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Singapore's 50 Year March Towards Water Independence
Author’s note: If you want to watch the video first, it is below
There is a drought going on in southern Taiwan right now, and it has caused me to think more about the issues surrounding finding and bringing water to the right people when they want it. Having clean water for drinking and washing has been critical for improving people’s lives and health. This is the second video that I have done about a country’s water supply system, but I don’t think it will be the last.
I want to do another video about Singapore’s water infrastructure in the future, illustrating the critical levers that the country has pulled in order to bring water supply and demand into balance. And how what lessons that other countries might learn from that.
Want to support the channel? Take a look at the Patreon and sign up for the Early Access tier. You get to see videos first as I finish and post them, sometimes many days before they actually are released to the public. It’s a great perk and it really helps me out.
In a previous video, I talked about Hong Kong's water supply and its relations to the Chinese mainland. If you want to watch that video first, you can. It is an interesting overview of the colony's attempts to build for itself a drinking water supply independent of China.
Basically, the colonial government long realized that it needed aquifers and reservoirs to meet the needs of its population. But the increasing costs of managing that population combined with warming ties with Communist China meant that it was far cheaper to just buy that water from the motherland.
In this video, I want to discuss a similar water supply situation. Except the two parties are Singapore and Malaysia rather than Hong Kong and China. Their history of water relations is fascinating.
Singapore's Water Weakness
I remember during my time in Singapore that it would rain almost every day at around 4 PM exactly. And not just your ordinary sprinkle - a downpour that made me feel like I needed an ark and two of every animal. Ruined my good shoes and socks.
Considering this embarrassment of rain (2.4 meters worth a year), you might be surprised to find out that the city-state suffers from a scarcity of fresh, drinking water.
Like with Hong Kong, certain aspects of the island's geography means that most of that rainwater does not flow into groundwater reservoirs. Singapore is small, and there are not enough areas where rainwater can gather. As a result, Singapore's per capita natural fresh water resource comes in below the United Nations scarcity benchmark of 1000 cubic meters.
Furthermore, it has a relatively large population of about 5 million people. Domestic water usage makes up a slight minority of water usage in the country. Most of it goes to industry and commercial use. For example, the country's semiconductor fabs require a steady supply of clean, pure water to clean their wafers.
Malaysia for its part has a lot of rain and quite a few big rivers, but some of their areas are prone to dry periods. When those occasional droughts occur, the state needs to impose water rationing on its people. It might not surprise you that the Malaysian people do not really take well to that.
As a result, the water situation between the two countries can be best described as "complicated".
Singapore and Malaysia, Frenemies
Look up the word "frenemies" in the dictionary and you will find a picture of Singapore and Malaysia. Both were born of the colonial British Malaya state, but certain aspects of their history have led them to develop separately. Nevertheless, they share close bonds beyond just their physical proximity.
Singapore had been one of the 14 states that make up Malaysia from 1963 to 1965. But it was then ejected from the federation due to trust issues and ideological differences between the political leaders.
When Singapore left the federation, people realized that the two countries will have to remain closely tied together for many reasons. The water issue will be one of those continuing linkages. Then-Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, who made an appearance in my video about Malaysia's game-changing New Economic Plan, is frequently quoted to have said:
"If Singapore’s foreign policy is prejudicial to Malaysia’s interests, we could always bring pressure to bear on them by threatening to turn off the water in Johor"
Water Agreements and Disagreements
Over their history together, Singapore and Malaysia have struck four water agreements. Back in 1927 when both states were governed by the British, Singapore municipal leadership and the Government of the State of Johor signed an agreement that allowed Singapore to rent land from Johor and use their water for free.
A second agreement was signed in 1961 that superseded the 1927 agreement. The 1961 agreement gave Singapore full and exclusive rights to draw 86 million gallons of raw water from certain areas in Johor. Singapore would in turn need to pay rent for the land as well as pay for the water drawn (about 3 cents per thousand gallons). Singapore also would sell treated water back to Johor at rate below cost.
In 1962, another agreement was signed that allowed Singapore to draw up to 250 million gallons of water from the Johor River.
Both the 1961 and 1962 agreements were honored even after the 1965 Separation between Singapore and Malaysia. For a new country with so few natural resources, this was a big win. But those agreements do have a provision to review and re-price the agreements in 25 years' time. Malaysia did not exercise this right to do so when that time came.
Finally, there is a 1990 agreement that allowed Singapore to build a dam in Johor so to make it easier to get raw water out of the Johor river. Singapore paid for the construction and maintenance of the dam. As a result they can buy some raw water out of the reservoir in addition to what they get to have from the 1962.
As of this writing, Singapore remains a country dependent on another country for a significant portion of its drinking water. This is a critical dependency, one similar faced by Hong Kong in its dealings with China.
Now, it must be said that Malaysia has never actually cut off Singapore's water supply. This is despite all the legal jockeying and political jawboning back and forth across the border. With that being said, it does loom over bilateral relations.
Starting in 1998, negotiations were held to extend the 1960s-era water agreements. Such water talks were parts of a larger series of discussions, but soon emerged front and center in debate. Throughout 2001 into 2002, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad negotiated. They got close to the finishing line but things held up on the actual price.
Malaysia wanted a price tied to what Hong Kong paid Guangdong. Singapore felt that that price was too high. Hong Kong was paying back Guangdong for water infrastructure building costs. Singapore was willing to pay more for raw water, but not at what it deems to be an arbitrarily high cost. Furthermore, such a cost was not all that far off from what can be had from desalination and recycling.
Thus, talks ended and Singapore embarked on a journey to be water-independent by the end of the 1962 Agreement in 2061.
Building Supply and Matching Demand
Several decades ago, Singapore and Hong Kong faced a similar situation of not being able to depend on its own water supply to meet the needs of its public. A comprehensive policy was needed.
Thus far, the Singaporean government has been able to manage the water supply and demand situation very well, growing the former and reducing the latter.
On the supply side, the Singaporean government sought to increase the share of water from the three sources it can control: Local catchments, recycling and desalination.
The first is expanding the amounts of local catchments, simply meaning that the government is trying to make it easier to catch rainwater and funnel it away for storage in reservoirs. Some 65% of Singapore's land has been engineered to place water in one of the country's 17 reservoirs.
Hong Kong's last large reservoir was completed in the late 70s. Singapore has added three in the 2000s alone, including the large Marina reservoir.
The second is recycling water. I was bemused when my Singaporean friends told me about NEWater, very aptly named. Basically it is putting used water through a battery of processing steps like micro-filtration, reverse osmosis and UV disinfection. Singapore had been researching this idea since the 1970s, but it was not until the late 1990s that the technology became economically viable.
NEWater is suitable for drinking but most of it goes to non-potable usage like industry and semiconductor manufacturing. There are four NEWater plants around the country. I hope to go to a visitor center on my next visit.
The third source of course is desalination. Singapore has opened a number of desalination plants over the years. Their fourth desalination plant, the Keppel Marina East Desalination Plant, recently opened in late June 2020. When fully operational, the plant can meet water demands for 200,000 households and 7% of Singapore's total daily water demand.
Last but mostly importantly is the proper pricing of demand. The most effective policy has been to price water at an economically sustainable cost.
In 1973, the Singaporean government raised domestic tariffs on water and experienced as a result the first decline in demand since 1967. Water costs have since been raised a few times and are considered a critical portion of the government strategy. Significantly, in 1997 the cost of water was pegged to desalination costs. Most recently, in 2017 water prices were increased 30% over the span of two years.
For low and middle income households who might struggle to pay for these water costs, U-Save rebates are provided as a targeted subsidy. Applicable to all utility costs, the vouchers represent a more economically efficient solution than simply subsidizing water for everybody.
The result is that even though Singapore's population has grown faster than Hong Kong's and is richer, per capita water consumption has actually gone down from 165 liters a day in 2003 to 152 in 2012 and 141 today. Hong Kong's numbers include undrinkable seawater used for flushing, but the freshwater use per capita has gone up from 113 liters a day in 1993 to 125 in 2012 and 130 today.
Droughts and Contamination in Johor
As I mentioned earlier, Malaysia is relatively water-rich, with the total amount of surface water a percentage of demand from all sectors. Even with substantial growth forecasts built in, resources are expected to meet demand.
Malaysia's problem is more related to managing water contamination issues and maintaining supply during drought periods. Climate change has made recent droughts longer and more severe, leaving its population especially vulnerable to outages.
As the economy develops and more of Malaysia's forests are cleared, catchments vanish and reduce the amount of water flowing into reservoirs. This weakens the country's ability to tap its stores when those droughts inevitably come.
The contamination is also a serious concern, arguably bigger than the droughts. Nearly all of Malaysia's rivers experience some form of water pollution, with occasional blooms of something worse. In 2017, over 1.8 million residents in Johor Bahru experienced supply disruptions when the river found itself contaminated with ammonia.
These issues in the Malaysian hinterland have significant consequences in Singapore’s future even as it marches towards water independence.
The Singapore government is getting closer to its long-term goal of being water independent when the Malaysia water agreement expires. Considering that almost every country in the world struggles in one form or another with the issue of providing enough water to its citizens, this is a pretty impressive achievement.
But for now, the country's 5 million people still rely to a significant extent on water coming from across the border. Water contamination and drought can stress systems in both countries, potentially sparking conflict and political squabble.
A new raw water agreement after the 2061 expiry date seems unlikely, but there does remain the possibility that Malaysia sells treated water directly to Singapore after the expiry date. I will make a video and let you know what happens when that time comes in about 40 years.