Singapore’s water story has been one of the shining examples of a small nation overcoming its odds and turning a disadvantage to its strength. It has been drummed into our heads since young that Singapore has no natural resources of its own, not even water, and that our very survival hinged upon other countries. A particularly severe drought in May 1963 led to water rationing being implemented throughout the city and even novel approaches such as cloud seeding were attempted to bring some relief. Yet, Singapore’s eventual success in overcoming this obstacle resulted in the creation of alternative sources of water such as our Four National Taps of imported water, local catchment water, NEWater and desalination. This epitome of nation building was lauded around the world and Singaporeans could cease to worry about water.
But should we?
This very success of the government might come to be a hindrance in changing the mindsets of Singaporeans towards water. “Because PUB has managed to ramp up the water supply… we have almost taken it for granted that we have water security,” Dr Balakrishnan said. The government having done its job so well in handling the issue of water supply has only caused Singaporeans to take it for granted. Many young Singaporeans have only had the experience of water being readily available and readily affordable. Two weeks ago, The Straits Times reported that water levels in the Linggiu reservoir in Johor – which supplies half of Singapore’s water needs – have fallen to a new historic low of 36.9 per cent. Malaysia has already implemented water rationing in Perlis, Johor and soon, Penang, but there has been little action by our government regarding the use of water. Given how much Singapore depends on imported water, no matter our past successes, it is time for the government to address this complacency.
Each Singapore resident uses 150 litres of water a day, enough to fill almost two bathtubs. Yet, the current target of reducing it to 147 litres by 2020 and 140 litres by 2030 is much too gradual and modest. In comparison with other countries and major cities like Berlin, Barcelona, Hamburg or Munich, their target is set to be much lower than what Singapore has targeted for 2030. In fact, Hamburg actually had a per capita consumption of 105 litres in 2008. As one of the leading nations in water conservation praised by the UN, Singapore should and must aim to achieve loftier targets. PUB does have a host of programs to encourage water conservations in the wider community but it functions in the form of a ‘carrot’, as incentives. Instead, stronger measures in the form of ‘sticks’ should be utilized instead to affect a wider audience. The drought in Malaysia has provided Singapore with the timely opportunity to drive home the message of conservation of water while simultaneously stretching our water supply.
One big incentive to reduce water usage is simply to increase the price of water. By making water more expensive, it would be deemed to have more value and Singaporeans would consume water wisely. Singapore’s water prices have remained constant since 2000 while in many other countries, the price of water has been steadily increasing. As a result, water prices in Singapore last year were actually 25.5 per cent lower in real terms compared with 2000 with the total water cost has falling from 0.69 per cent of income in 2000 to 0.36 per cent at present.
However, as many Singaporeans would not be too happy with an increase in prices after having grown to accept ‘cheap’ water, a feasible alternative might be bringing back water rationing. The main aim for the government should be changing people’s mindsets. Water rationing need not be a disruptive and inconvenient process to the economy. Household consumption, while being lower than industrial and service consumption, will be a locus for people to be reminded of the need to save water since they will be actively rationing its usage. Yet, the mere inconvenience of turning on a tap and not having a gush of water is a timely reminder that water will not always be there when you want it.
The Singapore government must be applauded for its achievements to date in providing water for all Singaporeans and for continuing on its target to be self-sufficient by 2060. While Singapore has not faced a critical water shortage yet, water rationing would be a useful reminder that we must not take things for granted. Indeed, water rationing would entail a measure of sacrifice on the parts of Singaporeans. It is time to seriously consider if imparting the valuable lesson of conservation water is worth such a sacrifice.