Water is killing us! See Singapore’s resilience playbook
by China Water Risk 27 July, 2021
Water is killing us! See Singapore’s resilience playbook: From devastating floods in China, Germany, Belgium to New Zealand; mudslides in Japan to dry conditions adding fuel to 80+ wildfires raging in the US – one way or another, water is killing us. Unfortunately, this is just a taster of what’s to come; it’s going to get worse. We must ramp up resilience now. So we were relieved to hear frank conversations during Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) about “what will kill you” and “what will keep you alive” as well as what they are doing to protect Singapore.
There was a lot of important information packed into the 10-day long virtual conference and expo that we felt compelled to dedicate this month to distilling key takeaways, advice and action points from the resilience playbook of 40+ global experts from ministers, CEOs, heads of top performing water utilities and Lee Kwan Yew Water Prize Laurates. Plus, catch our side-bar interview with SIWW’s Managing Director, the man who made it all happen.
It was all straight shooting from the start with Singapore officials admitting that climate change presented existential threats as the island was “pancake flat” in the opening “Spotlight” keynotes.
Singapore’s Minister for Sustainability & the Environment laid out significant risks but also opportunities while the CEO of PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency shared what keeps him awake at night when dealing with water risks. See what they plus other leading global water CEOs are most worried and excited about in our 5 key takeaways.
SIWW had always been centred around freshwater challenges and solutions. But this year, we are impressed that managing coastal threats was also included for the first time, giving a firm nod to the inter-linked nature of these risks and the need to tackle them together if we are to be water resilient. Indeed, the PUB is responsible for building resilience for both.
There was also frankness in embracing the deep uncertainties ahead with climate projections and open discussions as to whether adaptation was enough. As Singapore is “pancake flat”, deep uncertainty in future projections of sea level rise (SLR) can create big headaches – which projections should cities use for adaptation planning? What is the “correct” level of protection?
SLR experts from Singapore (PUB’s Coastal Protection Department, Centre for Climate Research Singapore, NUS Deltares and NUS) share how they approach SLR risk and management in a dedicated session titled “Dealing with the Deep Uncertainty of Sea Level Rise”. We summarised their views expressed in this session into 3 ways to deal SLR deep uncertainty … a quick tip, don’t just blindly follow the IPCC … instead get flexible.
A sentiment of ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry’ echoed throughout the SLR seminars during the SIWW. So guided by a pragmatic approach of “know what will kill you”, “best to prepare and practice” plus “know what will keep you alive”, no wonder Singapore was the best performer in our CWR APACCT20 Index which ranks the coastal threat exposure of 20 APAC cities.
So, what makes Singapore and SIWW such a success? Why did the event include new topics like coastal threats this year? To get answers to these questions and more, we sat down with SIWW’s Managing Director, Ryan Yuen. Check out what he had to say in our behind-the-scenes interview and see where SIWW is heading in the coming years.
Singapore clearly “gets it” with water risk and is leading from the front, but outside of Singapore, why is water still not at the top of the climate agenda? asks Eco-Business’ Sonia Sambhi. It should be, especially since all climate headlines this month are due to too much or too little water.
Sambhi succinctly sums up expert views on water risks vs. energy transition risks, policy vs. tech innovations, behavioural nudges, trade-offs and more from the high-level panel discussion on “Sustainability Leadership in Water: Experiences from Industry and Utility”. Don’t miss out as experts comprise of senior global water experts from UN/government advisors, past heads of IWRA, Pictet Water to PUB’s Deputy CEO and CWR’s own Debra Tan.
If the advice of industrial leaders and governments are not enough, there was also an inaugural roundtable of six Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) Water Prize laureates. It was a motivating discussion during which the laurates highlighted three game changers for our future that if we don’t act on, will face the consequences. So tap this wealth of knowledge and experience and heed their advice.
There was also a lot of tech innovations (which we didn’t have time to go into in this newsletter) but many experts echoed that while we may have the technology, political will is lacking. Top CEOs present indeed lamented the slow pace of progress in upgrading water infrastructure to meet current climate threats plus adaptation funding gaps are significant.
Here, we want to highlight Phnom Penh Water’s success story where it was not so much hi-tech but high-level of governance and transparency that was key to its fairy-tale transformation – Phnom Penh’s Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) was bankrupt in 1993 but by 2017, it was outperforming utilities in LA or London!
So it is possible – we can deliver clean water and protect our water resources from pollution. But with advancing climate threats, it pays to remember an old Chinese saying, “水能载舟亦能覆舟” … the water that holds the boat afloat is the same that sinks it – while water gives us life, it will also kill us. We must thus also protect our water supply from climate change plus build resilience against extreme water events and SLR.
To make this happen, we must first be frank about what we are already facing and what we will face going forward. We must be frank about whether we will manage to stay below 2°C, and if we don’t have firm plans to deliver carbon neutrality by 2030, then we should really prepare for the worst.
We must also break from the “pull of the past” as past trends no longer point to the future (the recent rainstorm in Zhengzhou was 1 in 1000 years event). Here, it also pays to remember the advice offered by Henk Ovink, Netherlands’ Special Envoy of International Water Affairs at SIWW to “not build back better” but “build forward better”.
It is already too late to stop climate impacts which we have already baked-in but it is possible to do better on adapting to survive physical threats ahead – as the leaked IPCC report warns “the worst is yet to come”.
Singapore and SIWW have demonstrated that with determination and the right mindset, any country can strive to become climate and water resilient; they have offered timely and valuable lessons. Now, it’s up to the rest of us to take a page from Singapore’s resilience playbook and ramp up resilience.