief of technology. “All that had to happen was just one outbreak, nothing to do with Newater, and we would have been finished.”
WATER RESOURCE MILESTONES
• 1965: Singapore separates from Malaysia; the countries agree to abide by 1961 and 1962 agreements allowing Singapore to buy water from Malaysia for 3 sen per 1,000 gallons.
• 1971: First water-conservation campaign.
• 1977: Start of 10-year Clean Singapore River campaign.
• 1990: Signing of supplement to 1962 agreement, allowing Singapore to build a dam across Johor River and buy water above original quota of 250 million gallons a day.
• 2000: Singapore and Malaysia begin water talks that end in stalemate in 2003 over price; construction of Deep Tunnel Sewerage System to reclaim used water starts.
• 2001: Public Utilities Board (PUB) restructured to take charge of not only water supply, but also drainage, water-reclamation plants and sewerage systems.
• 2002: Launch of Newater – or recycled water – technology, which paves the way towards water independence.
• 2005: First desalination plant completed in Tuas; a second plant is built in 2013.
• 2008: Inaugural International Water Week, which became an annual conference on water solutions; Marina Barrage completed – the first reservoir in the heart of the city.
• 2011: 1961 water agreement with Malaysia lapses. Singapore returns all land and facilities, says adequacy of water supply is not affected.
• 2014: PUB picks Chinese-led consortium to build fifth Newater plant. It will start up in 2016.
• 2015: PUB begins two-year feasibility study for an underground drainage and reservoir system.
Various agencies were marshalled to ensure that nothing went wrong. The National Environment Agency made sure hawkers were up to code, while boxes of Newater were movedwith military help. From treatment plant to fun pack, there was at least one PUB staff member keeping a watchful eye.
Newater’s debut in Singapore’s 37th year of independence was the culmination of a three-decade search for alternative water sources, a lifelong obsession for founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Right from the start, Mr Lee was keenly aware of Singapore’s Achilles’ heel: its dependence for water on neighbouring Malaysia, with which relations have ebbed and flowed over the years.
The search began in 1974, when the PUB built its first plant to experiment with membrane technology. It was decommissioned a year later as the technology was expensive and unreliable. But by 1998, the technology had matured enough that reliability had improved greatly, while prices had fallen.
Mr Seah and another PUB employee were sent to the United States to study water-reclamation projects.
The project was a go and, in May 2000, the first test plant opened in Bedok.
The initial months were filled with problems, such as filtration membranes clogging up faster than they were supposed to. Mr Seah and his team found that contrary to conventional logic that chlorine would damage the membranes, a low dosage was enough to prevent fouling without harming the membranes.
Within six months, the PUB had pioneered a technique superior to that of the US. Instead of using one or two methods, which was what the Americans did, Singapore used three: microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet radiation.
Today, Newater accounts for 30 per cent of Singapore’s water use. The plan is for it to provide more than half of Singapore’s water needs by the time the second agreement to import water from Malaysia expires in 2061.
Mr Seah remembered a tour of the Bedok plant by then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 2001.
A pensive Mr Lee did not say a >word during the tour.
It was only at the tour’s end, when crystal-clear water from the demonstration plant was being discharged into a drain, that he spoke.
“You are very wasteful. This water is precious, do something to it!” recalled Mr Seah.
“It was a happy scolding.”