Water: every precious drop must count

FOR a water-scarce country, Singapore has done remarkably well since independence in providing clean water on demand to both citizens and industry. Its secret has lain in outstanding water management policies. But after decades of certainty and plenty, where the city-state can and needs to improve is in water conservation. That was the conclusion of one expert at a recent water forum.

The evidence is in the numbers. Water consumption per capita in Singapore is 150 litres. The authorities aim to cut that to 140 litres by 2030. That would still be on the high side. Residents of the affluent German port city of Hamburg each consumed just 105 litres in 2008.

Across the developed world, the water authorities are moving to cut per capita consumption as demand rises with population increases, and climate change alters weather patterns. Singapore, too, is affected. The national water agency PUB has announced plans for an underground drainage and reservoir system to enhance storage capacities and help the city deal better with climate-change effects, such as more intense rain and prolonged dry spells. But on the water conservation front, there has been much caution on the sensitive issue of pricing since 2000. So even as water prices have been rising by more than inflation in much of the Western world, in Singapore, the price of water actually declined 25 per cent in real terms in the last 15 years. To cut wastage and signal to users the need to conserve this strategic resource whose supply is linked intricately to the nation's survival, this will need to change, unwelcome as any price rise is likely to be. Of course, any adjustment to water tariffs needs to be made judiciously to ensure that it is equitable.

Of concern is that when Singapore faced its longest and worst dry spell in history last year, instead of saving water, people consumed 5 per cent more over the two months. That is a clear sign that more needs to be done to cultivate a culture of conservation. In spite of technological breakthroughs and bold diversification through a policy of Four National Taps - comprising imports, local catchment, reclamation and desalination - the city-state has yet to achieve water self-sufficiency.

The happy state of water abundance in recent decades was due to founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's lifelong preoccupation with water security, to the point of making every policy "bend the knee to our water survival". Singaporeans need to be reminded of the primacy of this scarce resource, especially younger generations who have never experienced water rationing. A proper understanding of water's strategic importance is key to ensuring the sustainability and future success of this global city.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2015, with the headline 'Water: every precious drop must count'. Subscribe