Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize: The journey to water sustainability

Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy in helping the country achieve water sustainability is embodied in one of the water industry’s most treasured awards, the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.

Four decades ago, Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew – arguably Asia’s most well-known statesman – issued a challenge to the country’s engineers. “Suppose we could capture every drop of rain in Singapore, could we become self-sufficient?” Lee asked of the country’s national water agency PUB.

It was a tall order, for Singapore was but a tiny island with no natural resources or abundant water supply to boast of. But today, that it has overcome all odds to achieve not only a sustainable water supply but also carve a global reputation as an innovative water leader is thanks to Lee’s vision and determination to solve the country’s water challenges.

It is this spirit of ingenuity which is embodied in the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, an award established in 2008 by Singapore which has grown in stature over the years to become one of the water industry’s most treasured accolades.

Named after Lee, and as a tribute to his leadership in charting Singapore’s journey towards water sustainability, the Prize was set up to honour contributions by individuals or organisations that have solved the world’s water challenges by applying innovative technologies, policies or programmes.

It was created as the key highlight of the Singapore International Water Week, an event envisaged by the city’s government as an international gathering of the water industry’s biggest names, and where the most cutting-edge solutions, ideas and technologies are showcased.

At the time, the city’s leaders were seeking to internationalise Singapore’s growing water industry and position it as a global hydrohub. SIWW was crafted as the perfect platform to serve this need and of the rapidly growing water markets in Asia Pacific and the Middle East.

In typical Singapore efficiency, the process of getting SIWW and the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize from drawing board to reality took a short 18 months, with a dedicated team of government officials and private sector partners working behind the scenes.

Today, the event and the Water Prize are permanent fixtures on the global water circuit that attracts the best and brightest in the industry.

The pioneering spirit

Indeed, the government’s work under Lee’s leadership over the decades in ensuring a sustainable water supply for future citizens has created a billion-dollar industry from scratch which is world-leading and comprises companies involved in all aspects of the water value chain, from research, planning, design to manufacturing.

This pioneering spirit is encapsulated in the Water Prize, whose winners are selected by a high-level panel of global experts based on their success in applying ground-breaking technologies that have led to significant benefits for humanity. 

Its honour roll includes laureates that have designed solutions in membrane technology, used water treatment, as well as holistic water policies and management that have proven to be game-changers and helped improve the lives of millions.

The winner of the inaugural prize in 2008, Canadian scientist and entrepreneur Andrew Benedek, won for giving millions of people clean drinking water after he pioneered the development of low-pressure membranes in water treatment.

With his membrane technology, good quality drinking water can now be produced almost anywhere in the world; the technology can be used in huge treatment facilities as well as small portable water treatment systems for rural communities to treat water affordably.


The Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2015 is open for nominations from 2 March 2015. Nominations close on 1 June 2015 (Mon), 6pm (+8 GMT)

Utilities in the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia, China, Singapore and several other countries in the Middle East and South America have incorporated the use of his membranes in their water treatment processes.

Other winners of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize are Professor Gatze Lettinga (2009), Yellow River Conservancy Commission (2010), Dr James Barnard (2011), Professor Mark van Loosdrecht (2012) and the Orange County Water District (2014).

Chairman of PUB, Tan Gee Paw, notes that the prize “goes beyond commemorating what Singapore has achieved as a nation, but celebrates what the global community has achieved working together to bring about innovative solutions to the water issue”.

“This prize has taken on special significance and meaning after Mr Lee’s recent passing and will be a testament to his enduring legacy as the architect of Singapore’s water story,” Tan adds.

Lee’s legacy and role in the Singapore Water Story

Lee, who was Singapore’s first prime minister, passed away last month at the age of 91, triggering global media coverage and tributes from leaders all over the world. Among his legacies, the one that stands against its critics is the Singapore water story. 

He had come into power during a turbulent period in Singapore’s history. The island had gained self-governance in 1959 and merged with its northern neighbour Malaysia in 1963. Two years later, it split to become an independent state due to political disagreements.


Lee Kuan Yew’s contributions to the Singapore water story

  • Made water a top priority on the government’s agenda since its independence
  • Ensured that the water agreements were legally written into Malaysia’s constitution
  • Set up the Water Planning unit in the Prime Minister’s Office which drafted Singapore’s first Water Master Plan in 1972
  • Initiated the cleaning up of the Singapore River in the 70s-80s
  • Invested heavily in the water industry over the decades, which paved the way for high quality drinking water, NEWater, to be produced from wastewater
  • Envisioned the creation of the Marina Barrage in the 80s which became a reality in 2008

It was then still heavily dependent on Malaysia for its water supply and during the separation, Lee ensured that water agreements for Singapore were enshrined in Malaysia’s constitution.

Around this time too, extreme drought in the 1960s in Singapore led to acute water shortages and the country’s new government had to resort to water rationing for its people.

Lee wasted no time in making water self-sufficiency a priority for the young country. He would later recall of those early years during a dialogue session at the Singapore International Water Week in 2008: “Every other policy had to bend at the knees for our water survival.”

Lee had a long-term vision: to become self-sufficient in water, the island needed to build up its own capacity and knowledge in managing water. In 1971, he set up the Water Planning Unit under the Prime Minister’s Office to study how to increase water catchment areas and explore unconventional sources like water reclamation and desalination.

This resulted in the nation’s first Water Master Plan in 1972, which set out the strategy for developing diversified local water resources, including recycled water and desalinated water.

But even as the Unit was drawing up strategies, the demands on water increased as the city rapidly expanded. As part of longer term plans to harness every drop of water in Singapore, Lee challenged the Ministry of Environment to clean up the Singapore and Kallang Rivers which had become heavily polluted in the 70s.  

Over the decades, Singapore’s determination to find a solution to its water woes enabled the country to stand at the cutting-edge of water innovation.

Lee was a firm believer in the power of technology to solve problems. In the 80s, he even envisioned damming the mouth of the Singapore River to create a huge freshwater lake – an idea ahead of its time.

But by the 1990s, the technology caught up. Advancements in membrane technology made it possible for the river to be developed into an expansive freshwater reservoir. Today, the Marina Barrage – a dam built across the 350-metre wide Marina Channel to keep out seawater – is Singapore’s 15th reservoir and its first in the city area.

When it opened in 2008, it was not only able to meet 10 per cent of Singapore’s water needs, it also worked as a flood-control system to alleviate flooding in the low-lying areas in the city.

This same membrane technology also made it possible for Singapore to recycle treated used water into high quality drinking water – called NEWater - in 2003.

Today, NEWater can meet 30 per cent of Singapore’s water needs. And in 2005, desalinated water – one of Singapore’s ‘Four National Taps’ along with local catchment water, imported water and NEWater – became a reality when a new facility started treating seawater using reverse-osmosis membranes.

The search goes on

Through decades of research, Singapore has built up a thriving water industry and groomed local firms such as SembCorp and Hyflux, which continue to break new ground in water technology. The Singapore water industry has shown promising growth since 2006, tripling in growth to 150 water companies and 26 research and development (R&D) centres.

Innovation continues to guide the island’s approach to water issues and the Water Prize – as well as the Water Week – is its way of honouring the world’s innovators and scientists.

The search is now on for the next laureate for the 2016 prize, now a biennial affair. The Water Prize will be awarded at the next Singapore International Water Week in July next year.

Nominations for the prize are open now and will close on 1 June. Prize winners receive a cash prize of S$300,000, a certificate, and a gold medallion.

The Water Prize is sponsored by the Singapore Millennium Foundation, which is supported by investment firm Temasek Holdings. The Foundation says the Water Prize aligns with its ethos of promoting research and development as an endeavour to help humanity. It has supported other causes including research into liver cancer, Parkinson’s disease, neuromuscular disease, mental health, and biofuel.

Six prizes later, the organisers hope that the award will continue to grow and become synonymous with water excellence and that the Singapore International Water Week, the leading water conference.

“The Water Prize shines the spotlight on the brightest and boldest minds in the water landscape who have made a positive tangible impact on humanity with their groundbreaking work and passion for excellence,” says Bernard Tan, Managing Director of Singapore International Water Week.

“The Water Prize has come a long way, and we are honoured to highlight some of the solutions for a sustainable tomorrow.”

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