Singapore hopes to quench thirst with recycled water

August 6, 2002

By Peh Soo Hwee

Singapore will not renew 1961 Water Agreement, says PM Goh

RESOURCE-PARCHED Singapore, preparing to hand out 60,000 bottles of recycled waste water for its citizens to taste this week, is pushing "Newater" as a solution to its supply problems with neighbouring Malaysia.

The tiny island state of four million people, haggling for better prices from Malaysia, has launched an aggressive campaign to convince people that the water which once gurgled down drains and swirled in toilets is better than what they are drinking now.

It is also a bargaining chip in negotiations.

"If the Malaysians think that all of us will go thirsty without Malaysian water, then they will always think in their minds that they are selling us water too cheap," George Yeo, Singapore's trade and industry minister, said at the weekend.

"But once they know we can produce our own water...they may well sell some of it to Singapore and we are happy to buy it."

The price of water is the thorniest problem between the neighbours, who are to meet in September to sort out a complex package of issues including plans for a new bridge to connect the two nations and the use of Malaysian airspace by Singapore jets.

Singapore, which relies on Malaysia for about half of its water for human and industrial use, wants the price of imports pegged to an agreed percentage of the cost of recycled water when current agreements expire.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Tuesday his country loses money on sales of water to Singapore and would not worry if it allowed one of two existing supply deals to lapse.

"We don't want to sell water to Singapore because we are losing money," state news agency Bernama quoted Mahathir as saying. "It's not a major source of income for the government."

Malaysia said last month it was ready to rework the pricing formula after an earlier proposal to make Singapore pay 100 times more by 2007 was rejected.

Singapore now pays three Malaysian cents (less than one US cent) for every thousand gallons of raw water piped in.


Newater already has the endorsement of Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who swigged a bottle recently in front of the local press after a few sweaty sets of tennis.

"We've got to be very sure that Newater is good for our health and would not cause any problems," Goh said. "We are very satisfied, at the very high level, that the analysis was correct and accurate and the result was very good."

Singaporeans will be part of a mass taste test when 60,000 bottles of Newater are handed out -- along with snacks, light sticks and flash cards -- at the National Day Parade on August 9.

Newater, declared safe to drink and cleaner than tap water by an international panel of experts, will be supplied to industries next year and is being studied as a way to replenish reservoirs.

The city state, which consumes about 300 million gallons per day (mgd), has been operating a demonstration plant to produce Newater for two years and is also building two plants to produce 15 mgd of Newater for industrial use in 2003.

It has called a tender for a desalination plant to supply 30 mgd by 2005.


Although Singapore has worked to boost water supply via local catchment expansion, desalination and recycling, commentators said its efforts are a long way from ensuring self sufficiency.

"Singapore's water measures are still fledgling despite the launch of grand plans," said Irvin Lim, a masters' graduate from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies who has published a paper on the role of water in Singapore-Malaysian relations.

"The water issues remain interwoven in the complex package of bilateral structural tensions and delinking it will not be easy."

As an indication of its vulnerability, Singapore could survive for only a short while if Malaysia were to turn off the taps.

"Singapore is still dependent on Malaysia for a substantial bulk of its water needs for quite a while yet," Lim said.