Singapore explores underground water system in face of climate change

The city state is investigating whether an underground storage and drainage system will help it better deal with the impact of climate change and reduce its water and energy dependence in the coming decades.

Singapore is exploring the possibility of building an underground reservoir and drainage system to help the city deal better with the effects of climate change, including heavier rainfall and prolonged droughts, and as part of a longer-term goal to reduce its water and energy dependence by 2061.

These underground cisterns, will enhance Singapore’s resilience against droughts, as excess water during periods of intense rainfall can be stored and used later, said Singapore’s Minister of Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday.

This solution is already used by countries including The Netherlands and Denmark to deal with intense storms that are a result of climate change.

The underground network could also be one of the ways for Singapore to reduce its reliance on overseas fuel sources, such as natural gas, which now makes up 95 per cent of the country’s needs for electricity. A large amount of energy is used in processes such as water desalination and recycling, which Singapore relies on to meet about half its water needs.

Announcing the plans at the inaugural Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) Technology and Innovation Summit organised by the national water agency PUB, Dr Balakrishnan told the audience that it is his “pipe-dream” that Singapore achieves not just water but also energy independence by 2061.

Singapore has been importing water from Johor, Malaysia, under two bilateral agreements. The first agreement expired in August 2011 and second agreement will expire in 2061.

Achieving energy independence is also vital for Singapore because while the country has made significant progress on its path to self-sufficiency in water, with about 50 per cent of its yearly needs being met through desalination and recycling through reverse osmosis, energy usage has also increased, he explained.

Reverse osmosis uses about 3.5 kW to produce one cubic metres of water. Singapore uses two million cubic metres of water a day.

Innovation and technology have given Singapore enough water. And we firmly believe that it will be innovation and technology again that will ensure that Singapore will always have enough water.

Ng Joo Hee, chief executive, PUB and STIS chairperson

“The crux of the challenge is the fact that we have substituted one critical vulnerability with another,” Dr Balakrishnan said. “With desalination, in theory, if you have infinite amount of energy, you can have an infinite amount of water. But what this really means is that the critical vulnerability for Singapore has now become the energy supply.” 

Dr Balakrishnan said other possible ways to achieve the 2061 goal are improving the energy efficiency of reverse osmosis through research and innovation; reducing the energy consumed by pumps that deliver water through pipes across the island by perhaps decentralizing the pipe system; and recovering more energy from used water.

Other methods are harnessing solar power by installing more floating solar panels; harvesting the potential energy of the 2.4 meters of rainfall that Singapore gets every year; slashing the per-capita usage of water; and preventing water leakage by ensuring that water pipes are in top shape.

These should go a long way in helping Singapore reduce its energy and water usage, Dr Balakrishnan said.  

PUB will start studying design options for the underground drainage and reservoir system, which should integrate three components - storm water conveyance tunnels, underground reservoir caverns and a pumped storage hydropower system, the agency said on Tuesday in a separate statement which provided further details.

The study is expected to be completed at the end of 2017, after which the agency will decide whether the system can be pursued further. 

Technological innovation is key 

While conceding that it is a “stretch goal”, he said a lot more can be done by Singaporeans to reduce their water and electricity usage.

“Perhaps more cautiously and realistically, let’s aim for halving our energy imports for the production of water within the next 10 years,” he said.

Ng Joo Hee, chief executive of PUB and chairperson of the Summit, said the key to achieving these goals are technological breakthroughs and investment in research, adding that it is with this goal in mind that PUB has organised the summit.

“Innovation and technology have given Singapore enough water,” Ng said. “And we firmly believe that it will be innovation and technology again that will ensure that Singapore will always have enough water.”

About 300 senior delegates from water and wastewater utilities, industrial water users, solution providers, research institutes, international organisations, and investors attended the event, held at One Farrer Hotel. 

The summit aims to generate discussions among these experts and a document of findings on the key drivers for innovation, ways to reduce barriers to innovation, financing innovation and the priority research areas for the water industry. 

Delegates at the summit identified some top drivers of water innovation, including  the need for alternative or non-conventional water sources, protection of water quality, the water-food-energy nexus, waste minimisation and resource recovery, and lastly, extreme weather events.

With scientific innovations so vital to Singapore’s water and energy security, PUB is also tapping on the expertise of companies such as SUEZ environnement to help it better manage resources. 

Under an initial five-year agreement, both parties will share knowledge and jointly develop technologies designed to protect water resources, and to increase awareness among the corporate sector and the general public of the need to preserve them.

SUEZ environnement has chosen Singapore as its regional business hub with the opening of an Innovation Center at Tiong Bahru, which will be staffed by 15 research scientists and engineers, to support project development in Singapore.

PUB’s Ng said that it is by such collaborations that the world’s environmental challenges are tackled. 

“The water crisis looms large but the people in this room also know that the world’s water problems are not intractable. They can be solved,” Ng said. “All it takes is will, a plan, some know-how and imagination. “ 

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