By Karen R. Smith

As water scarcity increases in many parts of the world, various possible solutions and strategies are being debated. Here in the States, at some point in most water strategy meetings, the idea of one water agency managing everything from toilet to tap and every step in between gets batted around – and dismissed as an unachievable fantasy. But in Singapore, that concept is the reality.

It will help, first, to understand a bit about Singapore. The country is a city-state, with a population of approximately 4.5 million people. The land area is about 700 km2 – which results in most of the population living in multi-story apartment buildings, not private houses with backyards.

One single entity – the Public Utilities Board, best known by its acronym, PUB – manages Singapore’s water supply, water catchment and sewerage in a completely integrated fashion. The concept is so innovative and the results so successful that PUB was named Water Agency of the Year at the Global Water Awards in Stockholm in 2006.

PUB’s motto is, “Water for all: conserve, value, enjoy” and to that end, the agency identified the Four National Taps: local catchment water, imported water (which Singapore purchases from neighboring Malaysia), desalinated water and NEWater – potable water created from waste water (a term the nation no longer uses – as no water is wasted in Singapore).

For those of you reading this in California, think for a moment about how water might be managed if there were no municipal water utilities; no regional water quality boards; no state department of health services, no state environmental department and no federal environmental agency. Imagine one single entity integrating every aspect of the use and reuse of this precious resource. Red tape is vastly eliminated; there are no conflicting regulations and most importantly, no waste.

Ensuring the sustainability of Singapore’s water became possible under this single-entity strategy. I had the opportunity to visit and see the results firsthand. By the 1970s, Singpore’s waterways were suffering the effects of random industrialization and growth. Rivers were polluted, contaminated by manufacturing plants. The situation was identical to that in the US at approximately the same time – a national realization that the waterways were in jeopardy and could no longer be neglected or abused. The government issued a challenge to clean the waterways and in the following decade, was fulfilled. That was only the beginning.

PUB installed a storm water drainage and catchment system nationwide so that this freshwater no longer gets mingled with sewage as is the case in most other locales. The national sewage system was replaced with a deep pipe network, which will ultimately feed – without pumping stations — into the Changi Water Reclamation Plant, nearing completion on a tract of reclaimed land on the eastern edge of the island. This single plant will process all effluent, which will become NEWater and fertilizer right at the Changi facility.

Changi is a remarkable design in many ways. Taking up less than half the space of a traditional waste treatment facility, much of the plant is underground and stacked for maximum compactness. This allows the use of gravity-flow and reduces the expense of pumping. Energy is recovered from biogas generated during the processes and that energy will be used to dry the sludge into fertilizer pellets. The load-bearing roof of the plant will eventually house a NEWater factory, creating potable water onsite. Like any treatment plant, a large volume of water is used for cooling, washing and chemical preparation; Changi will draw on its own water supply and reuse treated water for these operations.

The scale of Changi was astounding. Digesters holding 3.7 million gallons of sludge – roughly the equivalent of eight Olympic-size swimming pools. The deep tunnel entering the site is five times the size of those used for subway trains. Ultimately, Changi will have a treatment capacity of 528 mgd (2,400,000 m3/day) using the entire plant site of 54 hectares. Phase I, operational now, treats 176 mgd (800,000 m3/day) using only 34 hectares of the site.

Marina Barrage is another impressive construction project currently underway. This is a dam that is nearing completion across the Marina Channel, forming Singapore’s first reservoir in the city, literally in the heart of downtown. This new Marina Reservoir will be the nation’s largest, at one-sixth the size of the country itself. It will increase the existing water catchment from half to two-thirds of Singapore by 2009.

PUB estimates that once the dam, comprised of a series of nine crest gates, is completed, the lake will become freshwater in less than two year’s time. The basin created will be unaffected by tides and its water level will be kept constant year round. This will enable Singaporeans to use it for all manner of water recreation, while developers are already expanding the downtown area around the new lake shore. While condominium towers are rising, Universal Studios is building their theme park at lakeside, where it will be right next door to the nation’s first gambling casino, being constructed by the folks from The Sands in Las Vegas, Nevada.

A highlight of the trip was the NEWater plant and Visitor Center. NEWater is reclaimed water, created from stringent purification and treatment processes. There are now four NEWater plants in Singapore. Waste water is piped to NEWater plants. Microfiltration (using GE’s Xenon ZeeWeed modular units) begins the treatment process, removing suspended solids, bacteria and viruses. This filtered water still contains dissolved salts and organics. Next, reverse osmosis (RO, by Hyflux) removes those from the water, after which it is treated by ultraviolet (UV, by Hanovia) light.

The water that results is – slightly aggressive (pH 5) and completely devoid of everything. This is sold directly to industrial users (there are large semiconductor and pharmaceutical manufacturers in Singapore), freeing up a large volume of potable water formerly consumed by this sector of the economy. It is also sold to many commercial entities for use in air conditioning cooling towers The remainder of the water is treated to restore the pH balance, then added to the nation’s reservoir waters (about five mgd today with a goal of 10 mgd by 2011). A small portion is bottled in limited-edition label series, used at many public events.

The NEWater Visitor Centre was created to ensure consumer acceptance of this ‘toilet to tap’ water. By starting with school children, PUB believed they could sway public opinion in support of reclaimed water as clean, healthy and delicious. Half a million kids later, it’s obvious the strategy has succeeded. At several gatherings I attended during my visit, people eagerly asked for NEWater when it was available and drank it with a smile. And there is a thriving community of label collectors as well!

The Centre presents the story of NEWater and the facts about its creation in an interactive, fun way in a beautiful setting. Children climb through membrane strands, ‘walk’ on water via a glass floor, see a film and play computer games where they determine what will – and will not! – pass through the RO. Giant water calculators let students figure out how much water it used for different activities in their homes.

Along with other visiting journalists, I toured the Centre and enjoyed each exhibit and activity – and toasted my fellows with a bottle of NEWater at the conclusion of the tour and enjoyed the drink. Proof that public education conquers the “yuck factor” in short order.

PUB has another current initiative, ABC, which launched earlier this year, which stands for the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme. Like most other places in the world, as Singapore created reservoirs, cleaned up rivers and built bridges and canals, they added a lot of concrete and fences, believing that to be the best approach to keeping these waterways clean was to keep people away from them. That’s all about to change with ABC.

A nationwide beautification program has begun, in which these bodies of water will be naturally landscaped and returned to the use of the people. There are 32 major rivers and more than 7,000 km (4,349+ miles) of canals and drains; each of these will be optimized well beyond their functions as flood control and water storage areas. Each will now be a community recreational area, supporting a host of recreational activities.

The strategy is by bringing closer to water, they will take emotional ‘ownership’ of the resource and therefore better appreciate, cherish and protect it. Twenty of these projects will be completed in the first five years of the ABC Programme; including:

Jurong Lake: Family boating activities will be introduced on the lake itself and boardwalks will be created so people can get closer to the water. There will also be rollerblading and cycling rental kiosks.

Floating Wetland at Punggol Reservoir: A wildlife sanctuary for fish and birds will be created here. A suspension bridge and floating boardwalk will connect the future Sengkang Fruit Park with the Anchorvale Community Club and Sengkang sports complex.

Lower Seletar Reservoir: A water stage for outdoor cultural shows and other performances will be built here, along with a Heritage Bridge spanning the reservoir, featuring a scenic view and nature reserve. A kayaking center and viewing galleries will also be installed.

These innovations by PUB have brought most of the world’s top corporations involved in any aspect of water or its treatment to Singapore. Each of these projects has driven research, development and cutting-edge technology. This, too, is something PUB wants to harness for the nation and the entire region.

PUB has created WaterHub, the premier center for water R&D in southeast Asia. It brings together technology, learning and networking for the water industry under one roof. The International Water Association (IWA) has now opened a regional office in the WaterHub. IWA is a global network of water professionals that spans the continuum between research and practice and covers all facets of the water cycle.

IWA’s Leading Edge Conference & Exhibition on Water & Wastewater Technologies was held in Singapore during my visit. It was an exciting gathering of experts and presented unique opportunities for discussion and dialog. 2007 Stockholm Water Prize winner Professor Perry L. McCarty of Stanford University noted that there are few other places where people from every aspect of water treatment sit down at the same table.

One panel featured conference Programme Committee Chair Jonathan Clement (Black & Veatch); IWA Executive Administrator Paul Reiter; PUB’s Harry Seah; membrane expert Professor Tony Fane and CH2Mhill’s Glen Daigger. It meant that every question was answered in different ways by each participant, based on their varied disciplines. It made for fascinating interchanges. All were drinking NEWater, by the way!

Clement led New Advances in the Fundamental Science of Water and Wastewater Technologies, one of many offerings on the first day of the conference. These all consisted of integrated water and waste water sessions designed to foster delegate interaction. How-to workshops (Controlling NOM Fouling on Membranes) and presentations (Use of Nano-Iron Oxides for Arsenic Removal from Drinking Water) were often packed to the point of standing room only.

Using a combination of UV and filters with atomic-sized pores, scientists from Nanyang Technological University School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Stanford University have produced self-cleaning membranes. Associate Professor Darren Sun and his team spent over nine years developing the technology. The material resembles white flakes suspended in solution. It is made of nanofibers that will stick to water treatment membranes, where it attracts impurities in raw water. The water is filtered through the atomic sized nano pores, but it is more than a filter. When UV light is passed over it, the film acts as a catalyst, destroying contaminants on its surface, which are then released as carbon dioxide and other harmless mineral byproducts. PUB will begin a two-year pilot test of the material before summer’s end at their Choa Chu Kang plant, announce Yap Kheng Guan, the Director of the agency’s 3P Network Department. Yap noted that membranes require ongoing maintenance and expensive chemicals and that keeping them clean has been a challenge to water systems around the world. “This technology could be just what the industry needs,” he summed up, noting that the agency will keep a close eye on the results.

McCarty’s work includes his identification of mechanisms for biodegradation; his recent work on microbial biofilms will have wide-ranging implications for the design of treatment systems, according to IWA. McCarty was also the keynote speaker at the opening of the association’s WaterHub office, where he delighted the audience with a firsthand account of the early days of both industry gatherings and his academic research.

The press group was hosted by four WaterHub firms: Black & Veatch, CH2Mhill and KeppelSeghers and Hyflux. Each presented an in-depth look at their work in the region and explained their participation in the water innovations in Singapore itself. The National University of Singapore (NUS) and Dutch water consultant Delft Hydraulics have formed a new partnership, while GE is building a new R&D facility that the University will host as part of their GE-NUS partnership. PUB, meanwhile, has an MOU with AWWA , a collaboration formed to create opportunities for both organizations.

PUB is the first Asian entity invited to join the Global Water Research Coalition, where the nation joins 13 of the world’s leading water research organizations, mainly from the EU and the US. We had a chance to discuss this a more during a luncheon with the agency’s Chief Executive, Khoo Teng Chye. Under his direction, PUB is establishing a global reputation and building new partnerships. “In January, the National Research Foundation, which oversees Singapore’s research efforts, announced that it will be pumping S$5 billion (US$3,240,998.) over the next five years and water and environment technologies has been identified as one of the key sectors of those efforts,” he explained.

Singapore is inaugurating an annual Water Week next June. This international event will showcase practical water technology and business solutions while bringing together global water experts. It will offer the prestigious $S300 thousand (US$194,527) Lee Kuan Yuan (LKY)Water Prize to recognize individuals who have applied new and innovative breakthroughs in water technologies to solve water problems and implemented effective policies and management to significantly improve living conditions in the world. “We hope the LKY Water Prize will inspire more cutting-edge R&D work in water technologies,” Khoo stated.

Attention Manufacturers and OEMs: What Singapore Can Do For You
Singapore is making every effort to position itself as a global hydro-hub. Part of that initiative has been the country’s creation of preferential market access through Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).

If you produce water filters and purifiers and are considering global expansion, locating a manufacturing/assembly facility in Singapore will completely eliminate tariffs in key markets and vastly reduce them in others. And since the US and Singapore have an FTA as well, you’ll find the process garners preferences in the States, too.

For complete information on this and the many incentives available to those in the water industry, contact Mr. Yee Siang Soh, Senior Officer, Environment & Clean Energy, New Biz Group, Economic Development Board of Singapore, 250 North Bridge Road #28-00 Raffles City Tower, Singapore 179101; main office 65 6832 6832; direct line 65 6832 6245; fax 65 6832 6562. Visit the EDB’s website at or email Soh at [email protected].


Comments are closed.