Singapore's Water Leadership: Building a Model for Sustainable Cities

We speak today at the 2017 STS Forum in Kyoto, where you are a panelist. Share with our readers the Centre for Liveable Cities’ mission and accomplishments to date.

Khoo Teng Chye: The Centre for Liveable Cities is a government think tank. Our mission is to distill, create, and share knowledge on livable and sustainable cities. We do research and build case studies based on Singapore’s experience over the last four or five decades.

Singapore was once a hopelessly disastrous case of urban management gone wrong. We had less than 2 million people. We didn’t have enough water; we had pollution; we had droughts; we had crime, disease, and overcrowding. Today, we have 5.6 million people on essentially the same island, and yet I daresay we are more livable and more sustainable than ever before.

Before assuming leadership of the Centre for Livable Cities, you spent much of your professional career on water. What are Singapore’s challenges and priorities around water? 

Water is one area where Singapore has really been able to turn things around. We are a tropical country near the Equator. We get about 2.4 meters, or eight feet, of rainfall a year. Because we are a tiny island and highly urbanized, it’s very difficult for us to collect all that water. And we have no groundwater or other source of water, so we have historically had to buy water from our neighbor, Malaysia.

In recent years, we have been trying to build up a more diversified and sustainable water supply, to reduce our dependence on buying water from Malaysia. To do that, we’re harvesting as much of the water from the sky as possible. Today, two-thirds of Singapore is a water catchment. We have 17 reservoirs, which we built systematically over the years. We do recycling on a large scale, which we learned from Orange County. We have five recycling plants, and up to 40 percent of our water can be supplied from recycling. We also do desalination; it makes sense for us, since we are an island. Currently, up to 25 percent of our water demand can be met by desalination.

But even more important than the supply side is the demand side—managing people’s behavior to get them to conserve water. That has been a very important part of our strategy, as well as diversifying supply. 

Elaborate on what Singapore has learned about water recycling from around the world, including Orange County, California.

At the turn of the century, Singapore realized that we had to start recycling in a very big way. We had experimented with it in the 1970s, but the technology wasn’t really ready. But finally, we thought it was time we took another stab at it.

At that time, Orange County was successfully piloting the Groundwater Replenishment System, which grew out of the renowned Water Factory 21. We sent a team to look at it, and the team came back with the conclusion that we could do the same thing and scale it up. We began with a pilot plant. For about two years, we ran through all the tests and brought an international panel to verify everything we were doing. Then we built three plants and scaled up. Today we have five very big plants that can supply up to 40 percent of our water. We call that high-grade reclaimed water product NEWater.

Similar to California’s concept of “One Water,” we think of water recycling as “closing the water loop.” We look at water as a renewable resource that we can get from the sky, use, and reuse.

What technologies do Singapore’s water reclamation plants rely upon?

We use reverse osmosis membrane technology. We are also investing a lot in R&D to see where we can reduce the energy consumption involved in recycling water. Adding membranes is far more energy-efficient than tunnel distillation, but we still want to do more.

We are learning from nature through biomimicry methods: Can we learn from the mangrove? Can we learn from our kidneys? We are experimenting with a membrane protein called aquaporin that is found in kidneys. The idea is to learn from biology how we can be more energy-efficient, and there are some very promising results.

Given the array of global scientists and technologists attending the STS Forum today, share where Singapore looks to the most for scalable applications of water research.

Singapore tries to make itself a hub for water research. Our universities are involved, and we collaborate with companies and universities from all over the world. Today, we have 21 water research centers, including collaborative projects with major companies like GE, membrane companies like Dow Chemicals, and Japanese companies.

Over the years, we have worked closely with Israel, as well as with the Netherlands through their KWR Water Research Center. Other Dutch companies are also involved in Singapore, as are American companies, like CH2M Hill, Black & Veatch, and so on.

Learn more at the Planning Report