Water Management In Singapore And Sri Lanka …a Comparative Study



By Ifham Nizam


This body of research focuses on a “Comparative study on water management in Sri Lanka and Singapore” and aims to identify with water management and its related technologies. This research was conducted by Ifham Nizam on   behalf   of   the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information of Nanyang Technological University Singapore.

The main focus of this research paper aims to assist Sri Lanka’s development efforts by providing insights that would be beneficial to its economic development. As a consequence the implementation of Singapore’s water management systems and the associated stakeholders will be referred to through a series of articles.

With an evident lack of natural resources unlike that of the situation in Sri Lanka, particularly when it comes to water and soil, Singaporeans with their sophisticated technology, dedication, hard work and expertise have combined to make Singapore, one of the world’s miracle nations. The methodology Singapore uses is not dissimilar to that of Sri Lanka – the difference lies in how far behind we lag in accruing results.

Access to clean water is a fundamental human right. In an over populated, resource-poor future, it will be a critical determinant of both sustainability and stability in a society. Yet the planners and policymakers in Sri Lanka have paid little heed to the massive problems that lie before us as we continue to allow the pollution of the surface aquifer.

Our water management system is in essence, vague; the National Water Board does not even have professional accountants in their employ. However, it is hoped that with constant pressure exerted through the media, significant changes will be forthcoming. Taking into consideration Singapore’s experience would certainly be one of the pivots of success.

While conducting this research I was made aware of the fact that many developed countries including the mighty US are in awe of Singapore’s water management system that while employing state-of-the-art global technology, also utilises technology that is home-grown and adapted for local conditions. Another realization was how Singapore’s national water agency, the Public Utility Board (PUB), is doing its utmost to singularly meet its water demand by 2060.

It is the vision of PUB to reduce and possibly eliminate the country’s dependence on Malaysia by strengthening its three methods to tap water, namely to treat waste-water, desalinate seawater and maximize collection of rainwater.

Singapore is an example for water management the world over. There is a lesson in it for countries such as Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka because authorities in these countries do little or nothing to improve their own water catchments to collect and store water.

Water Conservation through rain water harvesting and recycling of water is taking place at a snail’s pace. Though we are somewhat successful in water harvesting, we have marginal skills when it comes to recycling of water.

I firmly believe that environmental issues are critical in the context of development, and most certainly when the country is a heading on a path of rapid development post conflict. It is vital for those engaged in development and beneficiaries to gain an opportunity to increase their understanding, awareness and sensitivity to a range of issues related to environment protection.


The purpose of this study was to examine and explore the possibilities of tapping knowledge resources through the Singapore experience especially from PUB.

The data collection of the study was conducted from March to mid March 2014 and a number of water and environment, research based organizations was approached.

The researcher would like to express his sincere gratitude to all the media institutions for their participation and their valuable contributions in designing this study.

(Professor Cherian George, Director Asia Journalism Fellowship and former Division of Journalism and Publishing Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information College of Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences Singapore, Professor LEONG Ching, of Lee Kuan Yew –School of Public Policy, National University Singapore, PUB Director George Madhavan, Waterways Watch Society, Chairman Eugene C.H. Heng, also literature available from National University of Singapore, Lew Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Dean, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore Water Story authors, Cecilia Tortajada, Yugal Joshi, Asit K. Biswas, Sri Lanka’s foremost biodiversity authority Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda and Water and Drainage Ministry of Sri Lank.


Throughout the world, water management systems are one of the most crucial areas for development; comparing their positions in Singapore and Sri Lanka would be a very useful exercise. We will certainly derive many benefits – learning and sharing with each other. I look forward to undertaking this assignment and I believe I could study it deeply and project valuable insights. Interviewing a cross section of respondents would certainly strengthen my contribution in this regard.

In order to ensure the sustainable use and efficient management of water resources, it is helpful to have information on the available water resources, how it is changing over time in quantity and quality, the present and future demand for water resources, and how climate change is impacting the overall situation of available water resources. The Water Information System for Sri Lanka aims to provide a web-based framework with access to information on water resources in Sri Lanka. The objectives of this information system are as follows:

Provide a clear understanding of the status and trends of the country’s water resources

Provide a web-based interactive information and mapping portal for exploring data, information and maps related to water resources; Produce a water resources assessment for Sri Lanka at various scales (river basin, administrative boundary, etc.)

The information in the web portal has been organized to address the following information needs: Understanding the physical setting of a water resources system: The information in this instance includes the administrative setup, topography, land cover, river network, soils and urban centers.

Water availability: The quantity of available water resources is measured by precipitation, surface runoff, and ground water recharge and storage capacity of the system.

Water demand and use: The driving forces that would lead to an increase in water demand are population growth, urbanization, industrialization, increase in food demand and changing consumption patterns. Water used by different sectors has an impact on the quantity and quality of available water resources.

Water quality:

The quality of water has an impact on the availability of usable water for various purposes. Assessment of water quality is also important to prevent water-related diseases.

Governance and management: This includes the planning and management that is required to increase available water resources and the measures that need to be taken to reduce the future demand for it by increasing water-use efficiency. Information on irrigation and drainage development, institutions, legislation and finances are required for these purposes.

Disaster and risks: Information on areas that are prone to different potential natural disasters that could take place would be useful, as this information could be used to plan ahead and organize protection and mitigation measures against any possible damage that could occur. Information on floods, droughts, landslides and tsunamis are included in this category.

Climate change: Climate change has long-term impacts on precipitation, temperature, rise in sea level and, thus, has an impact on the overall quantity and quality of water resources.


As part of the research content, an interview was conducted with George Madhavan, Director 3P Network Department of PUB Singapore.


A densely populated island city state with more than five million people in a land area of about 710 sq km, Singapore has no natural aquifers and limited land, which makes water resource management a huge challenge. In the 60s and 70s, Singapore faced all the problems of rapid urbanization – polluted rivers, water shortages and widespread flooding.

By investing in water technology and adopting an integrated approach to water management in the last 50 years, PUB, Singapore’s national water agency has developed a diversified and sustainable water supply system.

PUB has successfully closed the “water loop” and managed the whole water cycle: from rainwater collection to the purification and supply of drinking water, to the treatment of used water and its reclamation into NEWater, Singapore’s own brand of high-grade reclaimed water. This has enabled PUB to put in place a robust and diversified water supply strategy known as the Four National Taps – water from local catchment, imported water, NEWater and desalinated water.

In the process, PUB has overcome Singapore’s water challenges and turned its vulnerability into a strategic asset. Moving into the future, PUB will continue to invest in technology and R&D to improve the long term sustainability of Singapore’s water resources.

Recognizing that local expertise and technology would be valuable to communities around the world in need of environmental and water management systems, the Singapore government has incorporated the industry into its national growth plan. The Environment & Water Industry Program Office (EWI) was thus established in 2006 to promote research and development in the field, grow the industry and position Singapore as a global R&D base for environment and water solutions. With a funding of S$470 million from the National Research Foundation (NRF), the EWI is well poised to meet its objective: growing Singapore into a global hydrohub for leading-edge technologies and furthering Singapore’s vibrant research community.  Today, Singapore has a thriving cluster of over 130 water companies and 28 research centres.

The Singapore International Water Week was conceptualised as a key driver to grow the water industry through research and development, focusing on business, networking and solutions. Over the years, SIWW has established itself as the key platform for connecting public with private sectors, buyers with sellers, water technology start-ups with potential investors on a single platform to co-create and enable water solutions. It aims to bring together the world water ecosystem to drive collaborative efforts, share resources and best practices towards the co-creation of innovative water solutions.

There is also growing global recognition that in order to effectively meet the challenges of rising urbanisation, it is no longer sufficient to address the urban issues separately (e.g. water management, sanitation, waste management, energy, transport, basic infrastructure). What will set cities apart is the extent to which they are able to address these individual components in an integrated manner in order to achieve sustainable growth and a better quality of life for all. In light of the changes the world is facing, it is critical that water management is integrated in the urban master planning of cities. Thus it was decided to hold SIWW in conjunction with the World Cities Summit and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore, so as to enable meaningful discussions that cut across water, environment and urban development. Ultimately, the aim of SIWW is to advance global thought leadership in water management, urging countries to look at challenges differently and more holistically, and ensure that water is integrated in the urban master planning of cities.

Singapore’s Waterways Watch Society, Chairman, Eugene C.H. Heng, who is an also leading environmentalist answers some of our queries.

Q: What is your opinion on the concept of showing the world how to produce water?

A: I don’t think anyone can produce water. If he can he would be the richest person in the world.  However if you are referring to Newater, I think this concept should be definitely shared.

Q. As a seasoned environmentalist, do you think Singapore should share their expertise on water management with countries in the region?

A: Water is precious.  It is the giver of life.

Anything that can help make the world a better place for all mankind should be shared. It must not be a secret selfishly kept for the wrong purpose.  That is why I think Singapore started the SIWW -Singapore International Water Week.

I believe it is our intent at such a conference to facilitate and encourage exchange of ideas, sharing of experience about Water Management with those who have for those who do not have.

Q. Is there anything else, you like to say with regard to Singapore water management, technology etc.

A: As a small nation we were fortunate enough to learn at a very early stage the importance and value of this resource- Water.  We cannot manufacture or create water; we cannot depend on others to sell and certainly cannot have any guarantee on its natural supply (rain). Luckily we had the right vision and investment strategy to ensure such sustainability.

Having achieved this, we also see the value and need to share our experience and technology with all others.  Wars have been fought because of water. To ensure the world has access to good water management and whatever technology we have makes common sense especially if we want to preserve our world. I personally think this is a good approach for Singapore.

Sri Lanka’s foremost authority on biodiversity Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda, who was also a former Chairman of the Water Resources Board said: “I think my take on this would be that the real problem is not the physical scarcity of water but the physical scarcity of cheap water. Any people in developing countries want water to be a public good, like air, and do not accept that it carries a cost. In Sri Lanka, for example, to this day farmers expect irrigation water for their crops to be delivered free. This simply does not work (nothing “free” is sustainable).

Pethiyagoda who is at present Research Associate of the Australian Museum added: “My feeling about the water problem in Sri Lanka is that it is never costed. I did a rough estimate of the benefit to Sri Lanka from hydroelectricity just in the Kelani basin and it is clear that while the country is happy to benefit from this water resource, no one is willing to pay even one per cent to help conserve that resource (e.g. through better land management practices). If water carries a commercial cost, just like any other utility, I believe market forces would at least in part result in its conservation and more efficient utilization.”


When Singapore seceded from Malaysia in 1965, it soon became evident that water security would form a central element in the city-state’s future evolution.

The Singapore Water Story covers the first 45 years of Singapore’s journey from political independence towards water independence in eight chapters, several of which serve as stand-alone studies. These eight chapters cover the initial development of Singapore’s water infrastructure, how water relates to urban development, pollution control, water demand, education, river restoration, the media and water policy, and a brief look towards 2060.

One of the strengths of this book lies in its recording of the development of water and environmental policies back in the 1960s and 1970s, when Singapore was a developing economy. It is tempting to forget how swift the city-state’s development has been and how closely intertwined its water policies have become with its overall economic development.

As soon as Malaysia’s stance became clear, water self-sufficiency became a national priority. At the same time, long-term independence depended on economic and demographic advancement, which (given that land is scarce) immediately called for detailed planning.

Self-determination confers obligations; while the colonial population had enjoyed a healthy physical environment, this was not the case for the rest of Singapore. The government realized that with a universal franchise, all had the right to enjoy such amenities as household access to safe water and sanitation, which remains an exceptional approach to this day. Policy initiatives examined include the introduction of rising block tariffs (1973), demand management (1981) and full cost recovery, allied with the end of cross-subsidies (1997). These, combined with a continuing public-awareness campaign to encourage prudent behaviour and the adoption of water-efficient white goods, have helped to ease per capita consumption in recent years.

The original Master Plan of 1955 was approved in 1958, when Singapore was still part of Malaysia. The 1971 Concept Plan and 1972 Master Plan saw the appreciation that if more of the island was to serve as a catchment basin, this would be more effective if the basins were more amenable to water storage. This meant looking at the island as a

resource, in the sense that the catchment areas needed to be clean enough to draw water from and from, there considering the benefits of areas of attractive landscape and water as part of creating a desirable place to live in. This reflects the fact that enhanced physical landscapes also enhance the desirability of the properties in the area and that Singapore has been moving inexorably towards a wholly urbanized society, whereby elements of the urban environment have to provide other utilities such as aesthetics and recreation. As a consequence, the area of green cover has materially increased in the past two decades despite population growth and urban development.

Inland water pollution was identified as a particular concern in 1969, and it is interesting to note that in Singapore there were 29,525 prosecutions relating to environmental offences in the 32 months between 1968 and 1971, decades ahead of its International Journal of Water Resources Development, 2013.

Asian peers… Later on, the threats of heavy fines and imprisonment curbed non-compliance. Even so, 13% of trade effluent-discharge tests failed between 1986 and 1993. So, it is interesting to see the continued improvement in inland water quality from 2002 – 05 to 2006 –10. This is in the wake of 822 –1047 surprise visits each year and acting on 95–391 complaints each year between 2003 and 2010. Five per cent 5.0% of sites visited were found to be not in order; 0.5% of such visits resulted in legal action; and 8.5% of 1866 complaints were corroborated, suggesting that Singapore is a society where environmental compliance is now seen as a societal and business norm.

Despite the increase of hard-standing associated with urbanization, the 3178 ha of flood-prone land noted in the 1970s had been reduced to 56 ha by 2011. This is a notable feat and will be of additional importance with climate change.

One quibble is how politics between Singapore and Malaysia after Singapore’s independence is not dealt with in detail until Chapter 7, some two-thirds of the way into the text. This matters because Singapore’s almost unique geo-political circumstances are a crucial driver of its water policy and the consistency of this policy. The existential threat to Singapore’s well-being that stopping the pipelines would have entailed was used by Japan in 1942, as well as by Malaysia. People who wonder why the British government handed over Hong Kong Island, where it enjoyed a freehold, as well as its Kowloon leasehold in 1997, forget how taps may lubricate foreign affairs.

It is evident that much research into water relations between the two countries is (over-)reliant on media sources, and thus an intensive investigation into what has been written is of particular value. Paraphrasing media coverage is especially welcome, as such media “debates” are usually examined in a partial or piecemeal manner. Here, every intervention is mentioned, allowing the reader to examine how coverage has evolved. Between 1997 and 2009, media coverage regarding the Johor water deal can be seen as diverging between the two countries, moving from reporting of negotiations to commentary about the merits of current and proposed agreements. With the improved relations between the two countries since 2003, media interest in perceived water disputes has eased, especially as both countries realized that using unofficial media briefing about water negotiations can be a fraught process.

The authors assessed 193 articles, out of a total of 418 noted regarding water supplies in the Singapore and Malay press, as being positive, negative or neutral for relations between the two countries. Forty-three appeared between 1997 and 2001, 145 in 2002 and 2003, and 5 between 2004 and 2009. Twenty-four were seen as positive, against 131 seen as negative. In the “media frenzy” years of 2002 –03, Sixty-nine per cent of the 87 articles in the Singapore press were seen as negative, while 83% of the Malay media’s 58 articles were negative. In other years, 37% of Singapore media articles were assessed as negative and 60% of Malaysian articles likewise. The frequency of the articles assessed rose from 8.6 per annum in 1997 –01 to 72.5 in 2002 –03, before falling to 1.3 in 2004 –07.

There are a few typos to point out. For example, on page 6 it is likely that “eighteenth century” ought to be the nineteenth. It is somewhat confusing to have gallons and litres in.

Throughout this study, future population is the grand imponderable. Broadly speaking, during the period covered, population growth has continued ahead of expectations, albeit with further imponderables from demographics (an ageing population) and the ever-evolving problem of reconciling the needs of the city-state’s citizens with the need to attract people with specific skill-sets to work there for a suitable period of time. This highlights just how important forecasting future demand is, as well as reconciling the competing narratives of supply and demand management. An interesting point raised is that Singapore has become a business hub despite its relatively strict environmental

legislation, which dates back to the early 1970s. Even so, only from 1972 was it fully appreciated that there is a linkage between industrial development and future water use, one which will be of considerable importance in the coming decades.

Moving towards water independence has been challenging, especially when you consider that consumption rose from 70 million gallons per day in 1965 to 380 million by 2011. Water has been imported from Johore since 1932 per the 1927 agreement, supplemented by the 1961 treaty between the Singapore City Council and the State of Johore (to 2011) and the 1962 treaty (to 2061). Seeking water security has been a balancing act. On the one hand, public confidence in the security of water supplies needs to be maintained, while on the other, the options necessary for ensuring water security needed to be developed. By continuing to develop the Johor River scheme in the 1990s, the Public Utilities Board was giving itself the time to allow the technologies needed for unconventional water supplies to become suitably reliable and commercially feasible.

The government looked at conventional and unconventional sources, showing how the utility and the state can assist in the development of new approaches. A non-potable reused industrial water scheme ran from 1966 to 1990, but was undone by the high costs of providing the service; likewise, the utility produced potable water from wastewater as far back as in 1974 –76, but again costs were prohibitive. Unconventional water moved up the agenda as demographic and economic growth exhausted local supplies in the late 1980s.

Reverse osmosis played a major role in allowing this to happen at an affordable price, especially the commercial development of the membrane bioreactor in the early 1990s. Is this a case of seeking water independence irrespective of cost? I doubt it. One of the undercurrents in this study is the pragmatic nature of water policy in action.

For example, the 4 –6% of unaccounted-for-water figure since 1996 is not particularly low, but it fits comfortably with accepted best practice.

The development of Singapore-based water and sewage operations and technology companies has been driven by a policy of combining water self-sufficiency with nurturing a regional presence in the water sector. It also goes back to the appreciation that a comprehensive water, sewerage and sewage-treatment infrastructure is an essential element in what we now understand as a developed economy. While there have been 12 tariff increases since independence, there have been none since 2000; but a water-conservation tax allows for some flexibility in overall tariff setting.

This book is of particular use as an extended case study about how to develop a comprehensive water management system in a developing economy and how doing so plays a central role in driving economic development. It provides interested parties with a detailed understanding of how policy developed and was implemented and how these processes interacted with economic, technological and demographic developments over nearly five decades. It has succeeded in doing this in an accessible manner, drawing together a broad variety of narratives into a single volume. It benefits greatly from access to politicians and officials spanning the city-state’s history.

Singapore’s water story clearly remains a work in progress. The authors are to be commended for the up-to-date nature of much of their data, allowing readers to engage in current developments rather than debate about past dialectics. Indeed, the study is a pragmatic one, keeping references to academic theory to a bare minimum in order to stick to the functional narrative. The book’s tone makes it fairly clear that its authors are favourably inclined towards Singapore’s water policy. Given the politicized nature of geography as a discipline when it comes to water management, this is perhaps a contrarian approach.

story since 1965 is a remarkable and indeed inspiring one and because it is clear that the authors’ sympathetic stance has allowed them considerable access to those involved in shaping policy, especially in the earlier years, where the genesis of this story may otherwise have been lost.

With the publication in 2010 of Singapore’s plans for 2060 and the lapsing in 2011 of the 1961 agreement, this book takes the reader to the point in Singapore’s water story where the city-state is in a position to actively contemplate a water-sufficient future.