November 11, 2005
Singapore Beats Water Woes, Exports Water Skills
By Fayen Wong
SINGAPORE -- Singapore, which is turning to desalination and waste-water technology to wean itself off water imports from neighboring Malaysia, is now using its expertise to win a bigger slice of the $600 billion global water business.
Water is a crucial political, as well as economic, issue for Singapore. The tropical city-state, home to 4.2 million people and scores of water-guzzling electronics and drugs factories, pipes in half of its daily water needs from Malaysia.
But veiled threats by Malaysia and Indonesia that they could use control of the water supply to exert more influence over their smaller neighbor prompted Singapore to look for alternative sources.
Now companies such as Hyflux Ltd., which operates Singapore's biggest desalination plant, are expanding abroad and winning contracts in the Middle East, China, and India.
"Singapore has moved very quickly to put itself in the spotlight in the water industry and to address the water issues facing the world today," said Peter Moore, vice president of Water Corporation of Western Australia.
Just five years ago, Singapore's only alternative to imported water from Malaysia was the rainfall collected in 14 reservoirs scattered across the tropical island.
It started recycling sewage water from sinks, toilets and air-conditioners in 2003, branding the end-product "NEWater" in the hope it would be more palatable to consumers. Recycled water accounts for just one percent of all tap water.
With the opening of Hyflux's S$200 million desalination plant in September -- the world's largest plant using the reverse osmosis technology -- Singapore can now pump out 30 million gallons of water a day, meeting about 10 percent of its daily water needs.
"Our combined efforts to deal with the water challenge have turned our vulnerability into a strength," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the plant's opening.
Hyflux has expanded into China, India and sealed a string of deals in the Middle East including a contract last year to design, build and operate a desalination plant for Dubai's Palm Jumeirah resort -- a multi-million-dollar property project built in the shape of a palm tree off the Dubai coast.
"On the outset, Singapore's ambitions may appear ironic but it is actually a very sensible and natural progression," said Tom Mollenkopf, deputy director of the International Water Association, particularly as countries across Asia require water technology.
Rapid population growth, breakneck industrialization and mass urbanization have led to surging demand for water in Asia, which is home to 60 percent of the world's population but has only 36 percent of the world's freshwater resources.
Some of Asia's largest cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok and Jakarta, will face severe water shortages by the year 2025, according to the U.N. World Water Development 2003 report.
The removal and disposal of sewage and other polluted water has also been a major problem for governments in the region. In China, only 20 percent of urban sewage receives concentrated treatment, government data shows.
NEWATER OR NO WATER
A disruption to Singapore's water supply could cripple the city-state's important manufacturing sector, which makes up about a quarter of the $110 billion economy.
Five years ago, Indonesia's then President Abdurrahman Wahid said Malaysia and Indonesia could use their position as water suppliers to Singapore to push their own interests.
"If we hold the water for a moment, they will have no water to drink," he said. Indonesia doesn't sell water to Singapore but has discussed supplying it, while Malaysia has long-term supply contracts.
Negotiations between Singapore and Malaysia over the terms of the contracts, which expire in 2011 and 2061, have frequently been acrimonious. But relations between Singapore and its two neighbors have warmed over the past year under new leaders.
Electronics companies such as Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Ltd. use thousands of gallons of ultrapure water -- deionised water which has 99.99 percent of impurities removed -- everyday to cool the wafers.
Highly purified water is used to ensure that circuits in the silicon wafers are not contaminated by microscopic residue.
Some of the world's top pharmaceutical companies now manufacture drugs in Singapore, using ultrapure water in their plants to avoid contamination.
Of the 300 million gallons of water that Singapore consumes each day, some 43 percent is for industrial use.
"It is only when we face stress, or worse still, a crisis that we are driven to innovate. And Singapore has made great strides in this area," said the IWA's Mollenkopf.