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Singapore’s growth story holds lessons for water-scarce China

Singapore’s leaders realised 40 years ago that it is much more expensive for a society to live in a polluted environment than a clean one

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Singapore is still dependent on imported water, but aims to become self-sufficient within 50 years. (Image by Patrick Casabuena)

When the tiny city-state of Singapore gained independence in 1965, its social, economic, political and environmental constraints appeared so formidable that many of those looking in from outside predicted a dismal future.

Forty years on, the reality looks very different. Within a few decades, the state – just 714 square kilometres and with very limited natural resources – has turned itself into a country with increasing per capita GDP, a clean environment and vibrant innovation. From China to Myanmar, “learn from Singapore” has become a common refrain.

Today’s emerging economies are right to single out Singapore for study, and they should pay particular attention to its history of water management. In the face of multiple challenges – surging water demands due to rapid economic development; a 30-fold rise in GDP; a 23%-plus increase in land area through reclamation; a tripling of population; thriving industry – water security has actually improved. Though Singapore is still dependent on imported water, it aims to become self-sufficient within 50 years.

Boom in water consumption

Between 1965 and 2011, total water consumption in Singapore increased from 70 to 310 million gallons per day.

To meet the challenge of this increase, the state has expanded its water catchment – the area from which rainwater is collected through a network of drains, canals, rivers and stormwater collection ponds – to 67% of the area of the island, compared to only 11% when it became independent.

Singapore still buys a lot of its water from Johor in neighbouring Malaysia, but at the same time as water demands have grown, the city-state has worked to reduced its heavy reliance on imports. One of two key water agreements with Malaysia expired in 2011. Under the second, a maximum of 250 million gallons per day can still flow to Singapore. The state aims to cut this figure to zero within 50 years.

The latest available technology has been used to expand Singapore’s water supply base, manage water quality and reduce the energy consumption of its water activities. Examples include the development of non-conventional water sources, such as very high-quality treated wastewater known as NEWater and desalinated water.

NEWater already meets 30% of the national water demand, a figure expected to rise to 50% by 2060. It has become the chief alternative for the growing industrial sector and reduced pressure on potable water. Desalinated water meanwhile satisfies 10% of total water demand and is expected to cover 30% by the year 2060.

Participation of the private sector in infrastructural development has also been encouraged: water pricing has been set at a marginal cost since 2000, while the public has been involved through decades-long communication and information efforts.

Technological advances have been integrated into water policies as one of the many elements necessary both to increase available supply and maintain high water quality, while different ministries proved able to coordinate their water strategies. Notably for China, laws and regulations have been stringently enforced: there were more than 29,000 prosecutions relating to environmental offences in Singapore between 1968 and 1971 alone, marking a move by the state to enforce environmental law decades ahead of its Asian peers.

These are lessons that could be considered by emerging economic powers like China, where fast growth and its associated pollution have triggered serious economic, social and environmental concerns.

Cleaning up the Singapore River

The 10-year clean-up of the Singapore River is one example of coordinated planning, though it took time to come to fruition. Success was made possible by the large scale redevelopment of central Singapore and the elimination and control of the sources of pollution entering the river so that water could be used safely and cost-effectively for potable use.

It was not a quick process, and Singapore learned lessons along the way, including the need for support at the highest political levels to permanently solve pollution problems.

Since the river was the main trade artery of the island and growing economic activity along its banks attracted increasing numbers of people – squatter colonies, hawkers, backyard industries – the problem was repeatedly sidestepped. The net result was that increasing quantities of domestic and industrial wastewater and solid waste was discharged into the river, seriously affecting its quality.

It wasn’t until former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew gave an ultimatum to ministries and agencies in 1977 that things started to change. They were instructed to work together to improve the water quality of the river, identify the domestic, commercial and industrial pollution sources blighting the waterway, create relevant legislation and, ultimately, redevelop Singapore’s entire central area.

More than 26,000 families were resettled into public housing, significantly improving their living conditions. Almost 5,000 street hawkers, more than 46,000 squatters and some 800 lighters – barges used to transport goods along the river – were relocated. Around 2,800 industrial cases of backyard trades and cottage industries were also moved, most of them into newly developed industrial estates. Finally, some 610 pig farms and 500 duck farms, which used to discharge untreated wastes into the river, were phased out.

At US$240 million, the clean-up of the Singapore River wasn’t cheap. But a tally of the benefits – both direct and indirect – makes clear it was a sound investment. The programme transformed the face of Singapore. Land values along the river banks soared, as did tourism and business.

Lee Kuan Yew noted during a personal discussion with us that the main driver for long-term strategic planning was the search for water security. During his premiership, water was prioritised to the extent that economic development was subordinate to the impacts it could have on water resources. This strong political support from the highest levels of government has been instrumental to the state’s development.

It is said that Singapore has been able to thrive because of its small size and that its experiences are therefore not relevant to other countries. On the contrary, without a hinterland and almost no natural resources, the tiny island has had to formulate long-term, creative solutions to ensure economic growth and a liveable environment.

Lee Kuan Yew realised as early as the late 1960s that, in the long-term, it is much more expensive for a society to live in a polluted environment than a clean one. Almost half a century later, most of the world’s leaders are still to grasp this fact.

Cecilia Tortajada and Asit K Biswas are authors of The Singapore Water Story: Sustainable Development in an Urban City State (Routledge, 2013).

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匿名 | Anonymous

能可持续吗?

冷战期间,苏联从未关闭其对东欧的燃气供应。如今,尽管和水资源丰富的马来西亚有着非常紧密的贸易关系,新加坡的水资源长期供给也不能得到完全保证。新加坡花费巨资并焚烧大量碳氢化合物以淡化海水。良好的关系和紧密的合作既困难,也很难在可持续作用上获得赏识。

再者,新加坡社会对于水资源的需求越来越强烈,如过去十年里,汽车拥有量和使用量日益增长。与此同时,欧洲大部分地区,以苏黎世,弗莱堡和哥本哈根为主导,正在转向减少汽车使用,在马路为自行车和其他低排放交通工具留出空间。

新加坡的环境足迹近些年已经大幅度恶化,这显示出环境可持续性正在为经济发展和人口增长让步牺牲。

http://www.footprintnetwork.org/images/trends/2012/pdf/2012_singapore.pdf

新加坡的方法和模式来自于其有限的自然资源和良好的地理位置。这种条件几乎是独一无二的。更多有用的可以解决持续性的方法和案例来自欧洲,比如德国。

Is it sustainable?

During the Cold War the Soviet Union never shut off gas supplies to Western Europe. Today despite close trade ties Singapore could not secure long term water supply with water-abundant Malaysia. Instead Singapore spends huge sums and burns more hydrocarbon for desalination. Good relations and close cooperation are hard and underappreciated aspects of sustainability.

Moreover increasing resource intensity of water is reflected by society in general in Singapore. For example, expanding car ownership and use over the last decade. Meanwhile much of Europe, led by Zurich, Freiburg and Copenhagen, is shifting towards less car use, reducing road space for cars in favour of bicycles and other low-emission transport.

Singapore's environmental footprint has deteriorated markedly in recent years suggesting sustainability is being sacrificed for economic and population expansion at any cost.

http://www.footprintnetwork.org/images/trends/2012/pdf/2012_singapore.pdf

The Singapore approach and model arises from limited natural resources and a blessed location. Circmustances almost unique. More useful examples of evolving pathways to sustainability lie in Europe, such as Germany.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回复:新加坡是缺水国家的标杆?是的。

这是塞西莉亚的又一篇精彩文章,主题是新加坡在水资源使用和利用方面的成功之处。新加坡面积只有不到800平方公里,其中汇水、沟渠等竟占地约70%,非常令人惊讶。我想了解公众对NEWater的看法,因为西方国家必须克服对使用再生水的反感情绪。希望读到更多关于新加坡的成绩的报道,也希望了解印度、中国、美国等国家应如何以新加坡为标杆借鉴其经验。过去几年中,珍贵的水资源被过度开发,伴随着人口急剧增长,持续目前的水资源消费水平已经不太现实了。

Re: Singapore the benchmark for water distressed countries? Yes.

Another great article by Celia,on the turn around of Singapore's success in the arena of water efficiency and usage. Surprising to know that a country that covers some 800 sq. km. could have water catchments, canals, etc that use almost 70 percent of the land. I would like to know the publics perception on NEWater, Western countries would certainly have to overcome the YUK! factor of consuming recycled water. I certainly look forward to reading more about Singapore's success, and how it can be held as a standard to countries like India, China, and the United States. Over the past few years, the overharvesting of our precious resource, water, and continuing population growth place strains on our ability to consume water at the present levels.