Peter Joo Hee Ng, Chief Executive of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency

Peter Joo Hee Ng, Chief Executive of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency

A combination of maximising rainwater collection, along with intensive water reuse and use of desalination, has made Singapore a global leader as far as water management is concerned. Nick Michell spoke to Peter Joo Hee Ng, Chief Executive of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency, about the country’s past successes and how the country plans to innovate to meet future demands

Over the last 50 years Singapore has been hugely successful in developing a diversi ed and robust water supply. How was this achieved and what are the most pressing issues for the next 50 years?

The most pressing issue we have is that our current 99-year water agreement lapses in 2061. The deal with Malaysia, on a good day can account for half of our water, and so we have to plan for a scenario where this source is no longer available.

Singapore is a small place, smaller than London. We do get rain but there is just not enough room for us to collect all the water that falls and store it to meet our needs, so we need to look at alternative sources. We decided to invest in drought resistant sources, such as desalination and recycled water, which we call NEWater.

Our NEWater is not simply used for process purposes, we can even drink it, and very few places in the world treat their recycled water to a potable standard. Recycled water is a very important source for us now and we continue to increase capacity. At the same time, we attempt to catch every drop of rain that falls in Singapore. This means turning as much of Singapore into a catchment area as possible, so we have managed to convert two-thirds of the country so far. We try to continuously reuse water, making water from the sewers potable and then recycling it into the drinking water supply.

Singapore is an island, surrounded by sea, and therefore ideal for desalination processes. However, in comparison to recycled water, desalination is a very expensive process and one of our major goals is to bring down the costs.

I want to emphasise that our success has not been down to us being smarter than everyone else or spending the most money, it is simply driven by scarcity. No big city in the world is self-sufficient in water, whether it is London, New York or Tokyo. It is the scarcity that drives our research and innovation.

NEWater and desalination were made possible by technological breakthroughs following decades of research e orts. How does PUB encourage and actively seek continued investment in research and development on water technology?

Water research is part of the national research programme, which is run centrally and allocates funding. Obviously water is an important area of the research for us at PUB and we get a generous amount in state funding.

You cannot succeed by simply throwing money at it. You must also have human talent. We have a programme that sends some of our best and brightest to PhD programmes in water. In PUB itself we have over 40 people with PhDs and I don’t think many utilities in the world can boast the same.

Lastly you need to have a balanced system, you need a critical mass. You can’t just rely on your own PhDs working in labs, you need the leading players in the water industry to come and set up shop in Singapore so that they are close to the research and can also participate in this research. So over the years we’ve built Singapore into a water hub. There are 180 water companies and more than 20 research institutions. The two water research institutions in our two national universities are ranked numbers one and two in the world.

How closely does PUB work with the public and private sectors to test-bed potential solutions that could help keep water supply both sustainable and a ordable?

Testing is very important. The research has to go from the lab bench to the real world, it needs to get tested. So we open all our plants for test-bedding. If you have a piece of promising research, which seems to work in the lab, bring it to our plant and if we can get an industry partner that is interested in this solution, because they believe they could make money out of this, we will work together to make it a success. We have schemes to test technologies in real time under real world conditions, either in one of our water reclamation or treatment plants. So that completes the ecosystem. It is very easy to talk about what is required to support and sustain water research but in very few places in the world will you see an ecosystem replicated like the one we have in Singapore.

The research has to go from the lab bench to the real world, so Singapore opens all its plants for test-bedding
The research has to go from the lab bench to the real world, so Singapore opens all its plants for test-bedding

How much of a success has the Marina Reservoir been since its creation in 2008 and what have been the benefits? How important is urban stormwater harvesting in creating water sustainability?

Marina Reservoir is just one of our 17 reservoirs and it’s not even a very big one. The importance about Marina is how it was created. Before this, the Singapore River and Kallang River used to flow into the Marina basin and they were, in reality, open sewers. The vision was to create a freshwater reservoir in the heart of the city, but to achieve this we had to clean up both rivers, which was a massive undertaking that took us more than 10 years. That I believe is the great success; that we were able to clean up these two rivers and then build a barrage to block off the sea, and so to create a fresh water reservoir.

Symbolically it is our most important reservoir, because everyone sees it and because of what went into building it. It’s a beautiful place but as a store of water it is not really a large site.

How important has the Private Public Partnership (PPP) approach been in setting up desalination plants?

PPPs are important for us because we believe the private sector can often do a much better job than the state. We have two desalination plants now and both are PPPs and we get a good price for the water. But we don’t believe it should be all PPPs either. There should be balance in our portfolio. A third desalination plant is under construction and that one will be owned and operated by PUB so that we can retain some expertise in running a desalination facility.

Since the introduction of NEWater in 2003 how has this reclaimed water become the pillar of Singapore’s water sustainability? How will PUB expand NEWater capacity so that it meets up to 55 percent of demand in the longer term?

As we speak we are building another NEWater factory, and when it’s completed by the end of this year we will have enough reclaimed water capacity to supply 40 percent of our demand. That will be a huge development. But we want more.

To achieve more we need to reclaim more sewage. We also have a deep tunnel sewerage system in Singapore. Other cities have combined sewers, so sewage and rainwater gets mixed together. In Singapore we have deliberately separated sewage from storm water, because storm water is also drinking water for us and we want to keep it clean and channel it to the reservoirs. Sewage is now also a source of water for us. We want to collect every drop and turn it into drinking water again. We have decided that the best way to do this is through a deep tunnel system. And so we’ve constructed a deep tunnel that runs from one corner of Singapore to the other. Sewage flows through it by gravity and is then brought to the surface into our water reclamation plant for treatment. The treated effluent is not discarded but further sent to a NEWater factory, to get treated some more to potable quality.

We intend to construct another deep sewerage tunnel, this time stretching from the city all the way to Tuas, which is another corner of Singapore where we will again build a water reclamation plant and a NEWater factory. This will allow us to collect and reclaim even more waste water. This new tunnel will complete our deep tunnel sewerage system and allow us to literally reclaim every drop of waste water in Singapore.

By the end of this year Singapore will have enough reclaimed water capacity to supply 40 percent of the country’s demand
By the end of this year Singapore will have enough reclaimed water capacity to supply 40 percent of the country’s demand

How is PUB working with Evoqua Water Technologies to pilot and demonstrate the use of electrochemical technology to desalinate seawater using half the energy?

When it comes to desalination, our aim is to bring down the cost of production. The primary cost driver is the energy or power uptake, now at 3.5 kWh/m3. We have a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) for desalination, which is to halve this 3.5 kWh. And we believe that Evoqua’s technology can bring us some ways towards this target. It is now achieving 1.65 kWh/m3 but this on a pilot scale. The challenge obviously is to bring production up to an industrial level and see whether we can bring down the energy take even further. The Evoqua project is progressing well.

PUB has a vision to develop a Smart Water Grid that monitors water quality, pressure and detects pipe leaks in the water supply network by placing sensors throughout the network to collect real-time hydraulics and water quality data. How close is this vision to being realised and what will it entail to get there?

One of the major problems that every utility faces is unaccounted for water or non-revenue water. We in PUB want to minimise this as much as possible and have managed to reduce our losses down to 5 percent, which is pretty good. To bring it down further will require smart technology, and we have begun to put sensors all along our network. These sensors allow us to measure, among other things, pressure and acoustic quality, which then help us know about leaks faster and may even allow us to pre-empt a leak. Of course we also have sensors to measure the quality of the product we are carrying and these let us provide a consistently high-quality service to our customers.

What projects are being developed as part of the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme? What could be achieved between now and 2030?

The aim of the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme is less about making Singapore more beautiful but more to advance PUB’s mission, which is to provide good water, reclaim used water and tame stormwater. Canals used to be our pathways, large ugly concrete canals, which carried the rain to the reservoir or to the sea.

In the past, our approach was to keep people away from theme, sometimes even building fences around them. We have since changed our orientation and started to re-naturalise these canals and turning them back into rivers. And we actively encourage people to interact with these new waterways. We think that rather than keeping people away, if they actually interact with the water infrastructure, the public would better appreciate how precious water is in Singapore, learn to cherish it and, to take care of it and therefore help us advance our mission.

PUB is progressively carrying out ABC Waters projects across Singapore Our flagship is the Kallang River at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, which was previously a large concrete channel, but is now a wonderful meandering river surrounded by a verdant public parkland. We have 20 projects now on-going all over Singapore, so you can see our canals and waterways being gradually re-naturalised.

Between 2003 and 2014, Singaporeans did a good job of cutting their daily per capita domestic water consumption from 165 litres to 151 litres. The target is to lower this further, to 140 litres in 2030. How important is the cooperation of the community in achieving a sustainable level of water consumption and managing the impact of water on the environment? This is an endless task. Per capita water consumption in Singapore has been on a long-term decline, as in most parts of the developed world, largely because of more efficient equipment; the latest washing machines and showers use less water and taps are now far more efficient than before.

Moving forward we will have to change behaviour; we have to actually encourage you to waste less. There is still a lot of wastage, let’s not kid ourselves. We will need to take shorter showers, use less water when washing the car, et cetera. This will be a challenge moving forward. A lot of it is down to education. We teach water conservation in our primary schools so that every child will know about the importance of saving water. While we have set a goal of 140 litres per person per day by 2030, the real test is to bring it closer to 100 litres, which is the level that has been reportedly achieved in parts of Europe.

Everyone agrees we don’t have enough water and that we need to save water, but it is about whether you will take personal action, and actually spend a minute less in the shower.

Every two years Singapore hosts its International Water Week, a global platform to share water solutions
Every two years Singapore hosts its International Water Week, a global platform to share water solutions

How is PUB getting its engineers ready to handle the challenges of the future?

PUB is an engineering organisation. We have over 3,000 staff and most of them are engineers. We always strive to hire good people, pay them decently and then offer them a challenging career and continuous personal development. In PUB we have a water academy, which is really our corporate university, through which we put every one of our engineers. It offers high-quality training and equips our engineers to innovate constantly. Because of Singapore’s water situation, we need our water engineers to be on their toes, always looking out for new and better ways of doing things.

Are non-domestic customers on course to meet their target of reducing monthly water consumption by 10 percent?

Commerce and industry are the big users of water in Singapore. We require the largest of them to submit annual water management plans to us so that we may have an overview of their water efficiency. In time, we will have to introduce stringent standards for non- domestic use and mandate recycling. Users who have the opportunity will have to be compelled to turn to seawater as an alternative.