June 22, 2009

Singapore Leading The Way In Water Research

Gone are the fretful days of worry about the nation's water supply, says Khoo Teng Chye, the likable chief of Singapore's water agency for the last five years, the AFP reported.

For generations, officials at the Public Utilities Board (PUB) deliberated over whether the island-state would have ample water to support its endurance and development in the future.

But this is no longer a burden for Khoo.  With the help of new technology, the prosperous but resource-deprived nation can now produce much of its own water and is paving the way to be a very instrumental role in an up and coming new industry that recycles used waste water.  The new industry is worth 100 billion US dollars. 

"I'm lucky," Khoo told the press.  "I came after the breakthrough so my thoughts now are more focused on how to make the industry grow," he said, referring to the process of purifying water on a large scale and relatively cheaply using membrane technology, a chemical-free way of purifying water.

Although Singapore has acquired great wealth and possesses a well-prepared military to discourage impending antagonists, the nation has always been deficient in natural resources, making them vulnerable.

A substantial portion of its water supply comes from neighboring Malaysia, but this dependence remained a touchy issue due to years of resentment over their bitter severance more than 40 years ago.

"Ever since we became independent in 1965, the issue of trying to manage our water in such a way that we can sustain our growth and development way into the future has been a top priority," Khoo said.

Singapore, just 280 square miles, does not have adequate watersheds and natural rivers from which to gather the necessary resource. 

"We have only water from the sky -- the rain," said Khoo.

With such abundant rainfall, the government has transformed two-thirds of the island into a large reservoir to substitute for the water piped in from Malaysia. 

Currently, a drainage network ranging 4,340 miles guides rainwater into 15 different reservoirs, and will soon be 17 by next year.

"We are probably the only city or country in the world that does urban stormwater harvesting on such a large scale," informed Khoo.

Singapore is converting the reservoirs into attractive lakes for hosting water sports and other recreational activities, all in part of its general ambition to become a "green" city. 

Unsightly concrete water drains and canals will be crafted to look like naturally occurring rivers and streams, Khoo said. 

In the early part of 2000, the introduction of membrane technology made it possible and affordable for Singapore to process sewage water on a large scale.

The method works by using semi-permeable filters instead of chemicals or energy to divide untreated water from pollutants and toxins, resulting in drinkable water and useable water for the high-end semiconductor factories that are the foundation for Singapore's economy.

The technology offered an immediate advantage for the vulnerable nation.

The government has invested what is equivalent to 3.45 billion US dollars to build water-related infrastructure over the past seven years, including four plants that recycle sewage water for residences and industries.

"NEWater" is the government's term for the recycled product.

On June 23, the fifth and one of the largest water reclamation plants in the world will open during International Water Week.  This is an annual event hosted by Singapore and viewed as a model for other water-starved nations.

The plant consists of a 29.76-mile underground tunnel system that feeds water into a facility, whereby 176 million gallons of sewage is treated daily.

NEWater will account for 30 percent of Singapore's needs by next year, but if the need presents, this can be increased with little effort.

More expensively produced desalinated water accounts for 10 percent of Singapore's needs, while local catchments and imported water make up the rest.

"I think we now have the capacity, if we need to, to be able to sustain our growth and development," said Khoo when asked if Singapore can become fully self-sufficient.

"As technology improves, cost will keep coming down."

Singapore hopes that the country will become a center for research.

The government budgeted 330 million dollars in 2006 to fund research for the next five years in water technologies. 

This has enticed prominent foreign companies like US General Electric, Germany's Siemens and Dutch firm Deltares to establish research centers in Singapore to create new solutions to meet the world's water needs.

Additionally, Singapore now serves as a base for foreign and local firms that assisted in building the water projects to serve other clients in Asia and the Middle East. 

Since urban living is increasing worldwide, meeting people's water needs without being disruptive to the environment is becoming socially popular, Khoo said.

"Singapore in a way has become a hub for water knowledge and water expertise in the region," he said.

"The government wants to build on and enhance this hub as it sees that water, instead of being a strategic weakness, could possibly be a strategic strength for the country."