Rising to the water challenge from Day 1: Singapore's quest

Two incidents drove Singapore's quest to be water independent, says MM Lee
Clarissa Oon, Straits Times 26 Jun 08;

TWO incidents drove home to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew the need for Singapore to strive for self-sufficiency in water.

The first was when the island fell to invading Japanese troops who blew up pipes transporting water from Johor to Singapore in February 1942.

This left the British colonial army and Singaporeans with only two reservoirs of water that could last them two weeks at most.

'Thirsty men cannot fight,' said MM Lee who recounted this episode in the nation's history last night during a dialogue at the Shangri-La Hotel.

The second incident happened a few days after Singapore's separation from Malaysia in August 1965. Then-Malaysian prime minister Tengku Abdul Rahman remarked that 'if Singapore doesn't do what I want, I'll switch off the water supply'.

That threat, made to the British high commissioner, was duly conveyed to Mr Lee, then prime minister.

Since then, the 'quest for water independence' has dominated every facet of urban development here, he told an audience of 650 international officials and water experts.

Why? Because 'I knew that as long as I was totally dependent on Malaysia's water supply, we would always be a satellite', he said baldly.

His 50-minute dialogue was part of the first International Water Week, hosted here.

Recounting the country's experience of water scarcity, he had vowed with his engineers, 'from day one', to systematically try to turn every drop of water in Singapore into potable water.

As difficult as the challenge seemed at the time, 'I never believed it would be impossible forever. I thought some time, some place, technology would be found that could make it nearly possible'.

They began by trying to collect every drop of rainfall. To do so, they increased the number of reservoirs here from two to 14.

Then they undertook a massive clean-up of the Singapore and Kallang rivers, which Mr Lee described as 'sewers' in their previous incarnation.

Hundreds of people living on bumboats on the Singapore River - who cooked, washed and defecated there - were rehoused. Thousands of industries were relocated.

'It took 10 years and the fish came back to the rivers.'

He envisioned a huge fresh water lake at the mouth of the two rivers, but at that time, there was no way to remove the salt and remaining toxins in the water.

Finally, in the 1990s, the solution emerged in the form of membrane technology.

By 2000, low-pressure membranes using less energy made the technology cheaper to operate.

Together with desalination technology, they have made it possible for the Marina Barrage to be transformed into a huge freshwater lake able to meet 10 to 12 per cent of Singapore's water needs.

Singapore is also reclaiming used water into high-grade Newater, which will meet 30 per cent of its water needs in 10 years' time.

These breakthroughs took place around the time when then-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad wanted to raise the price of water Johor sold to Singapore from 3 Malaysian sen to 8 ringgit per thousand gallons.

The Malaysians thought Newater was 'a gimmick', even after they saw 60,000 Singaporeans drink bottles of it at the 2002 National Day parade.

It was not until they visited the Newater's Bedok showroom that they realised it was not so.

Singapore now wants to share its expertise with other countries as water shortage is a growing global problem, especially with climate change causing disruptions to water supply and river basins.

'We did not do this by ourselves. We climbed on other people's shoulders. We brought this (technology) together and improved on them.'

Singapore's quest to be less dependent on Malaysia for water started at separation
Channel NewsAsia 25 Jun 08;

SINGAPORE: Singapore's quest to be less dependent on Malaysia for its water supply came about from day one when the country separated from its neighbour in 1965, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew revealed on Wednesday.

Speaking at a dialogue session during the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Award Ceremony, Mr Lee recounted what happened during the early days of independence and explained why water is so crucial to the survival of Singapore.

He said even then, he believed new technology would steer Singapore towards eventual self-sufficiency.

"How do we retrieve water from unprotected catchments, so that the first flush goes off to the sea and the second one is collected and is usable?

"So, I set up a unit in my office and I had a very good engineer who was head of the department and we set out systematically from day one (in) 1965 (to) get every drop of water in Singapore potable...

"If every drop of the 96 inches of rain that Singapore gets a year were collected and consumed, could we have enough for the population of 2 million then?"

Today, Singapore has several water treatment plants which also provide water to industries.

But globally, Mr Lee said the misuse of water in agriculture is a problem, like switching on grass sprinklers in the day.

He said, "I just can't understand why we are doing this? Hasn't somebody invented something that'll make sure that the water drips onto the grass in the evenings when it's cool and the loss of evaporation is minimal? But no, they work 9 to 5 and so they press it on in the afternoon when evaporation is highest and then they close (it) at 5."

He said countries could learn from the Israeli example of drip irrigation - a method which minimises the use of water and fertiliser by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants.

Mr Lee added that he believes water reclamation and waste management will be a huge industry because every society, especially China and India, will have to cope with the problem of water shortage.

When asked if Singapore would be able to sustain the same level of progress without its founding father, the minister mentor said the city state's leaders are built on credibility.

He noted that the problem with a free election system is that when the electorate gets bored, they may place their trust in the opposition. Then, Mr Lee explained, all bets are off because in just five years a country can be ruined.

"If you are Canada or Australia, (which are) resource-rich, the swing of (the) commodity cycle will lift you back. But when you are Singapore, and your system depends on performance... when that performance disappears because the system which it is based (on) is eroded, then you've lost everything."

Mr Lee said Singapore is too small a country to help change the world, but it is willing to share its knowledge of purifying water with others.

He said, "We did not do this by ourselves, we climbed on other peoples' shoulders; we brought things together and built on them. We're happy to have people climb on our shoulders - whether you're from the Middle East, China, India... it's a collaborative effort.

"The world will need this because what we have assumed was limitless, endless supplies of water... we have found it not to be so, and we (have) found a way out of it."

Mr Lee's advice to other governments is – to have a government that the people support and have confidence in; to have a leadership that's above board, where decisions are made not for personal gain but because it is necessary for the country; and to have able men in charge. - CNA/ac

Three elements that shape Singapore's water policy
Chuang Peck Ming, Business Times 26 Jun 08;

MM Lee recounts interplay of history and technology that defines nation's successful approach

(SINGAPORE) What do the Japanese invasion of Singapore, a Malaysian threat, and faith in technology have in common?

They shape Singapore's successful water policy today.

The architect of the policy, none other than Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, recalled how he came to be convinced that water is 'so crucial to Singapore's survival'.

Speaking last night at a dialogue wrapping up the Singapore International Water Week, Mr Lee - who is now Minister Mentor - said he had noted that one of the first things the Japanese did when they invaded Singapore was to blow up its water supply.

That was one of the key reasons the Japanese defeated the British army here, according to him.

'Thirsty men can't fight and Winston Churchill's 'Fight to the last' was just rhetoric,' Mr Lee said.

The next experience that convinced him about the importance of water to Singapore happened soon after Singapore broke off from Malaysia. Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had then threatened to turn off its water supply to Singapore if it 'doesn't listen to him'.

'I realised then that if we are not less dependent on Malaysia for water, we will become its satellite,' Mr Lee told his audience, made up of policymakers, water specialists and industry players from all over the world.

Thus, the quest 'to get every drop of water in Singapore made potable' started from Day One of the country's independence.

Mr Lee said that his engineers and specialists told him it was impossible, but he had faith in technology - that one day it will make it 'nearly possible'.

A water unit was set up in his office in the quest and Mr Lee said that every policy had to take a back seat to the search for an answer to Singapore's water survival.

A breakthrough came in 1990 when membrane technology came up with a solution - and subsequently, NEWater was born.

Mr Lee noted that NEWater - which is recycled water - meets all the water requirements of the wafer fabrication plants in Singapore. NEWater currently accounts for 15 per cent of Singapore's water consumption. Mr Lee said that, in another 10 years, it will make up 30 per cent of Singapore's needs.

He said that Singapore is ready to share its water knowledge with others with similar problems as Singapore.

'Water is a precious resource, without it you will die,' Mr Lee said. 'You can live without energy.'

He said that 'the misuse of water', especially in agriculture, is the biggest contributor to water shortage in the world. Mr Lee predicted that water reclamation and waste management would be a big industry because 'China and all big countries have to cope with this problem'.

During the question-and-answer session, which was moderated by Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Mr Lee said that people whose livelihood and existence are at stake will come to demand water solutions from their governments.

Asked for the single most important reason for the cleaning up of the Singapore River, his answer: 'The determination that it shall be done!'

MM: It’s Singapore’s turn ...
To have countries facing water insecurityclimb on her shoulders
Lin Yanqin, Today Online 26 Jun 08;

WHERE other countries face problems with water scarcity and management, Singapore will be more than happy to step forward to share its expertise in solving such problems.

And this is because of Singapore’s own journey in creating sustainable sources to meet its own water needs, said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Speaking during a dialogue session at the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize ceremony last night, Mr Lee revealed why he made water independence a “quest” for Singapore.

By being dependent on Malaysia for water imports, said Mr Lee, Singapore would have always remained a “satellite”, threatened with having its water supplies cut off if the two countries were in dispute.

“This is the reason why we believe we should share this knowledge with so many other countries in the world which will face the same problem,” he said.

Although collecting every inch of rainwater in Singapore and making every drop potable was deemed “impossible”, Mr Lee “never believed that it would be impossible forever”.

“I thought some time, some place, technology would be found that would make it really possible.”

Thanks to breakthroughs in membrane technology — and the work of WaterPrize winner Andrew Benedek — Singapore was able to make use of technology like Newater and desalination to diversify its water sources.

Referring to Malaysia’s “blackmail” of Singapore by asking for a higher price of water than in the original water agreements, Mr Lee recalled the day 60,000 Singaporeans drank Newater during Singapore’s National Day celebrations in 2002.

“Then they realised it was for real,” said Mr Lee. “We did not do this by ourselves, we climbed on other people’s shoulders ... we’re happy to have people climb on our shoulders, whether you’re from the Middle East, China or India or whatever, it’s a collaborative effort.”

Wastage and misuse of water will lead to water shortages in many countries, he said. “I believe water reclamation and waste management will be a huge industry ... especially China, India, the big ones, (they) will have to cope with this problem.”

The topic occasionally strayed beyond water, as an audience member from Bangladesh raised the question of how Singapore would continue in his absence, a question that raised chuckles from the audience and Mr Lee himself.

Starting off by saying he was saddened by the news of Mrs Lee’s health and that he would pray for her — to which Mr Lee responded with a “thank you” — he also asked what advice Mr Lee had for governments in developing countries.

Mr Lee said: “It is my business to make sure Singapore does carry on, and in fact there’s been two changes of leadership since I stepped down.

“A certain system has been set in place, certain institutions, certain methods of electing MPs ... and standards have been established, which should ensure Singapore to have a government which can perform to the level that the first government did, the second government has done and the third government is doing.”

To implement policies effectively, governments had to have the confidence and support of its people, a leadership that was above board, and have able men in charge, he said.

Popular elections, however, can pose difficulties to accomplishing this. “When you go to elections, you are not charged in accordance to your ability to govern, you are judged in accordance to your persuasive powers,” he said.

Such was one way of a democratic process, which can produce results. “But as you know from the way I speak, I am not totally overwhelmed by the idea that the electorate always knows the best and brings about peace and stability and happiness for the people,” he said.

Asked by another audience member from Chennai on what was the one big factor in how Singapore successfully managed to clean up its rivers, Mr Lee responded: “Determination that it shall be done.”

5 Years all it takes to ruin Singapore

'I know how we got here and I know how we can unscramble it,' he says
Lydia Lim, Straits Times 26 Jun 08;

ONE freak election result is all it will take to wipe out Singapore's success in building up the city state, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew warned last night.

This could happen if voters became bored and decided to give the 'vociferous opposition' a chance - out of 'light-heartedness, fickleness or sheer madness'.

'In five years, you can ruin this place and it's very difficult to pick up the pieces,' he told 650 participants of a dinner forum at the Shangri-La Hotel.

Mr Lee was responding to a Bangladesh delegate who asked if Singapore would continue to thrive in his absence. The delegate also expressed sorrow at the news of Mrs Lee's illness, and Mr Lee thanked him.

In his reply, Mr Lee returned to themes he has spoken on often - the need for a system to ensure good leaders emerge, and the danger that voters plumping for more opposition MPs might end up with an unintended change of government.

Larger countries rich in resources can survive such a freak outcome, but not Singapore, he said.

'When you're Singapore and your existence depends on performance - extraordinary performance, better than your competitors - when that performance disappears because the system on which it's been based becomes eroded, then you've lost everything,' he said.

'I try to tell the younger generation that and they say the old man is playing the same record, we've heard it all before. I happen to know how we got here and I know how we can unscramble it.'

He said a country needed three elements to succeed.

First, a government that people have confidence in and will trust when tough decisions need to be taken.

Second, leaders who are above board, who make decisions based on necessity, not how they will personally benefit. He said Singaporeans know they have such leaders because, over the years, 'we have not got richer, Singapore has'.

Third and most importantly, a country needs able men in charge.

The problem with popular democracy, he said, is that during elections, candidates are not judged on how well they can govern, but on their persuasive power.

The forum, chaired by Mr Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, was a highlight of the first World Cities Summit and International Water Week.

In his opening remarks, Mr Lee spoke for 20 minutes off the cuff, recounting his 40 years of striving to build up Singapore's independent water supply. He was determined because as long as Singapore was totally reliant on its neighbours for water, it would remain a 'satellite'.

During a 30-minute question-and-answer session, participants from around the world probed him about water management and political leadership.

He also presented the first Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize to Dr Andrew Benedek, a pioneer in the field of membrane technology for water treatment.

A key outcome of several sessions held yesterday was the setting up of an informal network of 16 countries - comprising the Asean 10, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand - to share ideas and expertise on how to go about pursuing sustainable development.

And the World Bank announced plans to set up in Singapore a regional hub for training urban planners, which will draw on the Republic's success in city development.