Rapid urbanisation, coupled with climate change, has posed a huge threat to water infrastructure all over the world. Southeast Asian (SEA) countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia are already facing a huge gap in water demand and supply. Even major economies such as Singapore are heavily dependent on external sources to meet their water needs, making it crucial for them to invest in sustainable water sources. Singapore has experienced a surge in technological innovations over the past few years, with a focus on efficient water management and treatment.
The water demand in Singapore is expected to double in the next four decades, with non-domestic water demand estimated to make up 70 per cent of the overall water use. In this regard, the Singapore government has been efficiently working towards developing the necessary infrastructure and encouraging private sector players to come up with new technologies. It has been successfully managing a robust and sustainable water supply from four water sources known as the Four National Taps – water from local catchment, imported water, high-grade reclaimed water called NEWater and desalinated water. This integrated setup with high-end technology has helped the city-state overcome its lack of natural water resources. Singapore has further established itself as a leading market for technological innovations in the past few years. The government has laid special focus on pursuing a long-term strategy towards sustainable management of water. Reportedly, the number of water companies in the city-state has tripled since 2006. At present, there are about 180 water companies and 26 research centres in Singapore. The government had set a goal to contribute SGD 670 million for research and development for the water sector between 2006 and 2020, under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan. Its special focus on the water sector was targeted at increasing employment opportunities in the sector as well as its contribution to the gross domestic product of the water industry to SGD 2.85 billion in 2020.
The NEWater process recycles the treated wastewater into ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water. Currently, there are five NEWater plants in Singapore, which meet 40 per cent of its water needs. By 2060, it is expected to meet up to 55 per cent of Singapore’s future water demand. The highly advanced technology involved in the NEWater production process involves three steps. The microfiltration stage involves passing of treated used water through membranes to filter out suspended solids, colloidal particles, protozoan cysts and other contaminants. The reverse osmosis (RO) process uses a semi-permeable membrane with small pores, which allow only water molecules to pass through. As a result, undesirable contaminants such as bacteria and viruses get filtered out. The final stage is ultraviolet disinfection, which inactivates organisms. It acts as a safety backup to the RO and guarantees suitability of the treated water for usage. The NEWater is then stored in water tanks after the addition of some alkaline chemicals to restore the pH balance.
Another resilient water source developed by Singapore is desalination. The Public Utilities Board (PUB) has used an advanced membrane technology to turn seawater into drinking water. It is expected to meet up to 30 per cent of the water demand by 2060, up from 25 per cent at present. Currently, there are four seawater desalination plants in Singapore – SingSpring, Tuaspring, Tuas and the Keppel Marina East desalination plants. The first-of-its-kind facility in Singapore, the Keppel Marina East desalination plant was recently commissioned on June 29, 2020. It is a large-scale dual-mode desalination plant that can treat both seawater and fresh water to produce up to 137,000 cubic metres of drinking water daily. Its ability to switch from treating fresh water to seawater during the dry season would ensure a more weather-resilient water supply for Singapore. Besides, another plant, Jurong Island, is currently under construction with a treatment capacity of another 137,000 cubic metres per day of work. The plant is scheduled for completion in 2020. It is expected to provide desalinated water to the PUB for a period of 25 years.
The PUB is also looking at innovative ways to ensure sustainability of the desalinated water through lower energy requirements. It aims to reduce the energy needs for desalination from the current 3.5 kWh per cubic metre to 1.5 kWh per cubic metre and later to 1 kWh per cubic metre in the long run. It has also set up a research facility in Tuas to facilitate the growth of water treatment technologies in the city-state.
In recent years, Singapore has established itself as a leading market for technological innovations in the water supply sector. One of the major participants in the water sector is the Singapore-based company Visenti. The company was acquired by Xylem in 2016. It has developed a number of analytics products for smart management of water networks in the country. It provides tools to efficiently monitor and predict pipe failure to the PUB. Additionally, it focuses on the growing challenge of non-revenue water loss due to leaks, theft or other causes. It integrates advanced software and hardware to enable the PUB to reduce wastage of energy and water in real time without compromising water quality and hydraulic standards. Another Singapore-based start-up called Wateroam has come up with solutions to provide safe drinking water to the far-flung communities. It has invented a portable filtration system, that does not run on electricity. The company has provided this manual pump mechanism to over 35,000 people in rural and disaster-stricken communities. Environsens, a Singapore-based organisation, has further developed innovative technology to tackle the discharge of contaminants into the water networks. Its internet of things (IoT)-enabled toxicity sensor, which provides data on a real-time basis, has been deployed across Singapore. It ensures early detection of heavy metals in the city’s sewer networks. SpaceAge Labs further monitors the health of remote water assets in the region using low-power wireless IoT sensors. These upcoming players have greatly impacted the water infrastructure in the area through improved monitoring and maintenance.
The way forward
Singapore has been adopting innovative technologies to ensure optimal use of its existing water resources. In December 2019, the PUB signed a contract with SUEZ to expand and maintain a real-time monitoring system for optimisation of reservoir and catchment operations in the city-state for a period of four years. It has emphasised the use of technological breakthroughs to deal with the water woes and overcome the challenges of increasing water demand, rising energy costs and land scarcity. The PUB has also launched an initiative called Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme, which aims to raise consumer consciousness regarding water wastage. The grading system in the scheme reflects the water efficiency levels of products such as washroom fixtures and washing machines. It encourages consumers to consciously opt to purchase products that use water more judiciously. Further, the PUB is encouraging the use of technologies to significantly reduce energy consumption and chemical usage in liquid stream treatment. It aims to achieve the end goal of long-term sustainability through energy self-sufficient water reclamation plants. This makes the combined efforts of government agencies, ecosystem players and private participants extremely crucial. The city-state is already witnessing a spurt in the number of start-ups that have come up with cutting-edge technologies as the water sector offers a strong growth potential.