A few weeks before this year’s blowout National Day Parade, the residents of Singapore received an unusual item from the government in their SG50 Fun Pack, the official National Day goodie bag. It was a half-litre bottle with the legend “NEWater” splashed across the brightly colored labeling.
NEWater is recycled wastewater that has been put through a three-step filtration process. The end product is pure water that is more than safe for drinking, although not particularly healthful since it has been stripped of all minerals.
Innocuous though it appeared, the little plastic bottle was a triumphal vindication of Singapore itself, a nation that by all logic should have imploded but defied the odds to become extremely successful. The story of NEWater is the story of how a densely populated, water-scarce city-state once at the mercy of unfriendly neighbours went on to become not only self-sufficient in water but also a global hydro hub.1
The NEWater story begins right after Singapore split from Malaysia in 1965. Realizing that water self-sufficiency was a key area of national self-interest, the government set about looking for new sources of water right away. Singapore did get a lot of rainfall, but being so small, there simply wasn’t enough of a catchment area. So it was necessary to consider unconventional sources of water like recycled wastewater and desalinated water.
Namibia had started recycling wastewater as early as 1968, and Singapore followed suit by building an advanced water reclamation plant in 1974. However, lacking indigenous capability, Singapore had to invite multinational corporations to set up the plant. The cost of licensing the patented recycling technology was prohibitive. The technocrats realized that if this were to be a viable long-term solution, Singapore would have to figure out how to do it on its own.2
To develop the necessary human capital, scholarships were offered, research institutions were set up and research projects were funded. Public-private partnerships were encouraged.
Major multinational players were invited to anchor their regional operations in Singapore. Collaboration was the name of the game, giving local players as many opportunities as possible for knowledge spillovers.
Government trade missions cleared the way for local players to apply their newly-acquired knowledge overseas, in environments where existing technology had to be adapted, thus leading to further innovation at the local level.
In 2003, almost thirty years after the first attempt and after twenty thousand comprehensive tests and analyses, wastewater recycling began again in earnest.
The battle was only half won, however. The public had to be persuaded to accept recycled water. This was achieved by a concerted public relations effort.
In Australia, a country with an unruly fourth estate, the public debate around recycled water had been dominated by phrases like “treated effluent,” “from toilet to tap” or (my personal favorite) “shit water.” Not so in Singapore. When the government rebranded recycled wastewater as NEWater, the press fell into step. It also followed suit when the government referred to wastewater as “used water,” and to wastewater reclamation plants as “water reclamation plants.”
Furthermore, the government held regular press briefings and reached out to community and religious leaders to convince them of the safety of NEWater. It also opened a NEWater centre where visitors were able to see for themselves how the technology worked.
Today, NEWater meets thirty percent of Singapore’s water needs and is on track to meet fifty percent by 2060. Ninety-five percent of NEWater is used in industry, where it is valued for its purity, and the remaining five percent is dissolved in Singapore’s reservoirs, giving it an opportunity to “remineralize” before it enters the drinking water supply.
Could the NEWater story have been possible in any other setting? In his book Consumptionomics, the conservationist Chandran Nair argues that strong governments are needed to push through unpopular environmental policies. So, maybe not.
But in a more robust marketplace of ideas, other, less technology-intensive but more palatable ways of conserving water might have been considered instead. It’s worth noting that European cities like Berlin and Amsterdam don’t recycle drinking water and have a water-rich hinterland, yet have far lower per capita water consumption than Singapore.