Not Just A Drop In The Ocean

By Asit Biswas, Peter Joo Hee Ng 24 September, 2021

Global water guru Prof Biswas & PUB's CEO Ng share how despite being small, Singapore can still impact the global climate

SG emits only ~0.1% of global GHGs yet it must cope with climate change caused by others; SG is vulnerable to SLR & is getting hotter and is experiencing more intense rain
SG is at the forefront of countries that have formulated long-term plans for managing climate change & steadfastly implementing a proven good long-term plan
Singapore by itself cannot impact climate change but if its enlightened policies are duplicated in other countries it will most certainly cause the global meter to jump

The article was first published in Policy Forum s in June 2021. Click here to view it.


In April 2021, United States President Joe Biden hosted a virtual summit of national leaders from 40 countries. Attendees included 17 countries that are responsible for 80 per cent of global emissions and global gross domestic product (GDP), countries that are especially vulnerable to climate change, and also those charting innovative pathways to a net-zero carbon economy. The Summit was a welcome sign of America’s return to the table after its four years of absence from the Paris Climate Agreement.

During this Summit, President Biden said that climate change is an “existential crisis of our time” and that the world “has to move quickly to meet these challenges.” He announced that the United States will reduce carbon emissions by 50-52 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, and said the United States will be a net zero emission country no later than 2050.

Since the Industrial Revolution that started around 1760, the unrestrained use of fossil fuels has steadily increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere to unprecedented levels. As more and more greenhouse gases accumulated and became trapped in the atmosphere, the world has become warmer. Consequently, polar ice caps have started to melt, glaciers are shrinking and may even eventually disappear, and sea levels all over the world are rising.

“Many of the impacts of climate change can be viewed through the lens of water”

Since greenhouse gases trap heat, their release has led to increases in air and sea temperatures which are affecting the global climate. Extreme meteorological events like floods, droughts, hurricanes, and typhoons are becoming more common and intense, as are heatwaves and forest fires in many countries. Many of the impacts of climate change can be viewed through the lens of water. Thus, adaptation and mitigation measures for climate change often lie with good water and land use management.

SG emits ~0.1% of global GHGs, nevertheless it must cope with climate change brought about by others

Singapore was one of the countries that was invited by President Biden because of its innovative approaches to adapting to climate change. This small city-state of six million people is now at the forefront of countries that have formulated long-term plans for managing climate change and steadfastly implementing that plan.

Singapore, emitting only about 0.1 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, must nevertheless cope with climate change that is overwhelmingly brought about by the other 99.9 per cent of emissions.

Much of Singapore is as flat as a pancake and stands no more than five metres above mean sea level, making it especially vulnerable to rising sea levels. Without effective management of the situation, the consequences would be dire for what is one of the world’s most densely populated countries.

The signs are already ominous. 2019 was the warmest year on record for Singapore, as it was for many parts of the world. It was also one of the driest years on record. 1,367 millimetres of rain fell in 2019 – 37 per cent below the annual average – making it the third driest year since record-keeping started in 1869.

Being pancake flat, SG is exposed to SLR…

…it is also becoming hotter & drier and at the same time seeing more intense rain

At the same time, when rain does come it is becoming very intense. The 318 millimetres of rain that fell on 1 January 2021 was significantly more than the historical January monthly average of 238 millimetres and within the first percentile of maximum daily rainfall records of the past 39 years.

Four months later, on 17 April, another heavy storm dumped 177 millimetres of rain – again, more than a months’ regular rainfall.

Thus, Singapore, a land and water-scarce country, must overcome the twin challenge of assuring water sufficiency during prolonged droughts and ensuring good drainage during intense downpours.

In addition, Singapore has to be prepared for the eventual cessation of drawing rights of nearly 50 per cent of its current water supply from neighbouring Malaysia in 2061. PUB, its national water agency, has long added wastewater collection, treatment and reuse, and seawater desalination to its portfolio of conventional water sources. PUB has become a leading exponent of using recycled wastewater, called NEWater, as a source of domestic and industrial water supply.

For over two decades, Singapore has been collecting all its sewage, treating it, and transforming it into ultra-high-quality water. The ready availability of recycled and desalinated water has made Singapore’s water supply more resilient to vagaries of weather.

SG has demonstrated good long-term planning & putting money where it is needed

The same approach of good long-term planning and progressive implementation is now being applied to the looming threat of sea-level rise. In his 2019 National Day Rally address, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “We should treat climate change defences… with utmost seriousness. These are life and death matters. Everything must bend at the knee to safeguard the existence of our island nation.”

He promptly put money where his mouth is, pledging upwards of US$75 billion – equivalent to roughly 20 per cent of the country’s GDP – towards coastal protection. As the coastal protection agency, PUB is working to make sure Singapore does not become a modern-day Atlantis.

Of course, adaptation is only one side of the coin. For sure, whatever Singapore does in climate mitigation will never move the global needle. But it does what it can. Much of PUB’s current research and development efforts are aimed at halving energy requirements for desalination.

Reducing the carbon footprint of water treatment is essential for a place like Singapore which has no land to collect and store enough runoff, despite tropical rains, and can only become increasingly dependent on manufactured sources to quench the thirst of its people and industry.

If SG’s policies are duplicated in other countries, the global meter will jump

Tiny Singapore’s efforts may not amount to much in terms of the entire world’s exertions at mitigating the adverse impacts of climate change. However, if its enlightened policies are duplicated in other countries, these combined efforts will most certainly cause the global meter to jump.


Further Reading

  • 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
  • Why Isn’t Water Top Of The Climate Agenda? – If water risks were properly valued, they would be much greater than the energy transition risks so, why isn’t water at the top of the agenda asks Eco-Business’ Sonia Sambhi who caught CWR’s Debra Tan & other water experts at SIWW 2021
  • How To Make Water Issues Matter To World Leaders – Except Singapore, no other leaders of any other country have shown sustained interest in water in the last 50 years. How can this paradigm shift? Global water gurus Asit Biswas & Cecilia Tortajada explore
  • 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.
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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 →