SIWW Spotlight 2021 – Key Takeaways

By Dawn McGregor 27 July, 2021

Impressed with the frank conversations & SLR focus for the first time, see CWR's McGregor other key takeaways from the centerpiece sessions of 2021 Singapore International Water Week (SIWW)

It was a different SIWW this year in several ways - first time fully online and a holistic agenda that had many sessions on climate and for the first time, a focus on sea level rise
The frank conversations on existential threats - 'know what will you' - were refreshing and what we need; just look at the devastating floods & ravaging wildfires in the world today
Singapore leads from the front but even they, as admitted, don't have all the answers; what the world needs to do now is build forward better, not build back better

Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) 2021 recently wrapped up on 2 July, and it was an action-packed 10 days. It was a different SIWW in several ways, including that it was the first ever fully virtual event – the online platform was impressive and easy to use – and the agenda was more holistic including todays’ key water & climate issues. And it wasn’t just us that were impressed, the event attracted 5,000 global attendees and had 140 hours of content with more than 16,000 views. More details on the event in the box below.

The flagship SIWW Water Convention was there with 47 technical sessions, as was the Water Expo showcasing solutions from 120 international exhibitors, as well as over 40 online sessions spanning the urban water cycle. Plus, for the first time ever, six of the past Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laureates came together for a special Roundtable (see our takeaways from that session here) and there was a special Innovation to Practice series documenting the journey of utilities in innovation adoption. If you missed the event then catch up with our five articles from key sessions during the event and hear from the head of SIWW himself, in our interview with Ryan Yuen. Plus, it is not too late to watch the sessions yourself – find out how here.

The centrepiece and kick-off for the full event was SIWW2021 Spotlight and we were impressed, it was straight shooting and all business from the start. Singapore’s Minister for Sustainability and the Environment set a clear scene on the significant risks but also opportunities Singapore and world faces. In the following two high level plenary sessions, we heard from the head of Singapore’s national water agency, who said “know what will kill you”, and from CEOs of leading global water, engineering and consultancy companies including Xylem, Almar Water Solutions & KMPG, who also had vivid warnings as well as advice for us.

Impressed with SIWW Spotlight2021, it was straight shooting and all business from the start…

…we don’t have time for anything but franks conversations given the threats we face

The Spotlight session closed with an hour-long one-on-one sit down with the Singapore Deputy Prime Minister, who just like those previous in the Spotlight session, did not mince his words. We are not surprised to see such senior Singapore government officials talking this way as Singapore was the best performer in our CWR APACCT20 Index on sea level rise.

Below are our 5 key takeaways from the Spotlight that we felt also echoed throughout the entire event:

1. Surprisingly frank conversations

The frank conversations during the Spotlight and throughout many sessions were impressive and a relief to hear.  We don’t have time for any other type of conversation given the mammoth water and climate threats we face and a tight deadline to avoid passing further tipping points. It is not easy to speak about existential risks, to talk about how one is trying, how one is adapting, and to not know if it will be enough but that is what happened at the session. Real conversations about the very real and impactful risks that not just Singapore but the world is facing. Just look at the devastating floods that hit Henan, China (where people were neck high in water on subway trains) and also in Europe (150+ people died in Germany) and then there are the ravaging wildfires in the US – at least five large fires. How can we not be getting frank about what is killing us.

Below are some key lines from the frank conversations we are talking about.

“There are the two things to becoming resilient, a) know what will kill you and prepare the best the best that you can when these things do come to pass and b) know what you need to keep going and make sure you never run out.”

Peter Ng Joo Hee, Chief Executive, PUB


“Water is not someone else’s issue.” …

”… 2050 is going to be here a lot sooner – it sounds far away but no – a day becomes a week, a week becomes a month, a month becomes a quarter, a quarter becomes a year and a year become decades.”

Patrick Decker, President & CEO, Xylem
“… main concern for me is the lack of political will to implement the necessary tools. Why have we have done in the telecommunications or oil & gas, and a sector which is so fundamental for the future has not the same support from the political.”

Carlos Cosin, CEO Almar Water Solution
“The United Nations has reported that progress on SDG 6 for clean water & sanitation is alarmingly offtrack. The rate of progress on achieving the targets for water and sanitation must now quadruple in order to meet the 2030 deadline. We are nine years away and water sources are drying up and becoming more polluted.”

Steve Demetriou, Chair and CEO, Jacobs
“As for cyberattacks, recent incidents like the Solar Winds hack, the colonial pipeline and the JBS meat plant attacks tell us that some of us are not taking this threat seriously enough. In PUB, we are quite clear that a cyber-attack can be life threatening and we harden ourselves as best as we can.”

Peter Ng Joo Hee, Chief Executive, PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency

2. Singapore gets it and is leading from the front

It is clear from SIWW 2021 that Singapore not only gets the existential threats it and many in the world are facing but is also leading from the front to mitigate and adapt to the risks and more than that, find opportunities as it does. Plus, it is putting money where its mouth is and where it’s needed.

Below are some of the ways that show Singapore gets it, is always pushing and innovating:

“To use water only once and then throw it away is not sustainable.”

Peter Ng Joo Hee, Chief Executive, PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency
  • Cooling Singapore Projects (1.0, 1.5, 2.0) – As Grace Fu, Minister at Singapore’s Ministry for Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) said, Singapore is heating up twice as fast as the global rate due to rising temperatures from global warming and the Urban Heat Island effect. Knowing this, multi-institutional projects have been launched, version 1.0 in 2017 and the most recent version 2.0 in 2021. These are supported by the National Research Foundation of the Prime Minister’s Office and aim to achieve three outcomes that will help Singapore implement the best cooling strategies;
  • SG Green Plan 2030 – The plan, a multi-agency effort spearheaded by five ministries, charts ambitious and concrete targets over the next 10 years that involves all aspects of life and stakeholders (government, industry, and community). To read more on the specific targets see here;
  • Tuas Nexus – Currently under construction, the Tuas Nexus is a co-location of two mega-facilities and will be Singapore’s and the world’s first integrated waste and water treatment facility. It will be run by both PUB and the National Environment Agency (NEA). It will be energy self-sufficient and is expected to result in carbon savings of more than 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to taking 42,500 cars off Singapore’s roads. It will also save 2.6 hectares along with other synergistic benefits;
  • PUB Global Innovation Challenge – The challenge seeks to accelerate the discovery and adoption of digital solutions and smart technologies to improve operational excellence and meet future water needs. The first challenge was launched in 2020 and received 100+ entries from 20 countries. Eight companies were awarded project funding and other benefits. The second edition of the challenge will be launched later this year;
  • Pipe leakage rate – Singapore has one of the lowest pipe leakage rates in the world at around 5% but is still working to bring this down; and
  • Collaborative approach – Over the last two decades, PUB has engaged in around 660 research projects with partners from 30 countries across various topics.


3. All of water covered with coastal water also a focus for the first time

Previous SIWW’s have been very water utility and technically focused but as we mentioned, this year was different for several reasons, one of which was the inclusion and focus on coastal water for the first time – see why this was in our interview with the head of SIWW here. There were 5 sea level/ coastal water dedicated sessions.

SLR is an “existential threat” – Singapore is clearly aware & taking actions

This was a timely move by SIWW given the growing number of global headlines linked to sea level rise/ coastal threats and the significant impacts it will have and that we are already starting to feel. Singapore especially and many in the world are very exposed to coastal threats. A recent study found that up to 410 million people – most in Asia – are at risk from sea level rise. As usual (a good thing), Singapore is well aware of the risks – see quote from PUB Head below – and is taking action. See our key takeaways on sea level rise at SIWW here.

Singapore has no choice but to be clear eye about climate change. SG is pancake flat, most less than 5m above sea level so wouldn’t take a lot for the sea to rise to turn us into a new Atlantis.”

Peter Ng Joo Hee, Chief Executive, PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency


4. Refreshing to see an un-siloed agenda including climate, carbon & adaptation

The agenda this year was holistic. It was still a water event but there was so much more and the more is critical to making our future liveable. As said by several speakers, water is key to achieving a sustainable future – that means for food, energy, education, health, all of it. Without water or enough of good quality water, we are facing a grim future.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom with 120 solutions on show at the Expo and thanks to the frank conversations, a path forward, which is to focus and fast track innovations in the policy and commercial spheres as we already have most of the technology needed. This was also a main discussion point in the “Sustainability Leadership in Water” event, see our takeaways from that here.

Need a holistic path forward that tackles water and carbon and climate impacts concurrently…

…to fast-track this, need innovations in the policy & commercial spheres more than in technology

Water has disproportionately high impact on quality of human life, both on a standalone basis as well as the impact the progress on other SDGs, particularly, global health, education, food, gender equality, energy and climate change. Lack of progress in meeting SDG 6 targets will jeopardise our ability to meet various other bilateral and multilateral commitments, covering trade, environment and energy transition.”

Sharad Somani, Head of Infrastructure APAC, KPMG
“… we need to do a lot more with existing assets and the innovation we need… is less in the technical and more in the policy commercial space and in the application of data & digital…”

Richard Threlfall, Global Head of KMPG IMPACT & Global Head of Infrastructure


5. Building forward better is what we need, not building back better

The phrase “building back better” was coined by the disaster risk reduction community in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami but came to prominence most recently in calls for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but while well-meaning, it’s not what we need. That’s because we haven’t defined what “better” actually is and it isn’t aligned to anything.

Head of Singapore’s water agency gets that the way forward is business unusual

But even more importantly, we need to be looking and moving forward, not trying to get back to our old ways or we will have no chance of limiting global warming. Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister is clearly looking forward, see his quote below. And the head of Singapore’s PUB gets that to go forward we need to do business differently, we need business unusual, see his quote below too.

“After such a major crisis [covid-19], to assume the future is just like the good old days will be totally unrealistic and I would say irresponsible.”

Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister
“It is very clear to me, that business as usual, as we know it, is unsustainable, because our current methods will not let us become energy or carbon neutral and they will also not allow us to generate no waste even in the very boring and very stayed world of water utilities. There are so many innovations that we will need to adopt and implement if we ever want to continue doing our work in a way that is truly sustainable into the far future.”

Peter Ng Joo Hee, Chief Executive, PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency

It was encouraging to hear other speakers also talking about “building forward better” during the Spotlight Day and event and more than that, that some countries, companies, and utilities are doing just that. Below are two key ways Singapore is building forward better.

  • Fully green waterworks system – Singapore has built one of the largest floating solar farms in the world and as of July 2021, it will start powering Singapore’s five water treatment plants making Singapore one of the few countries in the world to have fully green waterworks; and
  • Net zero carbon utilities – Singapore’s ultimate aim is net zero carbon utilities and there was a session on just that. CWR will be diving deeper into that topic soon so stay tuned but for now, it was made clear at SIWW that we can already do net zero carbon utilities, we have the technology, as clearly said by Suez’s Steve Clark, see quote below.
“Yes, yes we can [achieve net zero water] if we have sufficient government support and population support, the technology already exists, full stop.”

Steve Clark, CEO, Suez Asia

And that’s a wrap for SIWW 2021. As you can tell, we were impressed and encouraged with the Spotlight Day and full event. There is a lot that can be actioned quickly from the event, which is what we need given the limited time the world has to avoid passing dire climate tipping points.

And that’s a wrap. We look forward to SIWW 2022, where hopefully finance is at the table too

One stakeholder we did note missing from the week was the financial community, as we know nothing happens without money, so it is key to get them at these frank conversations too. Other than that, we are looking forward to SIWW 2022, which will be held in person on April 17 – 21, more on that here.  

Further Reading

  • Regulators Have A Role To Play In Tackling The Global Water Crisis – Climate change creates systemic risks to financial systems. With USD316bn of losses from disasters in 2018-19, Ceres’ Robin Miller on urgent actions regulators can take to ensure stability and investors that have made a start on water risks
  • 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.
  • Water Efficiency Policy: A Technological High-Water Mark? – From biomimicry to data analytics, Singapore is developing new technology to produce clean water without sinking the environment. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Tommy Kevin Lee and Cecilia Tortajada expand
  • More From Less: Building Water Resilience – Water and climate are really two sides of the same coin so what are the holistic solutions that can build resilience? Bluetech’s Paul O’Callaghan sat down with Ecolab & Aquatech experts to explore these and more
  • The Adaptation Principles: 6 Ways to Build Resilience to Climate Change – Adaptation cannot be an afterthought to development as climate change will impact the macroeconomic situation. World Bank’s Dr Stephane Hallegatte, Dr Jun Rentschler & Dr Julie Rozenberg share 6 principles

More on Latest

  • 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
  • Game Changers: 6 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laureates – We would be fools not to tackle 3 game changers for our future water & climate according to 6 LKY laureates. CWR’s Dawn McGregor breaks them down
  • 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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