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Learn from Singapore: Key take away from the island-nation’s water turnaround story

A long-term Water Master Plan should gain higher importance within the Master Plan of cities.

By Parag Gupta & Devashish Dhar

At the time of its independence, Singapore faced lack of perennial surface water sources, flooding and polluted water ways, limited groundwater availability with a risk of seawater intrusion and dependence on a neighbouring country for drinking water. It was able to turn around this vulnerability. Today, Singapore's diverse water portfolio-four national taps comprising of surface water, recycled water, harnessed rainwater and desalinated water, ensure that the country's water needs are met sustainably.

Indian cities have witnessed unprecedented growth over the past few decades that, in turn, has had a drastic impact on water availability. Depleting water resources, changing climate and unsustainable water cycle management are exacerbating the water situation. Many Indian cities have witnessed water exigencies in the form of severe drought and flood. Around 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress. By 2030, India's demand for water might be double the available supply.

Singapore' water story offers many valuable lessons that can be learned, contextualised and implemented in Indian cities.

Indian cities need to diversify their water resources portfolio. For instance, harnessed rainwater at the catchment scale, collected through a drainage network and stored in 17 reservoirs before being treated and supplied, is one of the four water sources of Singapore. Few Indian cities have bye-laws that mandate rainwater harvesting. This will need strong legislation and engineering interventions.

Recycled water presents itself as an important component of the water portfolio. It is a climate-change resilient water resource, which can be reliably produced using advanced treatment technologies. In Singapore, recycled water is called NEWater, wherein used water is treated using advanced treatment technologies (combination of micro and ultra-filtration followed by reverse osmosis and UV disinfection) to ensure that the recycled water complies with the highest water quality standards, and is fit for human consumption. NEWater has a high demand among industries. Additionally, NEWater is also blended with surface water source to augment water supply during droughts.

Singapore utilises desalinated sea water as its third source of water. India too has some desalination plants across few coastal cities, and can capitalise Singapore's strong experience in seawater desalination in bringing down per unit cost of water and developing seawater as a sustainable water source.

A long-term Water Master Plan should gain higher importance within the Master Plan of cities. Integrated and long-term water resources' planning has been Singapore's strength. Supported by strong governance, Singapore's National Water Agency (NWA) judiciously manages the price for its water services, and proactively invests in planning for the future next drop of water. This is supported by strong public outreach and stakeholder engagement programmes, to bolster the value of water. Indian cities often fail to anticipate water-related issues and are left to react to these. With ageing assets, water theft and non-revenue water, our cities cannot continue to dole out water subsidies, which eventually lead to paucity of funds that could have helped upgrade the water infrastructure.

Such cost recovery will help us integrate digital technology into water management. The availability of smart metres, water-efficient devices and infrastructure monitoring devices to plug any leakages will be useful to sustain operations and maintenance.

Over the years, Singapore has prioritised water demand management to reduce demand supply gap. NWA has mandated water-efficient taps and toilets, and championed campaigns such as the 10-L challenge-which encourages people to reduce their water use by 10 litres a day-water conservation week, public visits and engagement, and water visitor centres for people to understand and appreciate the value of water. Such concerted efforts have led to reduction of per capita demand from 165 LPCD in 2003 to 143 LPCD in 2017.

Indian cities can learn a lot from Singapore, but there is no point blaming them without giving them a fair chance to fight. If we have any hesitation taking this decision, we can always go back to the wise words of the founding father of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew, 'Water dominated every other policy. Every other policy had to bend at the knees for water survival'.

Gupta is advisor, and Dhar is public policy specialist, NITI Aayog Views are personal