Lee Kuan Yew: The architect of Singapore’s water story

Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Monday, will be remembered as a key architect who helped a resource-scarce island nation navigate many adversities to become water self-sufficient.

merlion watery
Singapore's iconic waterfront skyline. With no rural hinterland, limited land, and a growing population, Singapore is beating the odds and is on track to be water self-sufficient by 2060. Image: Neale Cousland / Shutterstock.com

As a small island state which uses 400 million gallons of water a day - that is, water filling 715 Olympic-sized swimming pools - and has limited water catchment areas, Singapore is an unlikely candidate for a global leader in water sustainability.

But today, not only is the city-state well on the way to being self sufficient for its water needs by 2061 - when existing agreements allowing Singapore to import water from Malaysia will lapse - it is also regarded as a “global hydrohub” - a leading centre for business opportunities and expertise in water technologies.

Singapore’s achievement in water sustainability is among the legacies of the city’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Monday morning at the Singapore General Hospital after being warded for pneumonia since Feb 5.

Lee, whom Singapore’s national water agency PUB credits as the “architect of the Singapore water story”, came into power at a time when Singapore faced serious water challenges. Extreme drought in the 1960s led to acute water shortages, and the country’s new government had to carry out water rationing exercises. 

When Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, water agreements signed in 1961 and 1962 allowed the island to continue obtaining water from the state of Johor up until 2011 and 2061 respectively. 

Even though these were enshrined in Malaysia’s constitution during the separation in 1965, they did not give Lee peace of mind. A remark by Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to a British diplomat that he would “switch off the water supply” if Singapore did not do what he wanted underscored the importance for Singapore’s water self-sufficiency.

Lee famously declared, at a 2008 water event in Singapore, that “every other policy has to bend at the knees for our water survival”.

That same year, Singapore’s environment ministry and PUB also launched a water prize to honour outstanding solutions for the world’s water challenges, which has since been recognised as the “premier water prize amongst its peers”. They named it the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, saying that it was his “foresight and leadership (that) has enabled Singapore to attain a sustainable water supply”.

In Singapore’s early years of independence, Lee challenged PUB to find ways to make Singapore self-sufficient and to “capture every drop of rain” that fell on the island. In the decades that followed, the country’s civil servants and engineers worked tirelessly to clean up the polluted waterways and increase the country’s catchment areas.

They not only succeeded in increasing Singapore’s catchment area from half to two-thirds of the island today, but also managed to add more sources of water such as desalinated seawater and recycled wastewater - or what PUB calls “National Taps” - to Singapore’s water supply.

In the process, Singapore also became home to a thriving ecosystem of more than 100 water companies which provide solutions for various water challenges in the region. The city state is also one of just two Southeast Asian countries (the other being Brunei) where tap water is safe to drink, according to the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among the notable milestones in Singapore’s journey was the country’s 2002 National Day Parade, when then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong debuted Newater, the country’s brand of high-grade recycled drinking water, to the nation.

The idea for it dates back to the 1970s, when Singapore’s engineers thought of turning wastewater or sewage into potable drinking water. An initial pilot plant built by PUB in 1974 was eventually shut down due to cost and technological considerations, but planners never lost sight of the goal.

It took several decades of research and gruelling work by engineers to finally achieve a workable water reclamation process in Singapore, which involves microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet radiation, to finally achieve Newater.

“I never believed it would be impossible forever; I thought sometime, some place, technology will be found that would make it nearly possible.”

Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, on the prospect of Singapore achieving water self-sufficiency.

When officially launching Newater in 2003, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, commented that he saw Singapore’s “diminishing reliance on Johor water in a positive light”.

If water could no longer be used as political leverage against Singapore, it would allow both countries to focus on “mutually beneficial cooperation,” said Goh, who succeeded Lee as prime minister in 1990.

Singapore has four Newater plants today, the latest and largest of which was completed in 2010. The plants will meet 40 per cent of the island’s water needs by 2020. PUB plans to triple its Newater capacity by 2060, such that it will meet 55 per cent of future water demand.

The technology was also praised by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who on a 2012 visit to the Newater complex in Changi, called Newater the “elixir of life”, and recommended that Singapore’s experience and know-how should be shared with many countries facing water scarcity.

In the 1980s, Lee Kuan Yew also envisaged the damming of Singapore’s Marina Channel to create a freshwater reservoir. Years of research and development enabled Singapore’s engineers to build the Marina Barrage, a tidal barrier that keeps out seawater and allows excess water to be pumped out into the sea.  

The structure was officially unveiled in 2008, along with the city’s first urban reservoir, Marina Reservoir. It added 10,000 hectares to Singapore’s catchment area - one-sixth the size of Singapore. Together with two other new reservoirs, the Marina Reservoir increased the city’s water catchment from half to two-thirds of its land area.

The Barrage has also been globally recognised for the engineering innovations that went into its construction. Among the many awards it has won is the top prize at the American Academy of Environmental Engineers’s Excellence in Environmental Engineering Competition in 2009. 

In addition to reservoirs, imported water and Newater, the remainder of Singapore’s current water demand is met by desalination, a method of purifying seawater to make it potable.

Desalinated water can meet up to a quarter of the country’s daily consumption of 400 million gallons today. Even as this demand is set to almost double by 2060, Singapore plans to grow its desalination capacity so that this ‘fourth national tap’ will still meet 25 per cent of future water demand.

Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, noted in a foreword to a book on Singapore’s water journey that “if anyone had suggested in 1965 that within 50 years Singapore could dream of achieving water self-sufficiency, he or she would have been laughed out of court”. 

Yet, even as Singapore values the water agreement with Malaysia which will run till 2061, “this impossible goal is on its way to be realised,” he said. In fact, Chew Men Leong, then-chief executive of PUB, told Bloomberg in an interview that Singapore will be able to meet its water requirements independently before 2061.

In a speech on World Water Day, Grace Fu, second minister for the Environment and Water Resources, remarked that “we owe it to Mr Lee today, that we can proudly say that through 30, 40 years of research, development and hard work we have almost reached water self-sufficiency”.

In a tribute statement issued on Wednesday, PUB noted: “Mr Lee Kuan Yew has left behind a great legacy. He was a visionary leader and the architect of the Singapore Water Story.”

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