Singapore: Global Water Hub and Policy Leader

By: Chris Jackson


Singapore serves as a global leader in water management thanks to active support from its government. Despite facing the challenging environment of a densely populated island, the country has managed to make access to water universal, efficient, affordable and of high quality. However, the expected increase in population and industrial water usage, in conjunction with rising energy costs and the unpredictable negative impacts of climate change, it is necessary to develop more sustainable water management practices. Specifically, it is imperative to reduce per capita water consumption, which is significantly higher in Singapore compared to similar cities. Education and water pricing techniques, along with sustained scientific advancement, will allow Singapore to continue not only as a world leader in water management, but also as an international hub for commerce, transportation, finance, research and development.

Singapore: Global Water Hub & Policy Leader


Singapore is a city-state and island country in Southeast Asia, widely recognized as an international commerce, transportation, and finance center. The country’s history can be traced back to the second century CE, when the land was first settled. The island was controlled by a number of kingdoms over the following centuries: the Siamese, Javanese, Sultanate of Malacca, and the Sultanate of Johor. However, Singapore did not take on a significant global role until the British established a trading settlement on the island in 1819, ushering in an era that is often described as “modern Singapore.”

Singapore was governed as a British colony throughout the 19th century, leading to World War II, when it was temporarily captured by Japan. Following the war, while still under British rule, Singapore implemented a full internal self-government with control over all matters except defense and foreign affairs. In 1963, under the Malaysia Agreement, Singapore briefly merged with the Federation of Malaya, the Crown Colony of Sarawak, and the Crown Colony of North Bornea to form Malaysia. This decision was primarily motivated by concerns over limited land size and scarce natural resources in Singapore. However, political and cultural differences between the Singapore government and the central Malaysian government led to Singapore’s expulsion and subsequent independence in 1965.

Throughout its journey to independence, Singapore was led by its first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who is widely recognized as the founding father of independent Singapore. Under his leadership, which emphasized innovative economic growth and a close partnership with China, the country flourished, developing from a third world to first world economy in a single generation (Tortajada).

Present day Singapore is governed under a multiparty parliamentary republic dominated by the People’s Action Party. The majority of executive power lies in the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Singapore, whereas the President, elected through popular vote, serves largely as a ceremonial role. Generally, residents of Singapore are content with their leadership, with 84 percent expressing confidence in the government (one of the highest ratings in the world). The legal system is based on English common law, with notable differences. Specifically, trial by jury was eliminated in 1970, leaving judicial decisions entirely in the hands of appointed judges. In spite of this, Singapore is rated amongst the least corrupt countries in the world and as one of the best judicial systems in Asia (Biswas & Tortajada).

As a prominent economic and political power in Southeast Asia, Singapore is one of the five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Generally, Singapore maintains strong relationships with neighboring countries in Asia; however, some disagreements have arisen with neighboring countries over land and resource use. Singapore and the United States have enjoyed a long-standing partnership, with emphasis on defense, the economy, health, and education. The United States is also one of Singapore’s most significant trading partners, after China and Malaysia.

Singapore’s geography, particularly as an island country, plays a key factor in its role as a global trade partner and international hub. The country consists of 63 islands, with the main island known as Singapore Island. As would be expected, there are a number of challenges for water supply and sanitation in a small, densely populated island environment. Therefore, even from its founding as a newly independent nation, water security has been an important issue for Singapore. The government has taken considerable steps to ensure the country’s water security, playing a large role in managing and distributing water across the country and internationally. The majority of water used for both urban and rural populations is state-owned and managed (Luan).

Singapore practices eminent domain under the Land Acquisitions Act, which allows for urban renewal under its Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme. The Amendments to the Land Titles Act establishes a framework for property owned by several owners sharing a collective title (“Tackling Singapore’s Water Shortage”). If the majority of owners wish to sell, the property can be purchased for purposes of urban renewal, against the will of the minority. These acts also dictate the amount of compensation for landowners whose property is acquired by the government (Luan).

While it is currently able to meet its water needs, as Singapore’s population continues to grow, the country will continue to encounter challenges in water security. Therefore, the government has developed and implemented a number of strategies that strengthen its independence and ensure an adequate supply of water to meet the country’s needs.


Current Water Situation

Singapore is considered a water-scarce country because of the limited amount of land where rainfall can be stored. As a result, during its colonial times (before 1965), the country constructed several reservoirs to supply its rapidly growing cities with water. In 1927, Singapore also signed an agreement with the state of Johor in neighboring Malaysia that allowed Singapore to rent land in Johor and use its water for free. Under this agreement, one pipeline was constructed to transport raw (i.e. untreated) water to Singapore, with another pipeline built to return a smaller quantity of treated water to Johor. In 1942, these pipelines were temporarily and unintentionally destroyed during the Battle of Singapore, leaving the country with water reserves that could only last for two weeks at most. Upon seeing this, future Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was motivated to move Singapore towards greater water self-sufficiency (Biswas & Tortajada).

With rapid growth after the war, Singapore was unable to meet its own water needs and signed new agreements with the Federation of Malaya. Two new agreements were signed in 1961 and 1962 to replace the previous 1927 agreement. In exchange for the water, Singapore paid for a water rate and land rental, built two water treatment plants in Singapore and a new expanded pipeline from Johor, and supplied treated water to Johor at an extremely low price. At the time of this agreement, Singapore intended to join Malaysia, as it did from 1963-65 before separating again (Biswas & Tortajada).

After separating from Malaysia, the Singapore government became concerned that Malaysia would use its water supply as political leverage over Singapore foreign policy. These concerns were substantiated by comments from Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who suggested turning off the water in Johor in the event that Singapore sided with Indonesia in a dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia. In an effort to move towards water self-sufficiency, the Singapore government decided to develop its own local water resources. The Public Utilities Board (PUB) was created in 1963, with one of its tasks being to develop water infrastructure inside Singapore. Slightly over a decade later in 1975, a dam was constructed on the estuary of the Kranji River, a reservoir was constructed at Pandan, and the Upper Peirce Reservoir was completed. By 1983, another four rivers were dammed and the Lower Seletar Reservoir was constructed across the estuary of the Seletar River. However, these new projects were still unable to supply the water necessary to meet Singapore’s needs (Tortajada).

Therefore, new negotiations with Malaysia began in 1998 to extend the 1961 and 1962 agreements beyond 2011 and 2061, respectively. During negotiations, Malaysia proposed a new price of 6.4 Malaysian Ringgit per 1000 imperial gallons (4500 L), the equivalent of 0.45 USD per cubic meter. Because this was close to the price of desalinated water, Singapore refused to accept the offer and declined to extend the existing agreements beyond 2061. With Singapore preparing to move towards water self-sufficiency, negotiations ended without result in 2003.

Singapore currently relies on four sources of water, referred to as the “Four National Taps.”. These include imported water from Malaysia, rainfall, seawater desalination, and reclaimed water. Under its agreement with Malaysia, as previously discussed, Singapore is entitled to up to 1,100,000 m3 per day. However, Singapore does not actually import the full amount of water, with estimates in 2011 of only about 680,000 m3 (about 40 percent of its share). Rainfall, collected in specific catchment areas and stored in artificial reservoirs, fluctuates between 200-300 million gallons per day, depending on rainfall. These protected catchment areas make up two-thirds of the country’s surface area and have certain restrictions on land use. After collection in one of the country’s 17 raw water reservoirs, the water is treated through chemical coagulation, rapid gravity filtration, and disinfection before consumption as drinking water (Irvine & Eikaas).

The two most recent advances in Singapore’s water development plan are sweater desalination and reclaimed water. The country’s first two desalination plants, SpingSpring Desalination Plant and Tuaspring Desalination Plant, opened in 2005 and 2013, respectively. Together, the two plants can meet up to 25 percent of Singapore’s current water needs. The government has also made plans for five more future plants, which will allow desalination to continue meeting up to 25 percent of future water demand by 2060. Reclaimed water, more commonly known by its brand name NEWater in Singapore, is ultra-pure water treated in the country’s reclamation plants. While the quality of NEWater exceeds the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards for drinking water, most of it is used for non-potable uses in industry. As of 2012, there are four NEWater factories in Singapore, capable of meeting up to 30 percent of the country’s water requirements. Furthermore, it was found that thanks to the high purity of the water, industries have been able to reduce their costs by using NEWater (Irvine & Eikaas).

While developing water resources for consumption and use, Singapore has also revamped its sanitation and wastewater treatment system. Prior to 2010, wastewater was collected through a sewer system including 139 pumping stations and six wastewater treatment plants. These are gradually being phased out as the new Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS) is installed. The first phase of the DTSS began operation in 2010 with the opening of its center, the Changi Water Reclamation Plant. The first phase of the DTSS consists of a 48-kilometer tunnel sewer belowground, channeling water to the Changi Water Reclamation Plant on the island’s eastern side. Because it is operated entirely by gravity, no pumping stations are needed. Furthermore, the Changi Water Reclamation Plant is extremely compact at only one-third the size of conventional plants. Moving forward, the second phase of the DTSS will expand the tunnel to the western side of the island, leading to another wastewater treatment plant at Tuas (Luan).

Completely separate from the sewer system is the stormwater drainage system, made up of 7,000 kilometers of public roadside drains and about 1,000 kilometers of waterways and canals. Private companies contracted by the PUB operate the system.  Since its installation, the system has drastically reduced the amount of flood-prone area in spite of increased urbanization (Luan).

Based on the “Four National Taps” (water catchment, imported water, NEWater, and desalinated water) that make up Singapore’s water supply, it is clear that the country is well on its way towards self-sufficiency. The primary obstacle will be sustaining this water supply as demand is expected to double from 380 to 760 million gallons per day between 2010 and 2060 (“Tackling Singapore’s Water Shortage”). This, in combination with the expiring agreements with Malaysia, means that Singapore will need to further improve their water resources, likely through improvements to NEWater and desalination technology.



Since its establishment, the PUB has been challenged in securing a safe, sustainable water supply for Singapore due to the wide variety for competing factors. These include prioritizing land use, balancing economic development and water capture, research and development, and funding the costs of its many programs. The government has an obligation not only to its citizens, who rely on water for basic consumption and household use, but also to its large manufacturing industry and to preserving the country’s natural resources and areas. All of these different stakeholders, whether it is ordinary people or special interest groups, have valid claims to the country’s limited water resources (Tortajada).

The PUB has also successfully organized a high level of government and private collaboration, sharing the costs and risks associated with research and development to drive advances in water technology. Through public-private partnerships, public costs of delivering technological innovations have been driven down at the household level. Furthermore, Singapore’s significant investment in water research and development has elevated it to an international level. Singapore’s innovation-driven water industry has enabled it to increasingly export technologies and practices to the world.

Raising public and political support for Singapore’s water policy was initially challenging, but has improved over time. Since the implementation of education programs, the public, one of the largest stakeholders in the water sector, has been generally supportive. For example, the general public initially reacted to NEWater with hesitation, citing concerns over the water’s safety and cleanliness. In response, the PUB ran approximately 100,000 tests on NEWater quality and convened an international panel of experts to confirm that it was clean, safe, and reliable.

Looking forward, all stakeholders in Singapore will be impacted by challenges presented by climate change, increasing energy costs, urbanization, and a growing demand for water. The best possible solution is to continue investing in research and development for new water technologies and to promote public awareness about the importance of water conservation and water policy initiatives.



The Singapore government has already begun implementing several campaigns to urge its citizens to conserve water. This has been successful in reducing consumption from 165 liters per person per day in 2003 to 155 liters in 2009. Looking forward, the government hopes to lower that further to 140 liters by 2030. Like with NEWater, public awareness and education played a key role in this process. Singapore developed a Water Efficiency Labeling Scheme for washing machines, toilets, showerheads, and taps in order to help consumers make more informed choices when purchasing these items.

Another initiative launched by the PUB in 2005 is their official mascot, Water Wally, who is used to educate the public about sustainable water usage and preservation. This has been particularly successful at the primary school level, where Water Wally has visited over 185 primary schools to provide education about reducing showers. In 2013, Water Wally was also featured as part of PUB’s “My Take on Water” photo/video competition in conjunction with the World Water Day celebration.

Beginning around the same time, the PUB launched a second long term initiative, the Active, Beautiful, Clean (ABC) Waters program. This focuses on the beauty of Singapore’s bodies of water and strives to bring Singaporean citizens in closer proximity to water so that they can better appreciate it as a scarce and valuable resource. This project is conducted in collaboration amongst the 3P sectors of Public, Private and People to develop a joint responsibility for Singapore’s water. To engage the business community further and help them more efficiently manage their water usage, the PUB also launched the Water Efficiency Management Plan (WEMP) in 2010. The plan provides a concise breakdown of a company’s water usage and allows them to identify areas for improvement and develop strategies to optimize business processes. Beginning in 2015, any businesses using more than 60,000 cubic meters of water (i.e. bulk consumers of water) will be required to install water meters to monitor their water usage. In addition, these businesses will also have to submit their WEMP to the PUB annually for the next three years to ensure that they are adhering to the requirements.

A more structured financial initiative that has helped reduce water waste in Singapore is the tariff structure, which was recently modified. All residential users are charged a water and sewer tariff that covers the costs of supply at the same level as for industries. As of 2012, a typical household consuming 20 cubic meters per month has a water bill of $37.70 per month, corresponding to $1.88/m3. Perhaps because of the tariff system, Singapore has one of the lowest levels of water losses in the world at only five percent (“Managing Water for All: An OECD Perspective on Pricing and Financing”).

While these strategies have seen some success, they are not enough to address the primary challenge of Singapore’s water future, which is the extremely high per capita water consumption of 150 liters. Current targets to reduce consumption to 147 liters by 2020 and 140 liters by 2030 are far too modest. Some European cities, such as Munich, Hamburg, Barcelona, or Berlin, have a per capita water consumption that is already lower than Singapore’s 2030 target. For example, in 2008, Hamburg had a per capita consumption of 105 liters (“Profile of the German Water Industry”).

The primary mechanism by which these European cities have successfully reduced their water consumption is through water pricing. In most of the Western world, water prices have actually risen more rapidly than inflation. In contrast, Singapore’s water pricing has remained stagnant since 2000. Once inflation is considered, this represents a 25.48 percent decrease in water prices in 2014 compared to 2000 levels. At the same time, median monthly household income has increased from $4,398 in 2000 to $10,503 in 2014.

Because water prices have not increased in so long, any increases in the future may be met with resistance. However, it is important to realize that the stagnant water pricing is an anomaly when compared to electricity and gas prices, which have increased by 3.64 and 2.94 percent respectively (accounting for inflation). Any argument that opposes an increase in water prices fails to take into account the negative implications of continued water usage levels, which will lead to either water shortages or force Singapore to rely further on foreign nations for its water resources.

Therefore, increased water pricing, in combination with public awareness education and increased research and development is the ideal path towards reducing water consumption in Singapore. This will allow the country to continue to meet its water needs in spite of a growing population and the expiration of water imports from Malaysia in 2060.



In conclusion, Singapore serves as a global leader in water management thanks to active support from its government. Despite facing the challenging environment of a densely populated island, the country has managed to make access to water universal, efficient, affordable and of high quality. However, the expected increase in population and industrial water usage, in conjunction with rising energy costs and the unpredictable negative impacts of climate change, it is necessary to develop more sustainable water management practices. Specifically, it is imperative to reduce per capita water consumption, which is significantly higher in Singapore compared to similar cities. Education and water pricing techniques, along with sustained scientific advancement, will allow Singapore to continue not only as a world leader in water management, but also as an international hub for commerce, transportation, finance, research and development.

Works Cited

Biswas, Asit K., and Cecilia Tortajada. “Urban Water Management in Singapore: Past, Present and Future.” Diplomat 10 June 2015: n. pag. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Irvine, Kim, and Hans Skailand Eikaas. “The Four National Taps of Singapore: A Holistic Approach to Water Resources Management from Drainage to Drinking Water.” Journal of Water Management Modeling (2014): n. pag. Print.

Luan, Ivy Ong Bee. “Singapore Water Management Policies and Practices.” International Journal of Water Resources Development 26.1 (2010): 65-80. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

“Managing Water for All: An OECD Perspective on Pricing and Financing.” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2009): n. pag. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

“Profile of the German Water Industry.” (2008): n. pag. Print.

“Tackling Singapore’s Water Shortage.” INSEAD Innovation & Policy Initiative 2.9 (2013): n. pag. Print.

Tortajada, Cecilia. “Water Management in Singapore.” International Journal of Water Resources Development 22.2 (2007): 227-40. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.



JacksonC_HeadshotChris is a senior at Saint Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, studying chemistry with a minor in mathematics.  He has conducted research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) National Laboratory through the Department of Energy’s Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program, investigating perovskite thin-film solar cells.  He also spent a summer interning at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center researching the use of aerogels as catalytic supports for carbon dioxide reduction.  He is passionate about renewable energy and plans to pursue a research career in physical chemistry and materials science.

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