From NEWater to vertical farming: Key milestones in Singapore’s 50-year journey towards sustainability

A look at how the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment has contributed to a greener and more resilient nation, strengthening its defences against climate change, maintaining high standards of public health and food and water security over the years

The Marina Barrage, an icon of Singapore’s achievements in sustainability. PHOTO: PUB

Just 50 years ago, Singapore was a very different place. The Singapore River was so polluted that its water was black, and people could smell the putrid stench from kilometres away.   

Hawkers sold cooked food by the roadside without any thought for traffic or sanitation, and with such poor personal and food hygiene that a cholera outbreak swept through the country for five months in 1972.

Against a backdrop of general squalor and associated public health risks, the Government set up the Ministry of the Environment (ENV) in 1972 to gather all aspects of pollution control and environmental public health under one organisation. 

Mr Lim Kim San, its first minister, declared: “The ultimate aim of my ministry is to make life more pleasant for everyone through anti-pollution and other measures.”

Over the past 50 years, the ministry has delivered on that promise, with changes to its name to reflect its growing responsibilities. In 2004, it became the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), to highlight its significantly expanded role in managing the latter. 

Since 2020, it has been the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE), to underline the Government’s commitment to sustainability and initiatives to achieve carbon mitigation, coastal protection, zero waste, a circular economy, food and water security, and high public health standards. 

Today, the MSE family comprises three statutory boards: the National Environment Agency, responsible for ensuring a clean and sustainable environment and high public health standards; PUB, the national water agency which manages the country’s four national taps, used water and water catchments, as well as holistic management of coastal and inland floods; and the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), to ensure and secure a supply of safe food. 

As MSE marks five decades of efforts to build a green and sustainable Singapore this year, here’s a look at how it has helped to transform the country.

Street hawkers, squatters, farmers and coolies were among those who used the Singapore River as their toilet and rubbish bin in the 1970s. The river was so choked up with waste that aquatic life could hardly survive in it. 

To improve the environment, support development, reduce public health risks and boost rainwater collection, the ministry led a massive multi-agency, 10-year effort to transform the river.

The $170 million project removed rubbish from the river, dredged its bed, and relocated 4,000 squatters, along with hawkers and vegetable sellers, to stop them from polluting it, turning it into the beautiful waterway we know today.

Street hawking provided jobs and affordable food for many people, but contributed to problems such as traffic jams, pollution and diseases such as typhoid because of the hawkers’ often poor hygiene standards and disregard for rules. 

After the ministry was formed in 1972, it embarked on a mission to build hawker centres with drainage, plumbing and amenities, and move tens of thousands of street hawkers into them.

The effort spanned 15 years and cost more than $36 million. When the last street hawker was relocated in 1986, there were 135 markets and hawker centres across the country, still selling affordable food, but in clean and hygienic facilities. 

Fast forward to present day: hawker centres are central to the Singapore lifestyle as community dining halls, where residents converge for affordable meals. In 2020, Singapore’s hawker culture was recognised on Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list, affirming its importance as a reflection of our multi-cultural identity.

Singapore in the 1960s was marred by irregular waste collection, and dirty and polluted streets were a common sight. In 1964, just 60 per cent of each day’s refuse was cleared, leading to pests, diseases and other hygiene issues. 

In the 1970s, the ministry set up a district-based solid refuse collection system and replaced pushcarts with vehicles for better waste collection. Over the years, it has invested in green waste management systems too.

It launched Singapore’s first waste-to-energy incineration plant in 1979, which not only handled 1,100 tonnes of waste daily, but also generated enough power for about 16,000 four-room flats a year. Singapore currently has four such plants. The upcoming Tuas Nexus, to be finished in phases from 2025, goes even further as the world’s first integrated waste and water treatment facility.

Back in the 1960s, Singaporeans had to queue to collect water from standpipes during severe dry spells. Now, turn on a tap and you can get all the water you need at any time. 

This convenience enjoyed today in Singapore is made possible by the Four National Taps strategy, which began with imported water and water from local catchment as the first two national taps. 2002 saw the introduction of NEWater – ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water – as our third national tap. In 2005, Singapore’s first desalination plant was officially opened, creating our fourth national tap – desalinated water.

Singapore currently has five NEWater plants and five desalination plants. NEWater and desalinated water serve as weather-resilient sources of water in the pursuit of water resilience and environmental sustainability.

At the same time, PUB has invested in an array of efforts to educate the public on water conservation and encourage them to use water wisely. These include the Mandatory Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme for products such as washing machines, free water-saving kits available on request, and its Water Wally and Water Sally mascots to promote water conservation.

For nearly a century, Singapore families used buckets in toilets for their human waste, as few homes had access to modern sanitation. From 1984 to 1987, the ministry phased out these "night soil buckets" – "night soil" is a euphemism from a practice of collecting human waste at night  – as it installed modern sanitation.

By 1997, it had expanded the sewerage network so that all of Singapore had access to modern sanitation. With its continual sewerage upgrades and improvements, Singapore is now one of the cleanest countries in the world, with sanitary and safe toilet systems.

Singapore’s swift development in the 1970s led to the daily amount of trash soaring from 1,600 tonnes in 1972 to 3,200 tonnes in 1982. With landfills in Lim Chu Kang and Lorong Halus filling up quickly, the ministry needed solutions. 

To keep land for housing and other uses, it came up with the unprecedented idea of creating an offshore landfill. After extensive studies, it proposed constructing rock walls between two islands – Pulau Semakau and Pulau Sakeng – to enclose a space for the new landfill. 

Semakau Landfill, which became operational in 1999, took five years to build and is the world’s first man-made offshore landfill created entirely out of sea space. It not only has a geomembrane and marine clay lining to prevent leaks, but is so clean and such a coastal and marine biodiversity haven that New Scientist magazine called it the "Garbage of Eden".

Due to poor drainage, Singapore used to have widespread flooding in the 1960s and 1970s during monsoon seasons, especially in the city centre, which was built on relatively low-lying land. 

By expanding and improving the drainage network, the ministry shrunk the flood-prone areas from 3,200 hectares in the 1970s to just 28 hectares today, even with rapid urbanisation. 

It has also constructed state-of-the-art infrastructures, such as the Marina Barrage, commissioned in 2008, which increased Singapore’s water supply, curbed flooding in low-lying city areas such as Chinatown, and provided a new space for recreation. The Stamford Diversion Canal and Stamford Detention Tank, completed in 2018, reduced flood risks in Orchard Road. 

With climate change causing rising sea levels globally, PUB has also been leading, coordinating and exploring efforts to protect Singapore’s coastlines since 2020, as the country’s national coastal protection agency. It is developing a coastal-inland flood model and conducting site specific studies to better assess the impact of climate change on different parts of Singapore’s coastline, among other initiatives.

In recent years, global challenges such as climate change and rapid population growth have put increasing pressure on global food supply. While Singapore, which imports most of its food, has diversified its import sources, these challenges underscore the importance of local food production to mitigate the impact of a disruption in global food supply. 

Singapore is working towards a “30 by 30” goal, which aims to build the local agri-food industry’s capacity and capability so that it can produce 30 per cent of the country’s nutritional needs sustainably by 2030. 

To bolster local food production and transform the industry into one that is highly productive, climate-resilient, and resource-efficient, SFA has rolled out programmes and funding to support research and development, infrastructure and technology upgrades, training and other needs in the nation’s agri-food industry. An example is the Agri-food Cluster Transformation Fund, which provides co-funding for local farms to build and expand their production capacities and capabilities. 

Today, Singapore’s high-tech farms tap advanced technologies and systems such as hydroponics in vegetable farming and closed containment systems in aquaculture for greater productivity and sustainability, a far cry from yesteryears’ low-tech and labour-intensive farms. For example, the Eco-Ark anchored about 5km off Changi Point Ferry Terminal is one of the first purpose-built floating closed containment fish farms, combining offshore and marine technology with a closed containment system to reduce the farm's vulnerability to external seawater conditions. This allows the farm to achieve better fish survival.

Coupled with a risk-based integrated food safety system that brings together the Government, industry and consumers, these ensure that whether imported or locally grown, our secure supply of food is safe to eat.

Writing the sustainability story together

Beyond these achievements, MSE has enhanced Singapore’s sustainability by encouraging and empowering residents to do their part too.

It started the annual Clean and Green Week in 1990, which became the year-long Clean and Green Singapore campaign, to motivate Singaporeans to create and contribute to eco-friendly efforts. It also launched the SG Clean certification programme in 2020 to rally stakeholders and members of the public to do their part by adopting good personal habits and social responsibility in order to raise standards of cleanliness and public hygiene in Singapore and safeguard public health.

Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, said: “Singapore has sought to protect the environment since our independence. In 1972, we were one of the first countries in the world to form a Ministry of the Environment to tackle issues like pollution and environmental health.”
From cleaning our streets and rivers, resettling our hawkers, reducing flooding, to strengthening water and food security, MSE has been working hard to build a greener and more climate-resilient Singapore. Its environmental journey reflects how much the nation has grown. The achievements over the last 50 years would not have been possible without the commitment and contributions of generations of leaders, public servants and Singaporeans.”

Learn more about Singapore's sustainable development journey over the last five decades.

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