More can be done to tap water’s potential as an urban asset

KHOO TENG CHYE Today Online 28 Mar 16;

Singapore’s commitment to greenery since independence has made our city more liveable even as our population and economy grow. Roadside greenery, the backbone of our City in a Garden vision, forms a pervasive green matrix with parks, nature areas, community gardens and high-rise greenery.

Today, greenery is what most distinguishes us from other densely populated cities. What about water?

While there is ample support from the Government, industry and citizens for planting trees and shrubs, I believe that integrating a blue layer into Singapore’s green matrix can boost its liveability to a new level.

Many people are surprised by Singapore’s Blue Map of 17 reservoirs and about 8,000km of waterways. In comparison, Singapore’s iconic roadside greenery lines the road network of just 3,500km. And there are going to be more projects at waterbodies and waterways. PUB, the national water agency, announced last week that 20 more projects under the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme are slated to be completed over the next five years.

With such an extensive water network and 2.4m of annual rainfall across the island, Singapore ought to be a Venice! But no thanks to civil engineers like me, most blue areas became ugly concrete drains, canals and stormwater collection ponds to serve water supply and flood-control needs, which were critical in Singapore’s early years.

From the 1960s, PUB focused on critical challenges such as droughts, floods and pollution. PUB improved water security by diversifying our sources via the Four National Taps: Local catchment water, imported water, NEWater and desalinated water. The Singapore River and other waterways were cleaned up.


In the 1980s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) developed a vision to re-naturalise our engineered waterways, to bring about even more greenery throughout the island. The idea came from Mr Lim Hng Kiang, then a Deputy Secretary at the Ministry of National Development (MND).

I helped him set up a Waterbodies Design Panel, chaired by Dr Liu Thai Ker and involving the Ministry of the Environment, the URA, the Housing and Development Board and others.

The panel created some outstanding projects. Amid the high-rise public housing of Pasir Ris town, Sungei Api Api became a scenic river lined with lush mangroves, instead of a typical monsoon canal. In another town, Bukit Panjang, what might have been a bare stormwater pond became an attractive wooded lake. Based on this approach, URA then drew up a Parks and Water Bodies Plan.

But years later, when I had the good fortune to head PUB, I discovered to my horror that implementation had petered out. Inspired by the success of NParks’ Park Connector Network, we then started the ABC Waters Programme in 2006.

We developed the ABC Waters Master Plan based on Singapore’s Blue Map. This plan identified some 100 potential projects for implementation by 2030. Fortunately, the Government agreed it was a worthwhile programme to support.

We are now 10 years into the ABC Waters programme. PUB has completed some 30 projects so far, including iconic projects at Kallang River (Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park), Lorong Halus Wetland and Alexandra Canal.

With these projects, people can now get much closer to water and appreciate the beauty and nature that comes with it.

Unlike monsoon drains, the re-naturalised river at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park allows children to get their feet wet during dry weather, catch fish and see all sorts of wildlife, such as egrets and otters. The ABC Waters sites also serve as outdoor classrooms to learn about the importance of protecting our water resources and how the design features cleanse the rainwater runoff before going into drains. Water sports such as sailing and kayaking are also enjoying a revival in Marina Bay and other reservoirs. More water stewards have come forward to adopt these sites to do their part for the water cause.

In 2010, PUB launched the ABC Waters certification scheme to give recognition to private developers and other agencies who incorporated ABC Waters concepts in their developments. Design guidelines and engineering procedures were published to establish technical standards, and pilots were carried out to demonstrate the effectiveness of the design features in cleansing the rainwater runoff. PUB also worked with professional institutions, universities and polytechnics to train students and professionals in the field.

Still, some building and planning professionals remain content with conventional drains, canals, stormwater ponds and other water infrastructure. As a result, great opportunities to develop a more beautiful, biodiverse and vibrant city are missed.


Can the ABC Waters design concept be extended to all water infrastructure? Can all HDB towns and residential areas be designed adopting the ABC Waters principles? This is our ultimate goal: To make ABC Waters pervasive across the island.

There have been successful trial runs. Thousands of families have enjoyed the scenic Punggol Waterway linking two reservoirs at their doorsteps. HDB is also creating an ABC Waters precinct, Waterway Ridges, in Punggol town.

In private housing estates, why not turn conventional drains into something different with the ABC Waters concept? PUB is piloting this in Windsor Park, one of the first projects of its kind under MND’s Estate Upgrading Programme. It introduced features such as vegetated swales and bio-retention swales to filter out sediments naturally and improve the quality of rainwater runoff entering the drain. These designs were modified so they are sited on top of the drains to adapt to the existing terrain of the site, so you see landscaping instead of concrete drains. Can all residential areas be designed with such principles? Similarly, all roads can be designed with bioswales instead of concrete drains. We have experimented with it, and PUB is exploring with the Land Transport Authority to do more.

It is with these challenges in mind when PUB said last week that it is looking at more ways to encourage wider adoption of the ABC Waters concept and its design features within development sites. Already, there are 54 ABC Waters certified projects, and more can be done. There are plans to guide private and public developers in the design of their new developments such that they integrate seamlessly with their adjacent waterways.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong coined the phrase “a City of Gardens and Water” when he launched the ABC Waters Exhibition in 2007; he thought more should be done in this area. To realise the exciting potential of ABC Waters, we should make it a core part of our vision for the future. Much has been achieved already. The challenge now is to take it to a new level, creating a much more liveable and sustainable City of Gardens and Water for all to enjoy.

About the Author:

Khoo Teng Chye is CLC’s executive director. He was chief executive of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency and CEO/chief planner of Urban Redevelopment Authority, among other positions in the private and public sectors.

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