The Katrinas, El Niños and La Niñas do not significantly impact life in Singapore (yet), hurricanes, floods and droughts remain distant, disquieting images on flat screens and websites.
We, in Singapore, only know a world of plenty – plenty of water, when and how we need it. In an unvisited part of our subconscious we know our survival depends on water but for many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports (Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity).
Singapore and Water
For a small island with limited water, Singapore is an interesting case study. 40% of its water requirements are met by water imported from Malaysia (an underlying source of friction) under two treaties/agreements that end in 2011 and 2061 respectively. Malaysia may or may not extend them. Imports and reservoirs have been the traditional sources of water supplies, with catchment areas designed to collect and preserve almost every drop of rain (roughly 50% of the island’s land is allocated for reservoirs).
Today’s affluent Singapore is an island of almost 5 million people living in nuclear households (which account for more than 55% of the water consumed), using very modern appliances and enjoying higher standards of living.
Today’s Singapore is home to burgeoning industries – like the wafer industry – with ever increasing requirements of clean water.
The population has quadrupled, the need for water has multiplied 9 times. How does one keep pace with the other ?
Through a raft of initiatives.
- Desalination : reclaiming used water with technology, instead of discharging it into the sea.
- NEWater : purifying sewage/waste water by microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet technologies – which, though potable – largely meets industrial requirements of high purity water.
- Harvesting Stormwater : from new town developments as well as preserving the surface runoffs from marginal highly urbanized catchments.
- Developing New Technologies : Hyflux is an integrated water management and environmental solutions company that has earned Singapore global recognition.
- Addressing Consumption and Behaviour patterns with action-plans like the 10% Challenge.
The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives goes an American Indian saying, but this little bit of amphibian wisdom seems not yet to have fully filtered into modern consciousness. Modern man in today’s world appears unmindful and unconcerned, despite the reality of a depleted, contaminated earth in the not-so-distant future.
Water equals life, this is indisputable – we are essentially aqueous beings (75% of our brain and about 70% of our adult body is water) and we depend on it for our survival. Our tissues and membranes, our brains and hearts, our sweat and tears, writes Al Gore in his Earth in the Balance, all reflect the same recipe for life, in which efficient use is made of those ingredients available on the surface of the earth.
Which leads us to the next undisputed fact – water is a fundamental right of every person on the earth (and every person yet to be born on this earth).
But the disturbing truth is that billions of people (one out of eight) in many parts of the world have no access to sufficient and/or safe water, are denied basic sanitation, are exposed to water contaminated either by bacteria (from untreated human waste) or chemicals (from untreated industrial waste) and fall victim to water borne diseases – cholera, malaria, typhoid. Millions of people are dying everyday, thousands of them children.
Almost all of the water in this world (97%) is not potable, most of the rest is contained in ice caps and glaciers and just 1% supports human consumption in all its forms – agricultural, personal, industrial, community, residential. And this 1% is intrinsic in every aspect of our lives – the economy, religion (water as both a creative an purifying force), the environment, politics, production, food.
An appreciation of water has to become a moral legacy passed on from generation to generation, much like the native wisdom of ancient people who understood the cycle of life, respected it and revered it. As African ecologist Baba Dioum states, in the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.
The management of water and sanitation is an issue of right-to-life as every person on this earth has an equal right to all that the earth offers and contains. Consider this : an American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than what a person living in a slum in a developing country uses in a whole day. Consider this too : poor people in the slums often pay between five and ten times more per liter of water than their wealthier counterparts in the same city.
Acknowledging that distribution is woefully inequitable and (from a purely selfish viewpoint) what happens in one part of the world affects us in other parts of the world (and it is not for us to choose), it falls upon each and every one of us to acknowledge our rights and responsibilities to this larger society.
Societies, civilizations, economies – even empires – depend on it for their survival, a case in point being Ankor of Cambodia, an empire that ceased to exist because of siltation and erosion that gradually destroyed its water management system. Water management therefore becomes the imperative of not just of communities and governments but also of individuals.
To borrow from Sandra Postel again (as she says it all and says it well), We have been quick to assume rights to use water but slow to recognize obligations to preserve and protect it … in short, we need a water ethic – a guide to right conduct in the face of complex decisions about natural systems we do not and cannot fully understand.
The inadequacies in supply and access to water have become relevant to government and business decisions globally. A recent campaign by the Carbon Disclosure Project seeks to put water consumption on par with carbon emissions, urging companies to disclose details on water use, recycling and discharges into or near wildlife habitats, list water-related risks and opportunities/policies/strategies they have put in place. (More information).
Lynn Noel in Voyages: Canada’s Heritage Rivers is eloquent in her acuity : the river moves from land to water to land, in and out of organisms, reminding us what native peoples have never forgotten: that you cannot separate the land from the water, or the people from the land.
For those of us who know no shortages or consequences, we have the means and the opportunity (if we can summon the will and the focus) to help address, collectively, many of the issues – local, regional and global – that have developed as a result of exploding populations, bad policies, depleting water supplies and inevitable conflicts over an increasingly diminishing resource.
This is an escalating global reality and our responses (on a personal level) should be on four fronts : we need to inform ourselves, we need to be involved, we need to be accountable and we need to demand accountability.
Water been taken for granted for far too long and it is timely to remind ourselves that only when we lose something do we fully realize its true value, that we find enlightenment in hindsight. We don’t have the luxury of waste and we don’t have the luxury of loss because if and when it happens, we certainly will not be around for post mortems.
And when all said and done, freedom, progress, life – none of these mean anything if we have neither the wisdom to preserve it nor the wherewithal to enjoy it.
Photographs by Anita Thomas.