Game Changers: 6 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laureates

By Dawn McGregor 27 July, 2021

We would be fools not to tackle 3 game changers for our future water & climate according to 6 LKY laureates. CWR's McGregor breaks them down

Despite being a water event, the first issue raised by laureates at SIWW 2021 was climate change and that water professionals need to take action & shared how they can
Then, warning that difficulty to secure water sources is only going to increase with 'our broken relationship with groundwater' they showed how recycling water can help
Meanwhile, forever chemicals like PFAS are not being removed from water despite having the tech, which led to a call for new regulations that are based on sound science

For the first time at Singapore International Water Week (SIWW), a roundtable of six past Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) Water Prize laureates was held (see details on them in the table below). During the special webinar, the laureates shared their insights on advances in science and discussed key global water trends. It was an interesting session with an impressive wealth of knowledge among the laureates, which at times included very technical details but that showed how complicated solving water problems can be.

Just before we share our 3 key takeaways from the session, it is worth highlighting that it was unanimous among the laureates that winning the Prize had pushed them to keep tackling the world’s water problems despite many having had a full career already – see quotes below. Not only are they driven but they are taking on today’s big water challenges. Clearly, the LKY Water Prize continues to have global impact and we look forward to hearing from future laureates.

It is initiatives like these that will give the world chance at a sustainable water future

Meanwhile, this year, PUB (Singapore’s national water agency) has launched its second Global innovation Challenge, see more on that here. It is initiatives like these, fostering driven professionals to push boundaries and find innovative – not necessarily new – solutions, that give the world a chance at a sustainable water future

Receiving this prestigious prize has been life changing because I was very comfortable enjoying the fruits of my labour and being at a university again… [the] responsibility being a laureate put me back into trying to solve new problems.”

Dr Andrew Benedek, 2008 LKY Water Prize Laureate

“I’d like to second that, for me it has been a stimulus to go on working hard on what I have been since then rather than just settling back with the prize…”

Professor John Cherry, 2016 LKY Water Prize Laureate


About the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize & six past laureates

About the LKY Water Prize

  • The LKY Water Prize was established in 2008 to recognise contributions by individuals or organisations towards solving the world’s water challenges by developing or applying innovative technologies, policies or programmes which benefit humanity;
  • This award is named after Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose foresight & leadership has enabled Singapore to attain a sustainable water supply;
  • To-date, eight Laureates have been awarded this prize; and
  • In addition to the award & recognition, laureates receive prize money to further their work.

About the 6 past laureates

Year Prize Laureate Awarded prize for… Current role
2018 Prof. Rita Cowell Pioneering insights into microbial water quality surveillance Professor, University Of Maryland
2016 Prof. John Cherry Advancement of groundwater science, policies & technologies The Groundwater Project
2014 The Orange County Water District Innovative work in the management of groundwater & advanced water

reuse technologies

Mike Markus, GM, Orange County Water District
2012 Prof. Mark Van Loosdrecht Breakthrough contributions in used water treatment & development of the Anammox process Professor, TU Delft
2011 Dr James Barnard Invention of the Biological Nutrient Removal technology to treat water Global Practice & Techn. Leader, Black & Veatch
2008 Dr Andrew Benedek Pioneering the development & use of low-pressure membranes in water treatment Chairman and CEO, Anaergia Inc


Now, onto our key takeaways from the session. Among the many points made by the laureates, three areas that need urgent action stood out – these are the game changers that will determine our water future. The three are climate change, reliable water sources and forever chemicals, more on these below.

3 key areas needing urgent action:

1. Tackling climate change – water professionals need to act

Climate change was the first big issue raised despite it being a water event. It happened that Dr Benedek was the first of the laureates to speak as he won the first prize back in 2008 and the biggest problem for today he said was climate change – see his quote below. But he was not alone, as the session continued, climate change and its impacts were mentioned by nearly all the laureates – see quotes below. This climate focus highlighted just how interconnected water and climate change are, something that was also seen in other sessions during SIWW 2021 – see our key takeaways on that here.

Climate focus highlighted just how interconnected water & climate are…

“…we need turn our wastewater plants into resource recovery centres.”, Dr Benedek

While most of the climate discussion among the laureates was on climate impacts, Dr Benedek did provide some guidance on what water professionals need to do and that is to use resources better, in particular, “…turn our wastewater plants into resource recovery centres… they are now building plants that no longer have effluents, no more residues, they are turning it into products, and we are making into a power centre that puts power into the grid. This is a critical direction, I think for all of us…”

“Today, I think the biggest problem we all have is climate change. In addition to having water problems, we now have climate change that puts all water structures into a situation where resilience is a challenge. So, if we water professionals, want to do something about climate change and protecting our plants, we need to turn our wastewater plants into resource recovery centres.

Dr Andrew Benedek, 2008 LKY Water Prize Laureate
“…we are finding challenges in that this is a variable source of supply because of climate change because of other factors.”

 Mike Markus, General Manager, Orange County Water District, 2014 LKY Water Prize Laureate
“…the amount of water excess water pumped out of our aquifers is so large that it is basically contributing 25% of sea level rise.”

… “We know from climatic records… that we’ve had very severe droughts in the past. So, for example, people in California think they have lived through a severe drought or two, but they haven’t when you look at the severity of droughts in the past.”  

Professor John Cherry, 201\6 LKY Water Prize Laureate


2. Securing reliable water sources – groundwater & recycled water

Securing reliable water sources has been increasingly difficult be it due to climate change, as mentioned above, an increasing population or contamination. “Two billion of world’s eight billion people live in extreme water poverty due to unsafe drinking water and in fact, that number hasn’t changed over the last 25 years. In fact, it’s increasing as the world’s population goes up”, said Prof Cherry. Clearly securing reliable water supplies is already but will be even more of a game-changer for our future.

Better groundwater management and increasing the use of recycled water were ways shared by the laurates to help secure reliable water sources. More on these below.

Need to fix our broken relationship with groundwater

50% of the population & 70% of food is reliant on GW… meanwhile, 1/3 of the largest aquifers are being depleted beyond recovery

The world is reliant on groundwater but “…our relationship with groundwater is broken”, said Prof Cherry who outlined this mismatch; today, 50% of the global population drinks groundwater to an extent and 70% of the global food supply is reliant on groundwater (using base flow in agricultural irrigation). Meanwhile, a third of the world’s largest aquifers are being depleted beyond recovery and even if we stopped pumping today, it would take decades, centuries for them to recover.

What is needed to fix this relationship? Well, a start is to (better) manage aquifer recharge, which is not easy and so why the water education system should rally around that. And actually, recycled water has a part to play too, see below.

Use more recycled water

Groundwater is a key drinking water source for Orange County in California in the US. It is pretty much its only local water source with the rest of its water imported from surrounding areas. In order to build the local water supply reliability needed, they turned to recycled water. They took secondary effluent and treated it with various technologies (microfiltration, reverse osmosis & others) and then was put back into the groundwater basin to become part of that local potable supply, which is what they won the LKY Water Prize for. A good example of a holistic approach. More and more cases of using recycled water are being seen across the world. Singapore is not new to this having also pioneered this technology since the 1970s and today is used as one of the country’s 4 taps, known as NEWater.

3. Removing forever chemicals

The third game changer was chemicals and water contamination/ pollution, which exacerbates water scarcity and thus climate impacts. It is all connected.

PFAS are not being removed despite having the technology…

Dr Benedek raised the point as currently forever chemicals like Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) – found in many everyday items & are harmful to humans – are not being removed during water recycling or tackled during sludge treatment, despite it being proven that we have the technology and processes to remove them. Slow technological adoption, taking up to 15 years, across the water sector was noted by several laureates but we simply don’t have time for that. PFAS are bioaccumulating in water resources and also food, drinking water sources (surface/ground etc.), basically, anything that used/ came into contact with water containing PFAS. And the situation is serious. “PFAS is the groundwater contaminant of the decade…”, said Prof Cherry and according to Markus of Orange County, at one point, retail water agencies had to shut down a third of their pumps due to PFAS levels being too high.

It is also bigger than PFAS as groundwater referred to as a “chemical soup” during the session, now contains so many chemical compounds that there are also concerns about the interaction between these different chemicals and that it could produce new compounds that do not get analysed or treated for.

…Need regulations based on sound science

So, other than removing forever chemicals during water recycling and sludge treatment there was a call to set regulations based on sound science. This point around better regulations and policies was also discussed during the “Sustainability Leadership in Water: Experiences from Industry and Utility” session at SIWW 2021 – see the takeaways on that here.

With not only decades of experience but also having developed pioneering processes and discovered industry-altering breakthroughs, we would be fools not to head the words of these six LKY Water Prize laureates and tackle these 3 urgent action areas with everything we’ve got.

Further Reading

More on Latest

  • 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 centerpiece 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
  • 3 Ways To Deal With The Deep Uncertainty Of Sea Level Rise – SLR uncertainty is here to stay but it can be minimised as discussed at SIWW 2021. CWR’s Ronald Leung & Dawn McGregor share what the climate & planning experts advised
  • Behind Phnom Penh’s Water Success Story – PPWSA, a once-bankrupt utility now outperforms those in LA or London. CWR’s Soomin Park & Dawn McGregor shares 2 keys to its miraculous transformation & 2 new challenges it faces
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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