How Singapore’s Water Management Has Become A Global Model for How to Tackle Climate Crisis

By Asit Biswas, Peter Joo Hee Ng 23 March, 2022

Taking from its successful water management, Singapore is adopting a long-term, integrated & prepared for the worst approach on climate. Find out more from Global water guru Prof Biswas & PUB's CEO Ng

SG faces droughts, intense rain & is exposed to sea level rise (only 5m above sea level) and it is at the forefront of countries with climate plans & is steadfastly implementing it
Taking from its successful water management, SG is adopting a long-term & integrated approach on climate; if other countries adopt the policies, the global needle will move
SG is committed: going to spend 20% of GDP (USD75bn) on coastal protection alone, using the worst case scenarios in modelling & favouring nature based solutions

The article was first published in The Conversation in November 2021. Click here to view it.

Singapore is at the forefront of nearly all countries that have formulated a long-term plan for managing climate change and is steadfastly implementing that plan.

The small island state of 6 million people was among the 40 nations invited by US President Joe Biden to attend his leaders’ summit on tackling climate change last April.

Singapore is one of most densely populated countries in the world. It faces the twin challenges of ensuring sustainable water supply during droughts as well as effective drainage during intense rain seasons amid climate change.

SG faces droughts, intense rain & is exposed to sea level rise standing only 5m above sea level

Much of Singapore is also as flat as a pancake and stands no more than 5 metres above the mean sea level. This puts the country at risk from rising sea level due to climate change.

But thanks to its water system management, Singapore has been a success story as a resilient and adaptable city.

Water-resilient Singapore

The country has to be prepared for when rights to draw water from Malaysia end in 2061. Singapore draws up to 50% of its water supply from the neighbouring country.

For over two decades, Singapore’s National Water Agency, PUB, has successfully added large-scale nationwide rainwater harvesting, used water collection, treatment and reuse, and seawater desalination to its portfolio of conventional water sources, so the nation-state can achieve long-term water sustainability.

SG’s water system management has made it a resilient & adaptable city

The agency has been collecting and treating all its sewage to transform it into clean and high-quality reclaimed water. As a result, the PUB has become a leading exponent of using recycled water, dubbed locally as NEWater, as a source of water. In 2017, NEWater successfully supplied up to 40% of the total water demand of 430 million gallons per day in Singapore. As the projected demand will double by 2060, the PUB plans to increase NEWater supply capacity up to 55% of demand.

Under the plan, desalinated water will supply 30% of total demand in 2060 – a 5% increase from its share in 2017.

The remaining share of the country’s water demand (15%) in 2060 will come from local catchments, which include 17 reservoirs, and imported water. The country does not have the land area to collect and store enough run-off despite abundant tropical rains.

To increase the economic viability of these plans, much of the PUB’s current research and development effort is aimed at halving energy requirements for desalination and used water treatment.

Reducing emissions from water treatment is essential

Other than that, reducing carbon emissions from water treatment and generating energy from the byproducts of used water treatment has become essential for Singapore.


Embracing ‘life and death’ matters

Based on this success story, the Singapore government applies the same approach of long-term planning and implementation to tackle threats of climate change, including rising sea level.

SG using same approach to climate change…

….will spend 20% of GDP (USD75bn) on coastal protection

In 2019, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, described the country’s seriousness in treating climate change as “life and death matters”. The government estimates it will need to spend US$75 billion, around 20% of the country’s GDP, on coastal protection over the coming decades.

The government has tasked PUB to lead and co-ordinate whole-of-government efforts to protect these coastal areas. The agency is working hard to ensure Singapore does not become a modern-day Atlantis, Plato’s famous sunken city.

First order of business = develop an ‘integrated coastal-inland flood model’ to simulate worst-case effects

PUB’s first order of business is to develop an integrated coastal-inland flood model. This will allow it to simulate the worst-case effects of intense inland rainfall combined with extreme coastal events. PUB expects its flood model to become a critical risk-assessment tool for flood risk management, adaptation planning, engineering design and flood response.

The agency has also undertaken coastline protection studies of different segments. The first study began in May 2021 along City-East Coast, covering 57.8km of the coastline. This section had been identified as prone to flooding and has various critical assets such as airports and economic and industrial districts.

Other segments to be analysed are in Jurong Island, in southwestern Singapore, with the study to begin later this year, and the north-west coast, comprising Sungei Kadut and Lim Chu Kang, starting in 2022.

Rather than mere adaption to coming crisis, protection measures will be designed for multi-functional land use. Nature-based solutions will be incorporated whenever possible, to create welcoming spaces for living, work and play.

For sure, whatever Singapore does in climate mitigation will never move the global needle. But it is a very good example of what a country can do to successfully adapt to the dangers of climate change through good planning.

If SG’s policies are duplicated in other countries, the global needle will move

If its policies are duplicated in other countries, these combined efforts will most certainly cause the needle to move significantly.

After the United Nations High Level meeting on climate change, COP26, just completed this month in Glasgow, UK, Singapore can be considered to be a very good model of how countries can successfully adapt to the dangers of climate change in the coming decades.

Further Reading

  • Not Just a Drop in the Ocean – Global water guru Professor Asit Biswas & Singapore PUB’s CEO Peter Joohee Ng share how the country is setting the example on climate change & water mgmt by formulating long-term plans despite only accounting for 0.1% of global GHG emissions
  • Singapore: Making Business Unusual the Norm – Covid disruption has seen old businesses die and new ones sprout up. CWR’s Dawn McGregor shares how Singapore is innovating its climate threats into building resilience & new ways of making money
  • Singapore: Future Ready in Water – EDB’s director of cleantech, Goh Chee Kiong, shares his views on SIWW, key technologies surfacing, new growth markets for industrial water and the role of government in innovation from R&D to piloting and eventually commercialisation.
  • SIWW Spotlight 2021 Key Takeaways – Impressed with the frank conversations & SLR focus for the first time at the 2021 SIWW Spotlight, see what other takeaways CWR’s Dawn McGregor has from the centrepiece sessions
  • A Conversation with SIWWs Ryan Yuen – It was a different SIWW this year due to the pandemic & a more holistic agenda with hot new topics. We sat down with SIWW’s Ryan Yuen to get the SIWW2021 scoop & see what’s next

More on Latest

Asit Biswas
Author: Asit Biswas
Professor Biswas is a leading authority on water, environment and development-related issues. He has been an advisor and confidant to Presidents, PMs and Ministers of 19 countries, six Heads of UN Agencies, two Secretary-Generals of OECD and several heads of IGOs and MNCs. He was also Director of Canada’s Department of the Environment. Asit co-founded the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), the World Water Council and the Third World Centre for Water Management and currently sits on the International Advisory Board of Pictet Asset Management and the Indian Institute of Technology and is Strategic Advisor to Singapore International Water Week as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor to the University of Glasgow. Asit is a distinguished Academician. With 950+ publications, his h-index of 44 makes him an ‘outstanding scientist’ and a Research Gate score of 41.89, puts him into the top 2.5% of all scientists across all disciplines globally. He founded the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is the author or editor of 88 books; his works have been translated into 41 languages. He has also seven Honorary Doctorates plus numerous prestigious global environment and water awards, ranging from the Aragon Environment Prize to the Stockholm Water Prize; Canada even named him Person of the Year in 1996.
Read more from Asit Biswas →
Peter Joo Hee Ng
Author: Peter Joo Hee Ng
Peter Joo Hee Ng is Chief Executive Officer at PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency. Prior to this, he held roles as Singapore’s Commissioner of Police and Commissioner of Prisons.
Read more from Peter Joo Hee Ng →