Challenging times ahead for Singapore's water security

(Front, third from right) Mr Masagos Zulkifli (Minister for Environment and Water Resources) visits the Tuas Desalination Plant 3 on Feb 7, 2017.
(Front, third from right) Mr Masagos Zulkifli (Minister for Environment and Water Resources) visits the Tuas Desalination Plant 3 on Feb 7, 2017. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Masagos highlights importance of combating wastage even as prices are set to increase

Singapore is facing a major challenge in its water security in the next 50 years, and the impending rise in water prices - which sparked debate when it was announced on Tuesday - is only a small part of the solution.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said yesterday at a Pre-Committee of Supply consultation session - attended by 35 members of industry, academia, non-governmental organisations and the public - that having a culture of "revulsion" towards water wastage was much more critical to the country than worrying about the cost of water.

Industry will have a growing role in perpetuating this culture, as it is already using more than half (55 per cent) of Singapore's water. By 2060, this is predicted to hit 70 per cent of Singapore's total water demand, which itself is expected to double by then.

Nevertheless, Mr Masagos said the Government will give due consideration to economic factors in setting the price of water.

"While we need to recover its cost, we cannot do so by sacrificing the competitiveness of Singapore to attract industries to come here," he said.

  • How industry can cut its usage

  • Industry users could do more to lower their water footprint by recycling or reusing more of the precious resource.

    Top water users here include wafer fabrication companies, which use water as a cleaning agent, as well as other firms that use large amounts of water for cooling purposes.

    Professor Ng Wun Jern, executive director of the Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said an imminent price hike would raise operating costs for the industry and drive it to consider changing processes to use less water.

    One way would be to treat the waste water such firms produce and reuse it internally, such as for flushing toilets, said Dr Cecilia Tortajada, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. "Some companies are already improving the efficiency of their water usage, but there is definitely room for improvement," she added.

    At the Pre-Committee of Supply Consultation Session with Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli yesterday, participants from the industry said that industrial water consumption data for benchmarking and comparison is not yet available.

    Such data would help them in their efforts to implement more water-efficient practices.

    Water around the world is generally priced too low, Singapore included, experts said. A price hike would nudge users to think twice about how water is being used. Dr Ng Yew-Kwang, the Albert Winsemius Chair Professor of Economics at NTU, said: "As a rule, utility prices are too low rather than too high in virtually all cities/countries."

    But while both price and non- pricing strategies could help reduce water demand, people need to understand that water is scarce, said Dr Tortajada. "Many people know about climate change but don't see it as something that our behaviour will have an impact on," she added.

    Carolyn Khew

    • Additional reporting by Lin Yangchen

This might not happen, noted Mr Lee Kok Choy, managing director and Singapore country manager of Micron Semiconductor Asia, who said: "The cost should be whatever it takes to cover the cost of manufacturing water... but it is a very small percentage of total cost (for companies) and it won't drive industry out (of Singapore) if all you do is just cover cost."

Participants at the event said the price increase would motivate decision-makers at companies to take action to reduce water usage.

Suggestions for this were tabled at the session, such as incorporating water-saving measures in the design stage for buildings and industrial processes, rather than trying to improve efficiency later.

Mr Jagadish C.V., chief executive of Systems on Silicon Manufacturing Co, suggested incentives to encourage the right culture in reducing water consumption.

"When you increase the cost of water, there should be incentives that are linked to social responsibility. For example, if you increase (water price) by 1 cent, you give a rebate of 0.45 cent to the industries that are already recycling 45 per cent (of water). The message is, if you are socially responsible in recycling, you pay less," he said.

Although Singapore's water consumption rate of 151 litres per capita per day is considered low among developed cities in Asia, many European countries have water consumption rates below 140 litres per capita per day.

In 2015, the World Resources Institute ranked Singapore highest in water risk alongside six other countries, most of which are in the Middle East.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'Challenging times ahead for S'pore's water security'. Print Edition | Subscribe