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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  1. A
    Apr 15, 2015 at 5:56 pm
    Apparently, Delhi seems to be most suitable Indian city for implementation of the Singapore Model except the Desalination of water. Due to its land-locked, Medium Annual Rainfall area location, Recycling wastewater is the most suitable option to meet a large share of Water demand of Delhi. However, on any given day, if an Indian is given the option to choose between Recycled Pure Water and not-so-pure fresh water, she/he would in all probability choose latter. Moreover, the treated water is a costly affair and unless its cost is recovered from the consumers, the financial viability of any such project is doomed. Unless the Government forces the Delhi consumers to either pay for treatment or consume the treated water, Singapore model would be difficult to replicate. Legal challenges and democratic limitations might also throw the process in a limbo. Only way to overcome this issue is to convince the citizens of the benefits for the future generations.
    1. N
      Apr 17, 2015 at 3:34 pm
      A big part of the problem is our leadership. Even a so called enlightened leader like IIT educated Mr. kejriwal thinks that solution lies in giving away free water & Electricity rather than finding engineering solution to water shortage, harvesting & any other thinking, what can you expect from leaders like Lalloo Yadav & Rahul hi?
      1. G
        Apr 15, 2015 at 12:54 pm
        good piece but solely focussed on delhi. an integrated water policy would be farsighted once implemented through the federal administrative structure.
        1. D
          Dr. S.
          Apr 20, 2015 at 8:51 am
          Historically India has tradition and heritage in terms of water conservation & protection mechanism and building buildings. But, unfortunately to serve the vested interests the modern politicians run around small countries like Singapore, Israel, etc to convert their illegal money through these channels. We never look at what is Singapore, or what is Israel, relative to India. India has 17.5% of the world’s potion, but has only 4% of world’s water resources with 2.6% of world’s land area. You can see the water tank in Mahanandi Temple in Kurnool District, built by Sages/Rishis and it is still intact with pure water. Our government wasted money on projects such as watersheds/check-dams and food for work, etc and achieved little to saving or protecting the water resources. If the government would have spent that money on waste water treatment, the rivers should have been clean by this time. Also, losses/pilferage in water and energy in cities is very high with the haphazard development. Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy
          1. J
            Joseph Tsai
            Apr 18, 2015 at 9:14 pm
            There too many political and social impediments to India being able to implement the Singapore model. The will is simply not there from all to see it through. India is a basket case. It requires profound and fundamental change.
            1. D
              Dr Motilal
              Apr 15, 2015 at 7:15 am
              Singapore is a city country one fourth in size of Mumbai . However if we want to learn from it the first thing to learn is how to make "INDIA CORRUPTION FREE" ? Improvement in all sectors of development will "AUTOMATICALLY FOLLOW ' .
              1. P
                Prashant Kulkarni
                Apr 16, 2015 at 7:23 pm
                Very good article. I was consulting with water utilities engg services provider company sometime back where I have seen many of world's water utility companies and govt bodies taking services for waster water treatment in a big way. Besides many common remedies such as saving rain water as much as possible, recycling waste water is also need of the hour. It serves two purposes: reduced pollution of our rivers, and also makes usable water available. It is so sad to see rivers in cities recklessly getting polluted due to untreated waste water ending up in the rivers. I have written about it on my blog: in the past.
                1. R
                  Apr 19, 2015 at 8:20 pm
                  @ Joseph Tsai: Dude, Singapore once faced equally grave problems too, remember the turbulent 60s? That's where India is at. Like Singapore, India has multiple languages/religions (4 official Singapore languages). People forget that Singapore's official anthem is in Malay while its majority potion is Chinese. Singapore is a perfect model for a democratic country that is diverse like India, while China is exactly the basket case you describe (shallow claim to homogeneity but destructive social problems within). Think Cantonese/Mandarin divide... there are hundreds of dialects in China, beyond the middle kingdom, things aren't as rosy as you try and sell. Singapore's model will work perfectly for India provided they are more efficient in their conduct - their diversity is so similar, it is frightening. Majulah Singapura is not mandarin - it is Malay, how about that for a basket case?
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