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Cowboys, Spacemen and the New Frontier in Water


Singapore is a world leader on water, and it reminds me of cowboys and spacemen. Bear with me and I will explain. The themes represented by cowboys and spacemen are fundamental to our relationship with the environment.  The cowboy view is premised on wide-open spaces and nearly infinite resources.  In the cowboy world, we advance by using resources – since they are available, and laws focus on making sure everyone has access to these resources.  The spaceman view is premised on the limited resources of a space ship.  In this world, we advance in the context of resource conservation – since the supply is finite and limited, and laws focus on both access to resources and how much are used.


I would argue that the United States, like many other countries, is caught in the difficult transition between a heritage premised on a cowboy view, to one confronting the realities of the spaceship.

The Singapore River

Perhaps no place exemplifies this transition more dramatically than Singapore and its remarkable relationship with water.  Singapore virtually sits on the equator in a region with plenty of rainfall.  Singapore has received as much water as it needs from nearby Malaysia.  Thus, despite its finite size – Singapore is
an Island nation of 440 square miles – it was a country with a Cowboy view of water.  Ample and nearly constant rainfall in the region combined with plenty of supply from a neighbor yielded the sense water was nearly an infinite resource.

Then the spaceship landed.

Population and economic growth in nearly every country in the region, led by Singapore in particular, put pressure on even ample water supplies, with prices rising in concert. Moreover, Singapore was reminded that the contract with Malaysia to provide water expires in 2061, with high expectations of at least much more restrictive terms, and perhaps even non-renewal.

Access to water connects intimately with both the health and welfare of every living organism in a place, human and all others, and the viability of every business and job, private and public. Singapore then had a classic spaceship moment – it faced a finite resource that is fundamental to its existence.  Singapore was both overusing the resource and had limited control over the supply – even though it is surrounded by water and has ample rainfall that falls on its own land.

This realization has transformed Singapore in a short period of time into a vision of the future for all of us – where water is limited, and therefore preserved, protected and managed drop by drop.

I traveled to Singapore because of its reputation in the water world, but I entered just like every wide-eyed tourist.  And on that front, I knew I would like Singapore from the moment I disembarked from the spacious and gleaming airport.  Singapore is an island shaped like a kidney bean on its side, with the airport to the east and the center of the city/state in the middle of the southern coast.  The drive from the airport to the city center parallels the coast for much of the way, cloaked from above by the canopy of the beautiful “rain trees” – each of which looks like the spectacular isolated trees I associate with the Serengeti, except here there are hundreds planted in an orderly fashion along the thoroughfare, with flowering bushes clustered at their feet.  The coastline alternates between the features of an enormously busy port and a gorgeous tourist and residential retreat.   An almost alien looking set of buildings, that mimic the shape of the Rain Tree and house spectacular botanical gardens, announce that we have almost arrived, flanked by an enormous Ferris Wheel.

Arts Center on the Left and The Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino on the Right

The city is bisected by the Singapore River, which empties water from the island to the sea.  As part of its transformation to a spaceship for water, Singapore has cleverly redesigned Marina Bay at the mouth of the River into a drinking water catchment surrounded by amazing structures that include a massive casino built on top of a three-pronged high-rise hotel, a sweeping convention center, and across the Bay, a center for arts and theater along an Esplanade.

I was in Singapore for the first bi-annual Water Leaders Forum, hosted by the Ministry of the Environment andWater Resources and PUB, the Singapore water agency.  I had been invited to come and participate in several forums, including a panel on financing water projects, a program to teach younger water leaders, and an “H20 Forum” focusing on fostering water leadership and business development. Singapore is widely seen as one of the best water utilities in the world, and I wanted to see firsthand what they are doing.  DC Water strives to be a world-class utility, and we need to learn from the world’s best.

I was not disappointed. The forum was attended by almost 200 water leaders from all over the world – including Russia, Canada, India, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Cambodia, the Philippines, South Africa, Australia and the United States. One lesson surprised me at first – water leaders are far more alike than
not, despite very different levels of wealth and technical proficiency.  We all worry about the same things, including: whether our customers understand and value the service we offer; whether we can charge the true value or cost of our service; whether we can balance doing what we know works with being innovative on new approaches; whether we can attract and retain top talent; and whether we are working together properly with key stakeholders both in
the political realm and major users of our services.

I came away impressed by the ingenuity and dedication of many of my compatriots, who are able to accomplish remarkable feats in their countries with far less resources than we have in the United States.

And as I had thought, Singapore PUB is an amazing enterprise.  With the clarity born in a spaceship moment, Singapore has adopted the improvement and expansion of its water systems as a principal national strategic priority.

Not Your Grandfather’s Wastewater Treatment Plant

 The outcome is a revolution of a water system.  From a past record of leaking pipes, untreated waste flowing through the country’s waterways, and not
nearly enough supply for a growing population — PUB has been transformed into a world leader in water reclamation and recycling, stormwater capture and reuse and broad-based public education and focus on conservation. Here are a few highlights:

Singapore is working steadily on a huge deep tunnel project that will enable the movement of wastewater between three regional plants, allowing three older plants to be closed and repurposed, and improving performance and operational efficiencies at those that remain.  These tunnels are ten to 15 stories underground, connected the entire Island, and require state-of-the-art pumping stations to lift flow up to wastewater plants.  Yet energy is being saved as well, as they have been designed to allow gravity to move flow between most of the sources to the treatment facilities.

Singapore has three remaining facilities – which they call water reclamation plants – although they currently need only two for full treatment
capacity.  A third is being kept on-line for security purposes, and to ensure capacity for anticipated growth until at least 2050.

Their flagship water reclamation plant at Changi is a technical marvel.  Space is another “spaceship” resource in island Singapore and these facilities are often close to large residential complexes.  (Actually, when first sited, most of the facilities were far away from other uses – but the rapid growth of Singapore has pushed new building right to the doorstep of large reclamation plants.)  As a result, every aspect of the reclamation process is covered, so gone are the historic open settling structures or secondary treatment cells.

A Solids Processing Plant Built Vertically to Save Space

At Changi, they have taken the principal of enclosure eons farther, and built the entire treatment process in a vertical process – with settlement and treatment that happen at different levels in a building that starts deep underground and reaches many stories into the air.  All liquid processing is done in one large building, an approach I have never heard of nor seen before. At the top of the liquids processing building, PUB has entered into a DBOO – design, build, own and operate – process with Sembcorp to create NEWater – or reclaimed water that is in most respects purified to a higher level than typical potable water, and is currently used mainly for industrial uses and in smaller amount to be added to the reservoir that feeds the standard drinking water treatment plant. This is a remarkable step forward, and PUB has a fun and engaging outreach campaign to describe the virtues of NEWater to the public.  Absolutely remarkable given the source, I am hugely impressed that the public seems to understand why NEWater is a portion of effort important to national security, and even a point of national pride.  PUB is about to enter a contract to build a second NEWater plant, to be added to the remaining part of the roof of the huge liquid treatment building. Singapore has conceived and implemented a national watershed program that employs Green Infrastructure and land use planning to capture as much of the ample rain that falls on the Island so it can be held for treatment and use.  The country seeks to capture every drop of rainfall, hold and clean it, and then cycle it into human and environmental uses.  And while I was there, Singapore opened a giant, new state-of-the-art desalinization plant to comprise yet another prong of their overarching plan for water.

NEWater as Part of the Changi Water Reclamation Plant

One of the most interesting panels in the Leaders Program featured the indomitable Pat Mulroy from Las Vegas Water District describing the vital importance in the future for water leaders to be diplomats.  She highlighted several places that demonstrated the performance that can be achieved when parties worked together – including the many organizations arrayed along the Colorado River, national collaborations in Israel and Australia, and of course Singapore itself.  While I wholeheartedly agree with her perspective and admire her own remarkable story, I believe that the underlying unity in these stories is not rooted initially in the skill of the leaders there, but in the advent of an unambiguous “spaceship” crisis that cut to the viability of their future:·

Israel is an arid country with historic water resources coming from neighboring countries that may not be friendly; Sydney and many other cities in Australia faces long-term (perhaps permanent) droughts that reduced water supplies for millions of people to emergency levels; Las Vegas and every other user along the Colorado faces growing population and economic uses that may deplete a mighty river and undercut one of the most robust regional economies in the world; and Singapore represents the classic spaceship island that faces a looming cutoff of its water supply from a foreign land.

I was genuinely sorry to board the taxi to drive beneath the water trees back to the airport. My trip had given me many ideas on many, many ways DC Water can improve.  Yet two big takeaways stay with me from Singapore.

First is the challenge for those of us in areas where we believe water is a crisis issue, but not of the dramatic spaceship variety – but instead a quietly unfolding crisis without immediate risks to national security and rapidly depleting reservoirs. Las Vegas, Israel, Sydney and Singapore have developed amazing water programs because they have to – the water gun is at their heads, as it were.  The rest of us need programs of similar strategic breadth, yet need to generate the attention and focus that is needed.  I will focus long and hard on how we might do that in DC.

Second is that in parallel to highlighting the strategic importance of water, we need to devise solutions that think big – in scope, in time, and in ambition. Singapore is the case study for how that can be done in a way that secures their national future, and also fosters a robust economic and human environment.

My last thought of Singapore as I took off and looked out the window of our jet is the remarkable vitality and beauty of its waterfront.  I fervently believe that every great city – and certainly my favorites (which now include Singapore, Barcelona, Boston, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Tel Aviv and Washington, D.C.), feature spectacular rivers, bays, oceans – water!

I am back in Washington, DC committed even more to making our city known not just as the center for a great democracy, but also as a world-class leader in the beauty, vitality and quality of its waterways.  Success on the latter will only help fuel the strength of the former. I offer sincere gratitude to my new friends from Singapore to helping me along my way!

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One Comment

  • Great post, George. I was in Singapore last year and got to tour NEWater and ABC Waters as well–both were inspirational. While Singapore certainly has some unique characteristics, I found many parallels with my own hometown of Boston and the revitalization of the waterfront there once the Harbor was clean. Water/Wastewater/Drainage infrastructure is probably our most under-leveraged economic development resource!

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