At Geographical, we’ve recently covered how cities in countries such as Yemen and Brazil are struggling to cope with growing demands for water, all while their capacity to meet that demand is collapsing. Of course, these are far from the only parts of the world where water scarcity is an increasingly pressing problem for rapidly-expanding cities.
However, not all cities face such an uncertain future. Against the odds, Singapore – that city-state of five-and-a-half million people sat at the end of the Malay peninsula – is leading the world in planning long-term to ensure the city has a steady water supply in the future.
‘At one point in history you would have written about Singapore being a city that struggled to actually have a reliable supply of water,’ Cecilia Tortajada, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, tells Geographical. As she points out, although Singapore’s position near to the equator means that precipitation is very high, the relatively small size of the island – a mere 581 sq km (224 sq miles) at the time of independence in 1965 – has historically made it very hard to build reservoirs. As a result, Singapore instead signed bilateral agreements with Malaysia to supply the island with water.
‘When Singapore became independent, it depended on Malaysia completely,’ says Tortajada. ‘It depended on an external source of water to grow, to develop, to survive.’ Therefore, as Singapore planned long-term developments, the management of water became central to all those plans.
Initially, as land reclamation projects expanded Singapore’s size to 716 sq km (227 sq miles), building new reservoirs was key. Since 1965, the number of reservoirs has climbed from just three to 17 at present, and in doing so has enhanced the size of Singapore’s water catchment from half to two-thirds of the country’s total land area.
Furthermore, Singapore embraced new technology allowing desalination of sea water, and the cleansing and reusing of waste water (through a system named NEWater). They recognised the problems faced by the city in terms of meeting a future water supply, and invested money into the necessary research to fulfil that need.
Now, Singapore’s water supply is comprised of 20 to 30 per cent from each of the desalination and reuse of waste water, ten to 15 per cent directly from rainfall, and the remaining 40 per cent still from Malaysia. ‘Here in Singapore, technology is the end of the process, not the beginning,’ says Tortajada. ‘Singapore never stopped growing because it lacked water. Instead, it has diversified the sources of water. Most important was to not rely on an external source so heavily.’
Singapore has signed two agreements with Malaysia, the first of which expired in August 2011. The overall aspiration is to be completely self-sufficient by 2061, when the second agreement expires, while in the medium-term, the goal is to supply a combined 70 per cent of the city’s water from desalination and waste water reuse by 2030.
Have any other cities learnt from Singapore’s water management example? Yes, says Tortajada, but nowhere else is planning for the future anything like as effectively. ‘The Gulf countries, for example, depend on desalination,’ she says. ‘However, they abuse the use of water. Their per capita use per day is more than 400 litres, you would never have enough water if you use it like that. Singapore is the only one that plans in the longterm.’ Latest figures estimate Singapore’s per capita water consumption at 151 litres per day.
As a small, largely flat country by the sea, Singapore is also expecting to encounter serious problems with rising sea levels over the coming years, a problem which it hopes its investment in cleaning ‘polluted’ water will mitigate. This will be coupled with anticipated population growth up to a potential seven million people. ‘I think it is going to struggle, like every other country,’ warns Tortajada. ‘But I guess it will struggle less, because it is planning well in advance.’