Media blitz on the yuck factor

  The Star, Malaysia

July 21, 2002

Insight Down South with SEAH CHIANG NEE

O reduce dependency on imported water, Singapore has started a media blitz to convince the public that recycled water, after two years of testing here, is safe to drink.

At the same time, the city continues to rapidly diversify away from oil and switch to natural gas for the home.

Electric (non-emission) cars are encouraged with tax incentives. Other non-oil vehicles, using gas and hydrogen, may also be running on Singaporean roads once they become cheap enough.

Dependency on imported water (half the city’s consumption) and oil (100 percent imported) are long regarded as Singapore’s vulnerable spots.

Singapore, a tiny island-republic with no natural resources, has invested heavily in technology that can convert waste water into drinking water.

After two years of testing, a nine-member panel of Singaporean and US scientists and Public Utilities Board executives announced that the finished product, called NEWater, was even purer than tap water.

In the midst of clicking press photographers, the experts last week drank the reclaimed water, tested at the Bedok demonstration plant, after saying it was of a consistently high quality that met the World Health Organisation guidelines.

In recent talks, Malaysia served notice that it intended to ask for a review of current agreements to raise the price of raw water supplied to Singapore in return for a long-term agreement.

Prof Joan Rose, a water-pollution microbiologist from the University of South Florida who sat on the panel, said the problem was not about safety but getting Singaporeans to get over the squeamishness.

“There is this ‘yuck’ factor,” she told a news conference.

In the US, where water reclamation is 20 years old, one or two methods may be used, not all three, she said. “Here, you have taken the best of the best and put them all together.”

The three key treatment processes the PUB is using to turn treated water from kitchens and bathrooms to drinking water are microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet radiation.

“It’s really important that the monitoring and water quality data are there for people to look at and to compare to what they are currently getting.”

Since then, the public education process has got serious.

Hardly a day has passed without the newspapers running pages of explanation, with diagrams and charts, of how it is done and how safe it is.

Since Thursday, major radio station FM93.8 joined in with a nightly programme on the subject that continued for several nights.

Grassroots leaders are now being briefed on how NEWater can be used. A visitor centre is being built at the Bedok plant for future public viewing.

Resource-scarce Singapore is building two plants at Bedok and Kranji to produce 15 million gallons (68 million litres) of recycled water per day for industrial use that will be ready by the end of the year.

It will take another eight years to build enough capacity to produce 50 percent of Singapore’s water needs that are now met by Johor.

The government is also stepping up on the use of natural gas from Indonesia and Malaysia, as an energy alternative to oil.

In two years, Singaporeans will be able to use it to cook their meals, heat their homes and run their air-conditioners. By 2004 all stoves will be powered by natural gas, which cooks food faster as the flame is more intense.

Singapore imports all its oil. Every time war threatens to break out in the Middle East, Singapore gets worried about rising price or adequate supplies.

Turning to natural gas from the region is inevitable. Currently, 325 million cu ft of natural gas is being piped into the country every day from Indonesia.

Under a 22-year contract, SembCorp Gas brings the fuel in from the West Natuna gas fields. It is being used to power generators and large industrial companies in Jurong and Tuas.

From next year, the import of Indonesian gas will jump sharply when another 20-year agreement with a Temasek subsidiary, Gas Supply, starts. It allows for the import of 2.27 trillion cu ft of the fuel.

Singapore is already importing 150 million cu ft of Malaysian gas for electricity generation under a 15-year contract that expires in 2007.

Some 18 months ago, the authorities offered a 20 percent rebate on the value and road tax of a green (non-polluting) or electric car.

Meanwhile, BMW is considering importing its hydrogen-fuelled car and Singapore’s second largest taxi operator TaxiCab wants to launch a fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) cabs.

Solving its water requirements is by far Singapore’s biggest priority. Getting Singaporeans to take a liking to reclaimed water looks like a hard, long process.

In a rough survey of 40 people by the New Paper, 33 said they would rather pay more for imported water than drink NEWater. Twelve said they were willing to give it a try.

Some say they will switch to drinking mineral water.

“I would be reminded of the toilet every time I take a drink,” said Jasmine Tan, 24, a teacher.

Operator Mohammad Zaki, 26, took a drink from it and gave it the thumbs-up. “I don’t mind since it has been treated.”

Of the 21 people who agreed to the Straits Times to take the test, 19 said it tasted different from tap water and more like distilled water.

Housewife Tay Geok Choo, 58, said: “The water tastes sweet, a bit like mineral water. It tastes good but I will boil it before drinking.”

Some say there is a smell of chorine, which is added early in the treatment process that reminded them of swimming pool water. However, all, except one, said they had no problem drinking it.

The government has also called a tender to build a desalination plant.

Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last week that recycled water was a “serious alternative” and would be sufficient to replace the entire supply Singapore gets from Malaysia under a 1961 agreement which expires in 2011.

Panel chairman Ong Choon Nam said his team would recommend that Singapore use recycled water to replenish its reservoirs.

“People are not very used to consuming reclaimed water, so this is the main reason why we are introducing this NEWater back into the reservoirs – to overcome the psychological barrier,” he said.

Lee said that the price of imported water must be competitive to the cost of reclaimed water. “Otherwise it makes no sense (to import).”

Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website