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Commentary

Singapore Budget 2017: Reminder of the need to conserve and do more with less

For many, a key announcement that stands out in Budget 2017 is what will hit the wallet: a 30 per cent jump in water prices.

The increase may not sit well with many, coming alongside planned hikes in town council service and conservancy charges (S&CC) and uncertainty in the economy. Many have grumbled about the hike, and will likely continue to do so in the coming days.

There is no denying that 30 per cent - even in two phases - is a drastic hike, especially for larger households which use more water.

But the price of water has not increased in 17 years - since 2000.

Perhaps one way households can deal with the hike is to take it as a challenge to keep their water bill at the current level. And the way to do that really is to cut down on usage.

It is not difficult to use less water. Ask those who grew up in those early years when rationing was not uncommon. Simple changes - such as being more mindful of not leaving the tap on when brushing teeth or washing dishes, using the washing machine only on a full load or not leaving the shower on while soaping - can go a long way.

After all, recent Budgets have stressed that as the economy matures, Singapore needs to do more with less.

As the growth of the workforce slows, firms have been told that innovation and productivity are key to staying nimble and competitive.

The country's population is also ageing, which requires funds to be allocated to healthcare, subsidies and social transfers - but with more for those who need the most help.

Given concerns over climate change, maybe it's time we adjust and try to use less water too.

Last year's drought, which saw the Linggiu Reservoir in Johor - from which Singapore draws more than half its water supply - becoming less than one-quarter full, was a stark reminder of how imported and local catchment water depend heavily on weather conditions.

As Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat noted in his Budget speech, every additional drop of water has to come from desalination and Newater production, and the cost of producing and supplying water has increased.

More has to be spent on water infrastructure to meet growing demand and repair existing pipes.

PUB will also double its investment in water assets to about $4 billion in the next five years.

To soften the blow of the hike, the price of water will be increased in two phases, starting from July 1 this year. Once the hike is fully implemented in July next year, the jump in monthly water bills for 75 per cent of households will be less than $18, Mr Heng said.

That assumes they continue to use water at the current rate.

Regardless, the Government has rolled out additional GST Voucher U-Save rebates ranging from $40 to $120 a year for most Housing Board households, depending on flat type, to cushion against the hike.

They effectively mean 75 per cent of HDB households will see an increase of less than $12 per month to their household water bills, if their water use is unchanged.

With the rebates, PUB projects that the average monthly water bill for those in one- and two-room HDB flats will go down from $26 today to $25. For those in four-room HDB flats, it will go up from $42 to $47.

Still, Mr Heng cautioned: "Even as we provide this assistance, we should not lose sight of the scarcity of water, and should conserve it."

Singapore's water consumption rate of 151 litres per capita a day is low among developed cities in Asia.

But it exceeds that of many European countries, where this figure is below 140 litres a day.

It is not difficult to use less water. Ask those who grew up in those early years when rationing was not uncommon. Simple changes - such as being more mindful of not leaving the tap on when brushing teeth or washing dishes, using the washing machine only on a full load or not leaving the shower on while soaping - can go a long way.

From the Government's point of view, the impending hike may be just what's needed for people to recognise and appreciate the value of water and conserve it.

At the same time, the water hike should not be seen in isolation.

 

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Yesterday's Budget also saw several measures to help lower- and middle-income households cope with the slowing economy.

There is an additional one-off GST Voucher cash special payment of up to $200 to help over 1.3 million lower-income citizens.

Another 880,000 HDB households will get between 1.5 and 3.5 months of S&CC rebates.

These heavy commitments are possible only because earlier finance ministers made tough decisions to conserve resources for future generations.

Their prudence helped make possible a net investment returns contribution of more than $14 billion for FY2016, and a similar amount for the new financial year.

These add up to nearly 20 per cent of forecast spending of $75 billion - a reminder that conserving resources where possible pays off.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2017, with the headline 'Reminder of the need to conserve and do more with less'. Print Edition | Subscribe