Singapore once again ahead of the curve

Singapore is a really interesting place for water enthusiasts like myself.  The third most densely populated state in the world at 18,943 people per square mile, this city-state of 5.2 million has virtually no natural water resources.  Yet it manages to attract high-tech industries and maintain a high quality of life, historically because it relied on its impoverished upstream neighbor, Malaysia, for water supplies.  The countries signed a 100-year-long water supply agreement in 1962, in which dammed water supplies in Malaysia are exported to Singapore for a fee.  Singapore even owns a couple of reservoirs in Malaysia, since there isn’t space for the storage in Singapore itself.

Surprisingly for a government organization, though, Singaporean officials have been planning ahead of time by investing in state-of-the-art water supply management.  Desalination and water recycling plants produce 40% of the city’s water supply, with a dam in the city producing 10%, and the remainder coming from Malaysian sources.  A government official recently asserted that the water supply was reliable enough that the city could meet its own demand “if need be.”  They’re about 50 years early.

The secret to success in water management for a water-poor place like Singapore is investment.  Since 2006, the city has spent roughly $480-640 million per year on water supplies.  That’s a lot of money, and it’s paying off in terms of local jobs as well as industries moving to or expanding in the city.  Average water use is about 40 gallons per person per day, which is unheard of in the US – our lowest per captita water use is more like 100-200 gallons per person per day, largely due to outdoor water use.  I’m very impressed by Singapore.

For reference, my hometown of Atlanta has about 5.3 million people sprawled out at 630 people per square mile.  Since 1999, the city has spent roughly $2 billion to upgrade its out-of-date sewer system (~$150 million per year).  (Other counties across the metropolitan area spend around $10 million annually on preventative maintenance so that the same fate as the city won’t befall them.)  The state of Georgia recently distributed $100 million in loans to reservoirs and water supply projects across the state.  Were the city of Atlanta or the state of Georgia to emulate Singapore, they’d need to distribute at least 5 times as much money for water supply projects, and probably more if you consider the relative land area we’re talking about.  Plus, that money would need to go to top-of-the line improvements rather than standard fixes like tunnels to store untreated stormwater or simple maintenance work on reservoirs.  And we’d need to get serious about conservation, too.  That’s a lot of work ahead.  I wonder if the US will ever come close to the investments Singapore has made.