The government of Singapore doesn't want you to think of water as something you can use once and dispose of forever. They not only want citizens to see water as something valuable, but also something that they'll use and return to a greater system.
"We're renting you the water," said George Madhavan, the director of the Public Utilities Board or PUB.
Singapore is working towards water independence. Currently, the country has a long-term contract to import water from its northern neighbor, Malaysia. Imported water accounts for about 30 percent of the nation's supply, but Singapore wants to meet a higher percent of the country's water demand through domestic sources. Supporting technology-driven efforts to recycle water while at the same time promoting conservation are the two major ways Singapore aims to achieve its goal.
Singapore suffered from floods and droughts in the 1960s. The small country, which is densely urbanized, has no major freshwater bodies of water and no natural aquifers. Lack of rainfall led to water rationing and in 1978 a flood caused over a thousand people to lose their homes. Singapore's Prime Minister declared that other policies would have to "bend at the knees" to make water management a priority.
The solution was to approach drainage, storm water management and treatment as a system, which falls under the jurisdiction of PUB. Singapore has built an extensive system of reservoirs to collect rainwater, and has invested heavily in water treatment systems and desalinization. Today, rainwater meets roughly 30 percent of the country's needs, and desalinated water meets about 10 percent.
The remaining 30 percent of demand is supplied by "NEWater," or treated waste water. Singapore's PUB has turned "sewage" into "used water," both semantically and literally. "Sewage is such a terrible word," said Madhavan. Sewage is something that gets flushed "away," that requires as little thought as possible. However, we know there is no "away," and changing the terminology to "used water" better describes what goes down the drain in terms of its place in an ecosystem.
Madavan said that 70 percent of used water can be successfully recycled into potable NEWater, which can be used by industry or treated with minerals (to correct the taste) to become drinking water. Water that cannot be made potable is treated and released into the sea.
The PUB is working to increase the production of NEWater and desalinated water to meet up to 75 percent of Singapore's demand by 2060. Madhavan said that in the face of global warming, Singapore hopes to lessen its dependence on rainfall.
The two major environmental costs to the NEWater system are the high energy requirements and the creation of sludge. However, PUB has invested 280 million Singapore dollars in research and development programs to further improve its system and lower energy demands. They have built an "integrated validation plant" at the Ulu Pandan water reclamation plant that tests new technologies. One of the most interesting projects being tested at Ulu Pandan is a waste-to-energy system, which converts sludge into biogas that can power the facility.
Giving sewage a makeover isn't PUB's only PR success. PUB is also using several different approaches to raise awareness about water conservation and reduce consumption. "Increasing supply is insufficient," said Madhavan. "We also have to manage demand."
In 1981, PUB established a water conservation unit to manage demand and educate the public. Since then, PUB has adapted a "multi-pronged" approach. Household use accounts for 45 percent of Singapore's water needs. Mandatory regulations have been placed on appliances like toilets and washing machines.
PUB feels that pricing water is also part of motivating people to take conservation seriously. "Pricing is a sensitive subject," said Madhavan, acknowledging that some will feel that access to water is a right and should be free. Water is priced at 1.53 Singapore dollars, a rate that has not increased since 2000, and there are vouchers to help lower income residents.
Educational tools are also a big part of the PUB's awareness strategy. I visited the NEWater plant visitor center, which is the Disney World of the sanitation world. The tour's highlights include an education video on a full-sized movie screen, a segment of floor overlying a fountain, and a "commitment center" where visitors can "take a vow" to reduce their personal water usage.
To appeal to children, the PUB has created a water drop mascot, Water Wally, who exists in both plush and animated form. School children learn "the shower dance" from Wally to help them cut down on shower time, as you can see from the video below.
The efforts appear to be paying off. According to official numbers, Singaporeans lowered their average daily use from 165 liters (34 gallons) per day in 2003 to 152 (40 gallons) liters per day in 2012. That compares with 435 liters (115 gallons) per day in Phoenix and 295 liters (78 gallons) in New York City.
The most important takeaway from Singapore's approach to water management is the attitude that water is a precious resource. Madhavan said that landscaping the city's waterways has also contributed to water conservation, as people see how clean waterways contribute to a better quality of life and are part of their larger environment.