Price water the Singapore way to curb waste: UN

A major United Nations report on global water supplies has called for more realistic pricing to discourage waste, a strategy for which it singles out Singapore for praise.

The report, released yesterday, warned that water problems in many parts of the world are chronic and will worsen as demand for food soars and climate change intensifies.

It called for an immediate crackdown on water waste, pointing to Singapore’s water pricing strategy and practice of recycling waste water as examples of how the problem could be tackled.

‘While most cities would refrain from using treated waste water as a source of drinking water, this avenue is also available and has been implemented, for example, in water-scarce Singapore and the International Space Station, without ill effects.

‘Consequently, it is recommended that municipalities affected by water scarcity should move aggressively towards the use of reclaimed water,’ the report said.

The report’s lead author Richard Connor, of the UN’s World Water Assessment Programme, also said researchers were impressed by Singapore’s ‘flexible’ approach.

Singapore’s public awareness campaigns urging people to save water, combined with tariffs that charge households based on the amount of water used and taxes that penalise those who waste water, had been effective, he said.

‘There is no magic bullet to deal with this complex problem. What is often needed is a flexible approach that suits each municipality,’ Mr Connor told The Straits Times. ‘But Singapore’s approach should definitely be considered by other countries facing similar challenges.’

Pricing, conservation and recycling are three key elements of Singapore’s strategy.

The national water agency PUB has a tiered tariff that charges heavy users of water a higher rate. It also imposes a water conservation tax which is calculated as a percentage of total water consumption.

In addition, the PUB charges a sanitary appliance fee and waterborne fee every month. Both are used to offset the cost of treating used water and for the operation and maintenance of the public sewer system.

Through its water conservation programme, PUB has managed to cut Singapore’s per capita domestic water consumption from 165 litres a day in 2003 to 154 litres a day last year. The aim is to lower this to 147 litres a day by 2020 and 140 litres a day by 2030.

The Republic is also on track to achieve water self-sufficiency by 2061. By then, Newater and desalinated water will contribute 80 per cent of Singapore’s water needs, up from 40 per cent now. The remaining 20 per cent will come from local catchment areas.

Last year, work started in Tuas on the country’s second desalination plant. The $890 million plant, which will begin operations next year, will triple the Republic’s water desalination capacity.

Currently, up to 60 per cent of Singapore’s water is provided for by local catchment areas and imports from Malaysia, with 10 per cent coming from sea water and 30 per cent from Newater.

The report, the UN’s fourth edition of the World Water Development Report, demanded an overhaul in the use of water, especially by curbing waste. Smarter irrigation, growing less thirsty crops and the use of ‘grey’, or used water, to flush toilets are among the options.

Dr Seetharam Kallidaikurichi Easwaran, visiting don and director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Water Policy, was listed among the contributors to the report.

Around the world, more than 2.5 billion people still need decent sanitation and nearly one in 10 has yet to gain access to ‘improved’ drinking water, as defined under the UN’s 2015 development goals.

The massive 866-page report, issued every three years, was launched in Marseille, France yesterday, at the start of a six-day World Water Forum. It listed daunting challenges ahead.

Demand for food will increase by some 70 per cent by 2050, which will lead to a nearly 20 per cent increase in water usage for farming, it said.

At the same time, water supply in many regions is likely to shrink because of changing rainfall patterns, more severe droughts, melting glaciers and altered river flows, it said.

‘Climate change will drastically affect food production in South Asia and Southern Africa between now and 2030,’ the report said. ‘By 2070, water stress will also be felt in central and southern Europe.’

Asia is home to 60 per cent of the world’s population but only around a third of water resources, it pointed out.

Without new policies to manage water use, more than 40 per cent of the world’s population will live in areas with high water stress by 2050, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which also published a report ahead of the Marseille conference.

‘We need to give water a price,’ Mr Xavier Leflaive, the report’s author, said. ‘Water tariffs are policy instruments that encourage more intelligent use.’

He added that governments have to act and in ‘a strong way’.

The World Water Forum gathers policymakers, big corporations and non-governmental organisations.

As many as 20,000 participants from 140 countries are expected for the six-day event, including scores of ministers for the environment and water, and a scattering of heads of state from West Africa.

Ministers attending the forum will issue a non-binding statement today affirming their awareness of the problems and intent to fix them.

The water forum is shunned by some environmentalists or development activists, who deride it as a trade fair lacking democracy and transparency.

An alternative forum is being staged elsewhere in Marseille by 2,000 members of civil society from Europe, the United States, Latin America and Africa.

With additional information from Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg

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