Water — in all of its aspects and attributes — was certainly the theme for Singapore’s 2014 International Water Week (SIWW) extravaganza that was held June 1-5 on this tropical island cluster in Southeast Asia. It is sponsored by the Government of Singapore and its Public Utilities Bureau, which provides world renowned drinking water and wastewater service, water for high tech industrial use and even NEWATER — recycled drinking water from sewage, in a bottle. It’s good and it tastes fine!

Surprisingly, Singapore has been establishing itself as the world leader on water in the last 10-15 years, and this regular conference is a major element in demonstrating that commitment and goal. About 2,000 attendees were here covering all things H2O including: Water production, sustainability, collection and storage, treatment technologies, analytical methods, finance, desalination, reuse, current and future supply matters, policies, cost recovery (or lack of same), subsidies, public perceptions and more.

There were two other concurrent gatherings involving management and cities. The symposium gathers water experts of all sorts from around the world to collaborate, brainstorm and make business deals. In addition to the traditional science and technology that would be expected from such a conference, business arrangements are a major element of the SIWW; therefore, upper management from buyers and sellers as well as government officials and water philosophers are here to meet, be seen, commiserate and negotiate.

If you have not been to Singapore, you should make the trip. SIWW is a good reason if you are in the water business and want to learn about the latest technologies, and also if you realize that the U.S. is no longer unchallenged as the crème de la crème of water science, technology and business. My trip was 26 hours of flying from Washington, D.C. in a coach seat with a stop in Tokyo after a canceled flight and one-day delay by United Airlines due to some unfathomable cause — the return flight was also canceled.

Singapore is an ultra-modern metropolis and economic powerhouse. It is a city-state at the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula between the Asian continent and Indonesia. It has undergone phenomenal growth and prosperity since being granted independence and Commonwealth status from England in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew was its first prime minister and is considered the architect of its successful rise to prominence. It still has some remnants of its English past; English is the official language in Singapore. Its success has been the result of a prescient and aggressive oligarchical and effective government — some of whose senior officials are said to earn up to $2 million a year. So performance is expected and illegality or dishonesty is not tolerated.

The population is very diverse and generally prosperous, numbering around 5 million people that are jammed into this concentrated high rise environment, yet it is a remarkably livable place due to the intelligently organized governmental management of the society and living environment with lots of planned green space.

Water is a critical commodity and the government treats its sustained development and adequate future supply for its growing population as a matter of national security. About 50 percent of Singapore’s total supply is obtained by agreement from Malaysia, but it is national policy to become water independent. It utilizes every opportunity to conserve and optimize water usage efficiency, while taking aggressive steps to collect and store as much rain as possible in lakes and reservoirs, and by creating groundwater recharge areas throughout the island. It also aggressively funds water related science and technology research.

The SIWW meetings are a way of focusing international attention on Singapore and its water leadership and expertise. Among its elements are the Water Leaders’ Summit Convention, Water Technology Expo and business forums where participants network, share information and hopefully create innovative science, technology and policy solutions to water problems. The Lee Kuan Yew $300,000 water prize was granted to the Orange County Water District of Southern California for its successful and innovative advanced wastewater treatment reuse facility.

This year’s SIWW program had five themes.

Theme 1: Delivering water from source to tap

This covered the means of providing sufficient water to support urbanization, world population growth and technologies for sustaining drinking water quality while utilizing lower quality water sources, i.e. potable water reuse. Of course, climate change issues are part of the debate, as well as achieving a more efficient energy water nexus such as decentralized water.

Theme 2: Effective and efficient wastewater management

Wastewater treatment is now widely considered an asset rather than a process for water and energy recovery and a means for disposal of an undesirable waste product. Water and energy recovery and optimizing energy efficiency are key goals.

Theme 3: Water for livability and resilience

This seeks a dialogue between governments, industry and the public to achieve sustainable city environments in the face of population growth, increasing water demand and concentrations of people in cities.

Theme 4: Water quality and health

Access to adequate quantities of water to sustain health is a long-term goal, and it becomes a more acute requirement in the face of population and industrial growth. Assuring a safe and adequate water supply is a major government and water industry role that is expected to be an issue of growing importance in the public arena. Policies and technologies to assure that outcome at acceptable cost are an increasing challenge around the world.

Theme 5: Water for industries

“Industrial,” primarily agricultural water consumption, accounts for about 75 percent of all water demand worldwide. Urbanization and industrialization have achieved significant benefits. It will be necessary to develop better ways of supplying the needs of industry, while achieving greater efficiencies in production and water consumption.

The future of the world’s water supply

Of course, these days, the inevitable theme of climate change and its possible consequences is pervasive in the SIWW. Believe it or not, climate change is not a new phenomenon, it has occurred as long as the earth existed, and people accommodated it when they arrived. Interestingly in Singapore, a much more sanguine view than most is being expressed in a concurrent article in The Straits Times by Asit Biswas, distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, and Cecilia Tortajada, president of the Third World Center for Water Management in Mexico.

Water is the sine qua non of food and energy production, transportation, environment and health. Water is a key element in successful and sustainable urbanization, economic growth, alleviating poverty and providing industrialization and agricultural development. They conclude that forecasting future water needs is fraught with dire predictions and much uncertainty. The prevalent view by the so-called experts and pundits is that the water crisis of the foreseeable future is unprecedented, but Biswas and Tortajada disagree. They examine the track record of global forecasts over the last 60 years and conclude that all of them have been wrong due to assumption errors or human ingenuity, and they assume that the same will be true of the current dire forecasts.

The greatest area for creative efficiency improvements is agriculture, which accounts for about 75 percent of world water use. One reason is that the price for agricultural water use never covers the provider’s operational costs. It is usually free to the user, and therefore they have no incentive to use less. The authors suggest that agricultural water consumption would be halved if investment costs for infrastructure were born by farmers. Of course, the cost of food would also rise significantly.

They also argue, perhaps more persuasively, that urban water provides similar opportunities for greater water efficiency. In most developing countries 40 to 60 percent of supplied water never reaches consumers because of leaking distribution systems and poor operation and maintenance practices. Actually, even in developed countries the situation is far from optimal. Losses exceeding 25 percent are not unusual, yet it is possible to do much better. Tokyo and Singapore claim that they achieve water losses of significantly less than 5 percent. It can be done, and the wastage can be controlled if there is a commitment from the water authorities.

Per capita water consumption by consumers varies widely because incentives for conservation are often absent due to governmental subsidies providing water much below cost of production — even in wealthy water short countries like the Middle East, such as Qatar where it is 430 liters per capita per day. In Hamburg, Germany, it is 104 liters and in Singapore it is 153 liters. Even the beverage industry is actively reducing its water footprint. I spoke on the LSI reuse guidelines for that sector at the SIWW.

So, overall, I am very optimistic and would say that the future of water is very good. There is plenty of slack in the production and consumption systems, and many opportunities for improvements in all sectors with the right incentives. Human ingenuity has always succeeded when tested, and there is also a significant role for POU/POE and bottled water in the future by providing high-quality, safe water for drinking without the overtreatment that municipal supplies are driven to because 99 percent of supplied water is not ingested.