The Marina Barrage has transformed the bay into an inland lake


Singapore has no springs or reserves of drinking water worth mentioning, and it used to depend on its neighbors for water. Today this Asian city-state is a prime example of how the water problems of the future can be solved

“Turn their water off! Turn their water off!” chanted the crowd. If one had to choose the moment that clearly demonstrated to the people of Singapore that at some point they could be left high and dry, it would have to be a certain day in the fall of 1998. Shortly after the onset of the Asian financial crisis, Singapore’s neighbor Malaysia was facing financial collapse. The Singapore government had agreed to provide a rescue package, but in exchange it wanted to extract major concessions from Malaysia’s Prime Minister at that time, Mahathir Mohamad.

The city’s authorities demanded a virtually unlimited extension of the treaty of 1962, in which Malaysia had committed itself to supplying Singapore with water for 99 years at a special price. “There are limits to our friendly treatment of our neighbor,” Mahathir roared, and the crowd chanted, “Turn their water off!”

It’s not only their shared colonial history that connects the 5.8 million inhabitants of the Southeast Asian island state of Singapore with the 31 million Malaysians on the mainland. In geographic terms, they’re bound together by the Causeway, a connecting dam that is 1,056 meters long and 18 meters wide. Since 1923, goods have been rolling along the four lanes of the Causeway into and out of the city. In addition, drinking water from the Linggiu Reservoir in southern Malaysia is pumped to Singapore through gigantic pipes running along the Causeway.

On the street or at home, in Singapore you can drink water straight from the tap. In Asia, that’s a rarity

Water treaties registered at the UN

In 1998, 70 percent of Singapore’s water still came from Malaysia. Today Malaysia covers only half of Singapore’s daily water consumption of 400 million gallons (1.5 million cubic meters). “Mahathir’s threatening gesture was a wake-up call for Singapore,” says Cecilia Tortajada. “It warned us never to become complacent.” Together with more than 50 other water experts, she does research at the Institute of Water Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which is located in the midst of Singapore’s Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tortajada is a leading expert in the field of urban water management. As a young scientist in her home town, Mexico City, she had found out about Singapore and decided that South America—and in fact the whole planet— needed to learn from this “small town in Asia.”

Why? “Because here every inhabitant can drink water directly from the tap,” she replies. A European might take this for granted, but in Asia, except for Singapore and Japan, it can’t be done without risking one’s health. Tortajada, who has a doctorate in biology, points out that people all over the world are aware of the huge political impact of water issues, “but only the Singaporeans indulge in the luxury of planning 50 or 100 years ahead.”

»We indulge in the luxury of planning 50 or 100 years ahead«

Cecilia Tortajada,

a Mexican biologist who works at the Institute of Water Policy in Singapore, explains how the city-state deals with water

In this high-tech and banking hub, this circumstance is closely connected with a single person: the creator of the independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. When the federation of Singapore and the sultanates of Malaysia became independent from Great Britain in 1957, Singapore’s 900,000 inhabitants were supplied with all of their drinking water by the mainland. Lee not only insisted that the water supply contracts that were signed in 1962 cover almost a century—he also made sure they were registered at the United Nations as an international law.

This move turned out to be absolutely right. On August 9, 1965, when Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew declared its independence, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdul Rahmat announced that he could turn off Singapore’s water supply at any time if he didn’t like its policies. Lee regarded this as an incentive rather than as a threat. As early as 1971, the newly created Public Utilities Board (PUB) drafted the first meticulously detailed plan for safeguarding the city’s supply of drinking water. Three years later, the engineers at the PUB tried to build a desalination system. The only reason why the project failed is that back then the world still had no affordable technology for this process.
The engineers then decided to channel the water that Singapore has in abundance: tropical rainfall. Singapore has an average annual precipitation volume of 2,500 millimeters—150 percent more than London. Wastewater pipes were now laid in all residential areas, along the main traffic arteries, and even along the edges of the few remaining virgin forests. As a result, Singapore was no longer prone to the devastating floods that follow monsoon rains and are typical of the tropics. In other major cities in Southeast Asia, such floods are still a recurring problem. The rainwater collected by the pipes now flowed into gigantic retention basins and reservoirs. Today Singapore has 17 of these artificial lakes, which serve as the centers of local recreation areas.

The Deep Tunnel Sewerage Systems (DTSS) are located far beneath ground level. Phase 1 was completed in 2008; Phase 2 will last until 2025

Underwater channels traverse Singapore

Barrages and a desalination plant

At other points, the coastline was straightened by means of dikes so that freshwater could accumulate in artificial lakes. This has had the positive side effect of enlarging the city’s territory by about 120 square kilometers to a present total of 719 square kilometers. “The only problem is that we would have to flood the entire city with water in order to cover our needs with rainwater alone,” says Tortajada. Mahathir’s threat had played right into the Singapore leaders’ hands. They reacted by implementing the Four Taps master plan for water. Taps One and Two were the reservoirs in Malaysia and the collected monsoon rainfall. To create Taps Three and Four, the government invested the equivalent of €2 billion.

Since 2000, the PUB has created a network of drinking water production facilities throughout this island- state as part of the New Water project. Gigantic drilling machines were used to bore tunnels that are as high as houses through this tropical island’s rocky foundation at depths of more than 50 meters. Such drilling machines are also used to bore tunnels through the Alps. The purpose of these tunnels, which are several hundred kilometers long, is to collect all of the city’s wastewater. New Water, which can even be bought in bottles, is actually wastewater that has been purified to form drinking water that fulfills the EU standard.

Five new waterworks have been built at the end of the network of surface and underground channels, which now has a total length of 8,000 kilometers. In addition, there are three desalination plants, which will soon be joined by a fourth.

The biggest single project, the Marina Barrage, is a 350-meter-long retaining wall that has transformed the entire bay into an inland lake. Today the face of Singapore is the skyline around the Marina Bay Sands casino hotel, which is located next to the Formula 1 circuit. These structures stand on a horseshoe-shaped headland that was wrested from the sea through the construction of the Marina Bay Reservoir.

The retaining wall is part of a desalination plant that has transformed the former bay into a freshwater lake covering 10,000 hectares. At the plant’s inauguration ceremony, Yaacob Ibrahim, who was then the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, declared, “Except for the bottle of New Water that you might take with you as you fly home, I can guarantee that from now on we will reuse every drop of water in Singapore.” The inauguration in 2008 came at exactly the right time, for in the years since then all of Southeast Asia has been plagued by devastating periods of drought. And the situation isn’t getting any better. The years 2014, 2015, and 2016 were so dry that the Linggiu Reservoir (Tap One) in Malaysia was in danger of drying up.

Fear of terrorist attacks

Because of the fear of terrorist attacks—Islamists have threatened to poison Singapore’s drinking water—none of the facilities in the PUB’s water network may be visited. The only exception is the waterworks in the Changi district. Every day, school groups are led past glass walls behind which engineers and technicians are monitoring water circuits.

“One of the biggest water reservoirs is you yourselves,” the tour guide Nallini explains as she leads a boisterous group of schoolchildren through the labyrinth of display boards, hands-on exhibits, and water pipes. On average, every inhabitant of Singapore consumes 149 liters of water every day. That’s much less than the Saudis, for example, who consume 1,000 liters of water daily—but the citizens of Hamburg manage to get by on 120 liters per day. And that’s why Nallini explains to the children how they can help to make Singapore “a First World water city.”

»One of the biggest water reservoirs is you yourselves«


a tour guide at the waterworks in the Changi district, urges visitors to save water

How many of you leave the tap on when you brush your teeth in the morning and in the evening?” she asks. Nearly all the children hold their hands up. “Use a toothbrush tumbler from now on, starting tonight,” she tells them in a no-nonsense governess voice. “That way you can save eleven liters of water every day.”

The children definitely look impressed as they leave the visitors’ center. It’s obvious that today the city government has taken another big step forward in its campaign to increase its water supply. In the future, Tap Five will consist of educational campaigns to show people how to save water. Plans call for Singapore to cover all of its water needs itself starting in 2061.

Jürgen Kremb

A former correspondent for Der Spiegel, he moved to Singapore in 1998, where he advises companies and political institutions on their Asia strategy. After living in Beijing for eight years, he was looking forward to drinking water in Singapore from the tap without any adverse health effects