Singapore is a city-state that will be celebrating its 49th year of independence in August. With a size of only 269 square miles, Singapore is smaller than New York City -- so from a water standpoint, a comparison between Singapore and the United States seems difficult. Yet, both Singapore and the U.S. are concerned about pressing water issues such as securing an adequate water supply for the population and ensuring clean catchments and waterways, while addressing the rising costs of water production.

Unusual weather conditions add to the challenge. While not on the same scale as the state of California and other areas in the U.S which are experiencing a drought, Singapore recently went through one of the longest periods of dry weather in its history. With climate change, extreme weather events may become more frequent. 

I hope that by sharing some of what we have learned in Singapore, we can contribute to a discussion of global best practices which all of us can benefit and draw lessons from.

From the days of trying to overcome its water challenges (no natural aquifers and limited land to collect and store rainwater), Singapore has turned its vulnerability into a strategic asset. Our water management strategy, with its strong technology focus that has helped us develop NEWater, our own brand name for high-grade reclaimed water produced by Singapore's public utilities board (PUB), and desalination, yields some useful lessons in terms of addressing general water issues as well as responding effectively to unusual events.

Through integrated water management, PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, has successfully closed the “water loop”. We manage the whole water cycle, from the collection of rainwater to the purification and supply of drinking water, to the treatment of used water (others might call it waste water) and its reclamation into NEWater.

R&D is key to our water solutions. Advancements in membrane technology allowed us to recycle treated used water, thereby, developing NEWater, a safe and sustainable source of water. This source does not sacrifice water quality -- it is well within the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. NEWater is the pillar of Singapore’s water sustainability.

Singapore is planning for the expansion of its NEWater capacity and expanded desalination capacity to meet up to 80 percent of its water demand by 2060. To further strengthen the resilience of our water supply, we are now looking into the possibility of groundwater extraction. 

Technology can also help mitigate the less desirable aspects of a particular source of water. Desalination is one of our four sources of water (together with local catchment water, imported water and NEWater), but this source remains the most energy- intensive. Through R&D that explores a number of promising new approaches such as biomimicry and biomimetics, we hope to reduce the energy consumption of desalination, making it a more viable source of water.

R&D efforts often take years and even decades to generate noteworthy results and breakthroughs so patience, good policy and governance and a focus on long-term goals are crucial.

It is also important to leverage the private sector, given its ability to innovate. Since 2005, our Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model has allowed us to expand our water supply system and acquire the services at the level of quality that we require in a cost-competitive way. PPP projects also benefit private water companies as they gain deeper experience and develop a more extensive track record to eventually export their expertise from the project internationally. Our first desalination plant, Singspring, was the first water project to have resulted from this approach.

Today, Singapore has a thriving cluster of over 130 water companies and 26 research centers. This diversified water sector includes Singapore-based companies such as Hyflux Ltd., Keppel Corp. and Sembcorp Industries; international names like Black & Veatch, CH2M Hill, General Electric (NYSE: GE) and Siemens (NYSE: SI); and start-ups like Hydro Vision Asia, Aquaporin Asia, Visenti, Fluigen and MINT.

Further, water policies and management should emphasize flexibility over consideration of short-term costs and ease of construction. For example, although it was costly and more difficult to construct, we initially created separate systems for the collection and treatment of used water and rainwater. Besides allowing us to optimize land use and preserve water quality, this dual system approach has also ensured the sustainability of NEWater.

Of course, an equally important element to consider is managing the demand for water. One of our goals is to make the average Singaporean a steward of this resource and ensure that water conservation and keeping water clean is a consistent effort, and not just in response to droughts and water emergencies.  

At the same time, we have to be prepared to manage possible worst-case scenarios. We generally use NEWater for the non-domestic sector for non-potable use and to top off reservoirs.  Singapore was able to better weather the dry spell by running NEWater and desalination plants at close to full capacity and injecting NEWater into our reservoirs to maintain the reservoir stock levels.

Water best practices require teamwork and collaboration on a global basis. We see tremendous benefits in collaborating with water agencies, government entities and private sector companies around the world. We find the exchange of information mutually beneficial. For example, in southern California, The Orange County Water District’s water recycling program was a model for Singapore when we embarked on NEWater in the late 1990s. More recently, in 2013, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. EPA to collaborate on sustainable water management.

Singapore also plays a key role in forging dialogue amongst the policymakers, water experts and industry leaders on water issues, challenges and solutions. We host the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW), a meeting place of top names in the water industry, and a global platform for the sharing and co-creation of water solutions.

Moving ahead, we will continue to invest in technology and R&D to improve the long-term sustainability of Singapore’s water resources. We also believe that it is equally important to continue seeking out collaborative relationships locally and internationally with private companies and government agencies, while forging a close and meaningful relationship with our constituents back home.

Harry Seah is the Chief Technology Officer at the Public Utilities Board of Singapore