Transforming our cities: On water, Singapore shows the way

Every drop of rain that can be captured, should be captured. Every drop of wastewater that can be safely reclaimed, should be reclaimed.

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Updated: April 15, 2015 4:32 am
Unless large capital investments are facilitated and consumers are made to understand that water is not a free good, the water situation in Delhi will deteriorate in the coming months and years. Unless large capital investments are facilitated and consumers are made to understand that water is not a free good, the water situation in Delhi will deteriorate in the coming months and years.

Most Indian cities suffer from acute shortages and poor quality of water. Singapore, a country whose water challenge was perhaps the worst faced by any country in the world in the mid-1960s, has transformed its water scenario. We often dismiss outside experience as being irrelevant for India’s development efforts. With a water crisis staring urban India in the face, perhaps it is time we understood how Singapore turned its water story around.

Singapore imported 55 per cent of its water for consumption from Johor, in the neighbouring state of Malaysia, in August 1965. By proclaiming that “every other policy has to bend at the knees for our water survival,” Lee Kuan Yew, the iconic leader and first prime minister of Singapore who passed away recently, communicated to his people and to the world in no uncertain terms his government’s commitment to water sustainability.

Singapore has successfully combined simple conventional means to capture and store rainwater and treat used water with innovative solutions, such as producing recycled used water and desalinated water to address the water challenge within a financially sustainable framework.

The Public Utilities Board (PUB) of Singapore has been in charge of all elements of the water management system: water catchment network, drainage and sewerage system, water treatment and distribution, production of clean recycled used water, and desalination. The basic philosophy is that “every drop of rain that can be captured, should be captured, and every drop of wastewater that can be safely reclaimed, should be reclaimed.”

Singapore has neither much groundwater nor many natural freshwater bodies, and though its rainfall is adequate, its compact 710 square kilometres landmass poses a major challenge for storing rainwater. Up to the mid-1970s, rivers were not suitable catchments as rainwater would quickly get contaminated by the large amounts of sewage and pollutants that they carried. With only 5 per cent of land area as “protected catchment”, Singapore started demarcating a large number of “partly-protected catchments” where prior treatment of wastewater is mandatory before discharging it to the streams. Waterways were cleaned up to act as water catchments. The cleaning up of the highly polluted Singapore River, Stamford Canal and the Kallang basin, over the period of 1977 to 1987, made it possible later to use the river as a key urban catchment that fed into the Marina reservoir.

In 1971, only 57 per cent of Singapore’s population was connected to sewerage. A Sewerage Master Plan in the late 1960s divided the island into six used water catchment zones, with a water reclamation plant for each zone. The Drainage Department was set up in 1972 to manage storm water. Separation of storm water drains from sewers was critical for developing water catchment areas in the urban zone. By 1973, Singapore was ready with its first Water Master Plan.

Efforts at recycling used water began in the early 1970s, but the recycling plant had to be closed in 1975 because production was not financially viable. In 2000, using superior technology of water reclamation imported from the US and adapted to local conditions, a demonstration plant of 2.2 million gallons per day (mgd) capacity was set up at Bedok. With a 50 per cent decline in the cost of membranes over the 25-year period, the plant could economically produce recycled used water (known as NEWater) to WHO standards in 2002. The quality was even better than of water supplied by the PUB. There was no looking back after that. The next innovation came in 2005, with desalination of seawater.

Water demand in Singapore has grown from 77 mgd in the 1960s to 400 mgd in 2014, but access to clean water has been 100 per cent for over three decades. NEWater currently meets 30 per cent of Singapore’s water needs, while desalination plants and the Marina reservoir each meet another 10 per cent. Singapore has built adequate capacity to reduce its vulnerability to imports of water.

Water is priced to recover the cost of production with progressively higher rates for higher uses, and there is cash subsidy for the poor. Initially, the water tariff covered only operation and maintenance costs of the system, but in the 1970s they moved to a full cost pricing regime. A water conservation tax (WCT) of 5 per cent was levied in 1991 above a specified threshold of consumption. In 1997, Singapore moved to marginal cost pricing, such that the water tariff plus WCT would cover the cost of producing the next drop of clean water (from desalination or NEWater). For the low-income families, there were U-SAVE vouchers. In 2013, a voucher of about $20 to $22 per month was given against an average water bill of about $35 per month.

Building awareness through community engagement and good governance were the other major factors behind Singapore’s success. To this day, the water situation in Singapore is reviewed by the cabinet every month. Unaccounted for water has been brought down from 11 per cent in the 1980s to 5 per cent in 2015, by far the lowest of all countries.

What lesson does all this hold for India? Investments in expanding the distribution network are necessary for equity considerations but are not sufficient to ensure better delivery of water. Simultaneous attention needs to be paid to the following: expansion of sewerage; maintaining separate storm water network; treating wastewater and industrial effluents; protecting urban catchments; and improving efficiency through better governance.

In Delhi itself, only 55 per cent of the area is covered by sewerage network; 40 per cent of the sewage is treated; drainage infrastructure is in a very poor condition; and sewage finds its way into the Yamuna without treatment. Large capital investments are needed to fix all this, including drainage, which is not with the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). At the same time, the financial viability of the DJB is eroded by the inability to cover costs through pricing, corruption in billing, metering and collection, and more recently, by the free water policy of the Delhi government.

For the past three years, the DJB had started meeting its operation and maintenance costs (not including interest charges) from a progressive water tariff structure, thus enabling it to access grants from the government of India under the JNNURM for capital investments and also procure external finance at reasonable interest rates. A decision was taken in 2010 that water charges will be raised by 10 per cent every year.

In February 2015, the newly elected government of Delhi announced free water for all households consuming up to 20,000 litres of water a month, fulfilling its election promise. The implementation will be a challenge, since only 50 per cent of the population has water meter connections and many of the meters are not functional. Cash subsidy to the poor would have been a better option. The subsequent 10 per cent hike in tariff for those consuming more than 20,000 litres a month makes part correction of a decision that the government is not in a position to fund. Unless large capital investments are facilitated and consumers are made to understand that water is not a free good, the water situation in Delhi will deteriorate in the coming months and years. Learning from Singapore, I hope that Delhi will not set a bad example for the rest of the country.

The writer is chairperson of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (Icrier) and former chairperson of the High-Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure Services.

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