WaterTechOnline interviews Harry Seah

Oct. 8, 2013

LATHAM, N.Y. — The chief technology officer for PUB talks about Singapore's water technology.

WT: What are the main water quality issues currently affecting the region the most? What are companies and organizations doing to address these challenges? Please explain in general terms the technology or technologies that are helping to address the region’s most pressing water issues. What specific factors will need to be put in place to overcome these challenges, i.e. education of communities, supply of products, etc.?  

By: Harry Seah, Chief Technology Officer, Public Utilities Board (PUB), Singapore's national water agency

Water issues like securing an adequate supply of water for the population, ensuring clean catchments and waterways and combating the rising costs of water production are some of the more pressing issues that the region is facing now, and Singapore is no exception.

The Singapore Water Story

A densely populated island city state with over 5 million people in a land area of about 700sq km, Singapore has limited water resources, which makes water resource management a huge challenge. In the 60s and 70s, Singapore faced all the problems of rapid urbanization – polluted rivers, water shortages and widespread flooding. Investments in critical environmental and water infrastructure had to compete with the pressing need for economic development. Notwithstanding this, from day one of our early days of nation building, the provision of safe and adequate supply of water was a top priority. 

From the days of trying to overcome its water challenges, Singapore has turned its vulnerability into a strategic asset, and is capable of producing all the water that its industries and population requires. Over the last 50 years, using a Whole-of-Government approach, PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, has established a robust and resilient water supply system to ensure water sustainability for Singapore. This has helped transform Singapore from a water scarce nation to one where countries worldwide now look to for water solutions. Today, Singapore has developed a diversified water supply through the Four National Taps, namely water from local catchments, imported water, NEWater and desalinated water. These make up our long term strategy that ensures Singaporeans will have a sustainable supply of water for generations to come.

Our uniqueness lies in our adoption of an integrated management of water which is key to our water supply planning – PUB is one of the few water utilities in the world which plans, manages and safeguards its entire nation’s water system. Through this integrated water management, we have successfully “closed the water loop” since 2001 and manage the whole water cycle, from rainwater collection to the purification and supply of drinking water, to the treatment of used water and its reclamation into NEWater, Singapore’s own brand of high-grade reclaimed water produced on a scale unprecedented anywhere in the world.

This integrated management of Singapore’s water supply, sewerage and drainage systems was an essential move that provided the starting point for a more efficient and holistic management of the entire water loop. With this integration, we developed 3 principles of water management: 1 –  to collect every drop of  rainwater that falls on Singapore , 2 – to collect back every drop of used water and 3 – to recycle every drop of water.

The integrated approach is important because water is such a strategic resource to Singapore. This is not because the island lacks rainfall, but because its size – 700 sq km – is a limiting factor in collecting and storing rainwater. With a growing population, competing uses of land for housing, businesses, roads, airports, industry and many others, further limit the space available for water catchments and reservoirs.

Water demand in Singapore is currently about 400 million gallons a day (mgd), with homes consuming 45% and the non-domestic sector taking up the rest. By 2060, total demand is expected to double, with the non-domestic sector accounting for about 70%. On the supply side, we are on track to more than triple our NEWater capacity and ramp up desalination. Together, these will be able to meet 80% of water demand in 2060.

The Four National Taps

Local Catchment Water: Even with land constraints, today, two-thirds of Singapore’s land area is water catchment, and rainwater is collected and stored in 17 reservoirs around the island. Singapore is probably the only city in the world where urban stormwater harvesting is carried out on such a large scale.

Water in the city, from the city: In 2008, the Marina Channel was successfully dammed up to form the Marina Barrage, creating a freshwater lake known as the Marina Reservoir. The first in the heart of downtown Singapore, the Marina Reservoir is a prime example of our success in urban stormwater harvesting. With the largest and most urbanised catchment at 10,000 hectares, this reservoir collects water from some of the oldest, most densely built-up areas of Singapore and its  Central Business District. Advancements in membrane technology have allowed us to treat water collected in urban catchments to well within World Health Organization (WHO) drinking water standards.

However, with all of our major rivers dammed up, we are now focusing on tapping the smaller streams and canals as well. The use of Variable Salinity Plants will help us to expand the water catchment up to 90% of Singapore’s land area in the long term, adding to the resilience of our water supply.

Imported water: The 1961 Water Agreement between the Johor State Government and Singapore expired on 31 August 2011. Singapore continues to import water from Johor under the 1962 Water Agreement which allows us to draw up to 250 mgd till 2061.

NEWater: The jewel of our water supply strategy and the result of R&D efforts since the 1970s, the introduction of NEWater in 2003 was a major milestone for Singapore, as it allowed us to reduce our dependence on nature. This ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water is a Singapore success story and the pillar of our water sustainability. NEWater is produced by treating used water and further purifying it using advanced membrane technologies – namely, microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection. It is ultra-clean and safe to drink.

In fact, NEWater has passed more than 100,000 scientific tests and exceeds the drinking water standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the WHO. 

Since its introduction in 2003, NEWater has mainly been used for industrial and air-con cooling purposes at wafer fabrication parks, industrial estates and commercial buildings. During dry months, NEWater is also used to top up our reservoirs.

The largest NEWater plant opened in Changi in 2010 and has a capacity of 50mgd. NEWater can currently meet 30% of Singapore’s total water demand. The plan is to expand NEWater capacity so that it meets up to 55% of demand in the longer term.

Desalination: Like its predecessor NEWater, desalinated water is the result of PUB's continued investments in water technology and research.  Desalinated water has been a part of our water supply since 2005 when Singapore’s first desalination plant, Singspring, was opened with a capacity of 30 mgd. The plant was the first water project to be awarded under the Private Public partnership (PPP) approach. Under the contract, Singspring Pte Ltd was appointed to design, build, own and operate the plant and supply water to PUB for a period of 20 years.

A second and larger desalination plant, was opened Sept 2013 under a similar PPP arrangement. Named Tuaspring Desalination Plant, it is Asia’s largest seawater reverse osmosis facility and has the capacity of producing 70 mgd or 318,500 cubic metres of desalinated water per day. Currently, desalinated water can meet up to 25% of Singapore’s current water demand.

The plan is to grow Singapore’s desalination capacity, so that the Fourth National Tap will be able to continue to meet up to 25% of the country’s future water demand in 2060.

Singapore, The Global Hydrohub

Thanks to the foresight of our leaders, good water management and the effective use of technology, Singapore is fast becoming a model city in sustainable water management. Our experience in effectively addressing our water challenges has also earned us international recognition as a global hydrohub. PUB’s holistic approach to water resource management has earned us many accolades, including the prestigious 2007 Stockholm Industry Water Award, one of the highest honours in the international water sector, and we were also named Water Agency of the Year at the Global Water Awards 2006.

Recognising that local expertise and technology would be valuable to communities around the world in need of environmental and water management systems, the Singapore government has incorporated the industry into its national growth plan. The Environment & Water Industry Programme Office (EWI) was thus established in 2006 to promote research and development in the field, grow the industry and position Singapore as a global R&D base for environment and water solutions.

Led by PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, with funding of $470 million from the National Research Foundation (NRF), the EWI is well poised to meet its objective: developing Singapore’s  global hydrohub for leading-edge technologies and furthering Singapore’s vibrant research community. 

Over the years, Singapore has utilised innovative technologies and water management solutions to overcome its natural water resource challenges and develop a robust water supply for all its consumption needs. As other countries around the world feel pressured to ensure sustainable freshwater supplies, they are increasingly turning towards Singapore for expert guidance on this issue.

Today, Singapore has a thriving water eco-system with a cluster of over 130 water companies and 26 research centres. These include not only Singapore-owned companies like Hyflux, Keppel and Sembcorp but also international names like Black and Veatch, CH2MHill, CDM,  General Electric, Siemens, Veolia , Suez, Toray, Nitto Denko, as well as start-ups like HydroVision Asia, Aquaporin Asia, Visenti, Fluigen and MINT. The EWI also accelerates the formation and growth of start-ups through financial incentives and mentoring. Funding opportunities for both basic and applied R&D projects are abundant, as are programmes for expediting commercialisation of their results. In efforts to recruit young researchers, the EWI offers PhD scholarships for research on environmental and water technologies.

As a "living laboratory," test-bedding opportunities in PUB facilities, such water treatment plants, are a major draw card for local and international companies looking to test new technologies under actual operating conditions to develop innovative solutions that address the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Over 140 new test-bedding projects involving over 70 companies have been seeded since 2002.

Putting in place the right factors to overcome challenges

Every city faces its own unique challenges in resolving its water problems amidst rapid urbanisation and economic growth. The Singapore experience may or may not be directly applicable elsewhere. Nonetheless, our experience suggests that water resource constraints can be overcome, and that practical solutions to water challenges can be found through a mix of good governance and technologies. In particular, we have found the following to be key:

Long-term vision and sound water policies

First, taking a long-term approach towards water policies is important as solutions take time to develop. Anticipating challenges early provides for more options downstream. This is particularly true in many aspects of water management that involve municipal-scale infrastructure, such as flood management, drainage, catchments, used water networks etc. These need to grow over time amid intensification of other land needs.

Take for example our separate collection systems for used water and rainwater which were developed at the outset when it would have been easier and cheaper to build a single system. This has allowed us to integrate the drainage system and channel water to our reservoirs without affecting water quality. Separately, the used water network could be optimally designed independent of rainfall, which optimised land use and minimised the risks of sewage overflow.

Political commitment and good governance

Second, political commitment and determination to implement tough decisions is also essential as the results and pay-back are often realised only in the longer-term. Inter-agency collaboration is necessary to bring together different aspects of water resource management: environment agencies have to maximise sustainability of water resources; economic agencies view water as one of the many essential resources to support industries; public health agencies safeguard people from risks of water and used water pollution.

A case in point was the clean-up of the Singapore River in the 1970s. The river then smelled like an open sewer, polluted by various sources such as animal waste from farms along the river and sullage water from street hawkers, markets, and squatters adjacent to the river. It was a massive and daunting task to clean up the river, considering the number of farms and squatters that had to be resettled, and the pollutive industries that had to be relocated. It took a lot of hard work, political will and determination, and close coordination between various government agencies to clean the river up and we did it in ten years.

R&D as the key driver of water solutions

R&D has been key to Singapore overcoming its natural vulnerabilities and achieving an adequate and secure water supply. Not only has technology allowed us to purify water from urban catchments to drinking water standards, it has also short-circuited the natural water cycle. For example, NEWater and desalination were made possible by technological breakthroughs following decades of research efforts.

Take for example our experience with NEWater. Although our foray into water reuse began in the 1970s, the high costs and the unproven reliability of membrane technology at that time put paid to any plans to take things further. It was only in the 1990s when membrane technology had improved considerably in terms of cost and performance that we once again revisited our water reuse plans. In 1998, we set up a study team to test the use of the latest proven membrane technology in water reclamation for potable purposes and two years later, a 10,000 m3/day demonstration plant was commissioned. The high-grade, reclaimed product water was christened NEWater, and a battery of tests and audits were conducted to demonstrate that NEWater was a safe and sustainable water source, well within the drinking water guidelines set by the WHO and the USEPA. In fact the parameters we used went beyond the ones stipulated by the WHO.

The advancements in membrane technology also later paved the way for us to embark on desalination. Nonetheless desalination is still the most energy-intensive among the Four National Taps. In order to ensure that this water source is affordable and sustainable, we are conducting R&D to reduce the energy consumed during desalination by exploring a variety of novel desalination methods. This will help us to counter the rising cost of energy.

R&D will continue to play a vital role in ensuring a sustainable water supply for the future. To stay ahead of the curve, utilities should continuously looking at new, innovative ways to contain the rising costs of treating and producing water and identifying new sources.

Public education and engagement

Public education and engagement is an important facet of Singapore’s water management approach. While we diversify and increase the water supply, it is also important to manage the other half of the equation – water demand. Water sustainability cannot be achieved through increasing the water supply alone. Effective water demand management is key to maintaining affordability by reducing the need to tap into more expensive sources of water.

Singapore’s water conservation strategy is three-pronged, namely through pricing, legislation and public engagement.  We believe pricing must reflect the true value of water, as opposed to just cost-recovery. Hence, there are two components in our water pricing – one, a component to recover the full cost of production and supply and two, levying a water conservation tax to recover the opportunity cost of the "next drop of water."

In terms of engagement, building and sustaining a close partnership with community groups and stakeholders is vital. In Singapore, we do so through a whole slew of initiatives to motivate them to do their part for water. Through fostering advocacy and awareness of the water cause as well adoption of water bodies, our engagement motivates the public community to conserve water, keep our catchments and waterways clean, so that they can enjoy the recreational opportunities it offers. 

This is especially so given that two thirds of Singapore is water catchment so most people live, work and play in water catchments.  The idea is that they should enjoy the reservoirs and waterways, but to also see that they have to play a part in helping to keep the water clean.

Good water resource management programmes will always be relevant and essential. Singapore’s experience has shown that while strong policies and robust infrastructure form the backbone of a stable water supply system, continuous exploration of new technologies, and developing manpower expertise are also instrumental towards meeting the rapidly growing challenges in water resources management faced by cities today.

Mr. Harry Seah is currently chief technology officer of the Technology Department for PUB, the national water agency of Singapore. The Technology Department coordinates the research and development (R&D) initiatives in PUB, and support PUB’s mission through technology, innovation, industry partnership, expertise development and introduction of best practices. The Technology Department manages R&D projects in partnership with experts from local and overseas water industry players, academia and research institutes. These R&D projects cover strategic fields of water technology including water and wastewater treatment, chemical and biological water quality, membrane technology, and seawater desalination.

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