18 Apr 2013

Water management in Singapore

Way back in January, we made a short visit to Singapore and I had the great luck to get a tour of some of the facilities of PUB, the public corporation that manages all of Singapore's water, from rainfall to tap to toilet to treatment, discharge and recycling.

Singapore is an exceptional country in many ways: a city-state with a British colonial heritage; a population of Chinese, Malay, Indian and many other nationalities; an import-export powerhouse; impressive governance; and a high quality of life.

The government in charge of Singapore Inc. reminds me of the Dutch government: planning everywhere, strong economic incentives and decent policies and outcomes.* It lacks the forbearance over matters of marijuana, sex and chewing gum, which may explain why Singapore doesn't have a reputation for fun and beauty.

But these differences may stem from Singapore's security situation. It split off from Malaysia in 1965 (relations are cordial rather than warm) and needs to be self sufficient in a rough neighborhood with scarce resources (even sand).

Water is one of the most scarce resources in Singapore, so PUB (no longer known as the Public Utilities Board) puts a lot of emphasis on security of supply and management of demand.

George talks about PUB's big ideas
I was very impressed with PUB's operations and strategy. You may be familiar with their NEWater program, in which they treat wastewater for reuse. The big users of this water are industrial customers that prefer very clean water (tap water is "contaminated" because minerals need to be re-added after NEWater treatment).

They also took 20 years to create an enormous reservoir (see photo) by cleaning up the catchment and blocking the mouth of a formerly saline estuary. PUB now stores a lot of freshwater in the estuary. (PUB discloses neither its storage capacity nor its reserves of water, for security reasons.)

Those supply-side, engineering projects are complemented by sound demand-side management and incentives. Residential consumption is 153 LCD; non-revenue water is 5 percent; all wastewater is captured and treated; most residential and commercial customers pay the same tariff: SGD 1.17 per m3 plus a 30% conservation tax means SGD 1.52/m3 (USD 1.25/m3 or $3.50/ccf); excessive residential use and water exporters pay more. Poorer households pay the same price as everyone for water; they get some direct financial aid.

For more details, I suggest reading this 2006 article [PDF] on PUB's performance and a list of dos and don'ts that Singapore gets right but most water utilities -- in developed and developing countries -- get wrong (e.g., cross-subsidies between users, failure to recover costs, untreated water, etc.)

George was very helpful in explaining the roots of PUB's success in Singapore's development model of no corruption, lots of education, and promotion based on meritocracy. He said that Singapore's -- and PUB's -- future challenges will come from a lack of qualified workers and the rising cost of energy. Everyone else faces the same problems, but Singapore is going to have an easier time tacking them.

Is Singapore unique? Although money and professionalism are important (necessary) conditions for producing these results, I think it's also important to have either control over or a very good coordination among managers of various water flows, from environmental to drinking to irrigation to wastewater. A small country like Singapore can do this more easily than a larger one with more layers of government, but that only means that water managers in larger countries need to work harder (they can hire PUB to help :)

Bottom Line: Singapore has the best -- most sustainable, fair and efficient -- urban water management that I've seen. PUB's successes are important as proof to those who say it cannot be done because it is being done.

* The government doesn't just have road tolls to limit congestion, it auctions the ten-year permits to HAVE a car. They now cost about USD 50,000.