My Summer in Singapore

Back to Summer 2012 Newsletter

by Shane Snyder, UA Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering

What could possibly motivate a person to pack up a family of five, including twin one-year olds, and travel for 30 hours to live on a crowded island in South East Asia for 10 weeks? I asked this question many times before leaving for Singapore in May of this year to work as a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore. Despite the epic travel challenges and adapting to life in Singapore, the summer was full of amazing opportunities. Without question, Singapore has some of the most advanced water research and management programs in the world. To understand why this relatively small City-Country would invest so heavily into water, it is important to understand the context in which investment into water occurred.

Singapore is an island on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, separated from Malaysia by less than one-half mile and just 85 miles north of the equator. With a population of approximately 5.2 million people living on a land area of just 272 square miles, Singapore is the third most densely populated country in the world. Singapore also has the third highest per capita income in the World and is ranked as a leading financial center. Despite average annual rainfall of just over 92 inches, Singapore has struggled to maintain a reliable and sustainable supply of fresh water for its people and industries.

Singapore has a long history of striving for water independence. In 1868, the British built the first water reservoir in Singapore. In 1932 a pipeline was built to bring freshwater from Malaysia into Singapore. When Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, Malaysia threatened that if Singapore exhibited foreign policy “prejudicial to Malaysia’s interests” that its water could be turned off. This threat led then Prime Minister Lee Kaun Yew to set a goal of water “self-sufficiency” for Singapore.

The Singapore Public Utility Board (PUB) continued to develop reservoirs and dams on the island through the 1980s, but these measures still could not provide ample water for the rapidly growing nation. In the 1990s, Singapore negotiated with Malaysia for additional water supplies. These negotiations were not entirely successful; however, as Malaysia requested payments that began to approach the cost for ocean desalination. In 1998, Singapore initiated a study (known as the NEWater study) to determine if municipal wastewater could be purified to produce safe and reliable potable water.

Around 2001, Singapore developed the concept of having “four taps”, a diversified water supply that would extend their resources to gain self-sufficiency as envisioned by Lee Kaun Yew. The four taps consist of on-island supplies (reservoirs), imported supplies (Malaysia), recycled water, and desalination. The first two taps, local and imported supplies, continue to be important components of Singapore’s water portfolio. As of 2011, nearly two-thirds of Singapore’s land area is used as catchment to harvest water, and they have established a goal of 90 percent by 2060. Singapore continues to import water from Malaysia, but their water agreement expires in 2061 and the future of water importation remains in question. Most recently, Singapore has added the Marina Barrage, which creates the largest reservoir in Singapore covering nearly one-sixth of the island’s area and has the capacity to meet about one-tenth of the total water demand.

Perhaps Singapore’s most visible and well-known action in water self-sufficiency is development of NEWater. Today, Singapore can supply up to 30 percent of their water needs through recycled water and they aspire to reach 50 percent by 2060. Their NEWater gained noteriety when they began to bottle and distribute purified municipal wastewater for drinking. The NEWater has undergone extensive testing and uses advanced water treatment, including reverse osmosis, in order to produce extremely pure and safe water suitable for human consumption and for industries requiring high-purity water (i.e., semiconductor industry).

The fourth tap for Singapore is ocean water desalination, which currently produces 30 million gallons per day, meeting approximately 10 percent of Singapore’s water needs. The goal is to increase the desalination capacity 10-fold by 2060 to meet approximately 30 percent of projected water demands. Thus, Singapore is well on their way to the water self-sufficiency envisioned by Lee Kuan Yew in the 1960’s.

Today the City-Country of Singapore is a global leader in water resource management and technology and a global hub for water research and innovation. The Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) has been held there annually since 2008. In 2011, more than 13,500 people from 99 countries attended and more than 600 companies exhibited at the expo. An estimated $2.37 billion US dollars of deals were struck during the 2011 meeting alone. While the 2012 SIWW statistics are not complete, early registration counts exceeded 15,000 people and even more exhibits than previous years. In the future the SIWW will be held biennially, the next in July 2014.

The Singaporean government funds foreign professors to bring in new expertise to Singapore through their visiting professorship program. This program is allowing me to conduct research at the National University of Singapore, Environmental Research Institute (NERI) for five years. One great synergy of working at NERI results from its similarity with the Arizona Laboratory for Emerging Contaminants (ALEC), which I co-direct with Professor Jon Chorover. Both the NERI and ALEC hold a wide variety of state-of-the-art analytical instruments for advanced monitoring of water quality. Students proficient with our equipment at ALEC are able to work in NERI laboratories with minimal training and thus are able easily and rapidly to begin research in Singapore.

As the University of Arizona expands its partnership with Pima County and the City of Tucson to develop the Water & Energy Sustainable Technology (WEST) Center, it is likely that additional collaborative research initiatives will develop between Singapore and the UA. The WEST Center will provide a proving ground for new water and energy technologies, much as the Singapore PUB has done in Singapore. I encourage those interested in collaborating with the water research programs in Singapore to contact me for additional information, as bilateral opportunities exist through various government and private sector programs. The summer was truly productive and memorable for me and my family and we hope to see other UA faculty, students, and staff in Singapore next summer.