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January 2018

Water preservation: Singapore leads but others catching up

When it comes to water sustainability Singapore is the global leader. But China is racing to close the gap.

Necessity is often the mother of invention. As a small island with no groundwater, limited water storage, a rapidly growing population and an expanding economy, it should not be surprising that Singapore has become a global leader in water recycling, conservation and technology.

An extra impetus comes from its reliance on a single source – Malaysia – for imported water, leaving it vulnerable to any diplomatic tensions. Consequently, Singapore is determined to achieve water self-sufficiency by 2060, a year before its water import treaty with Malaysia expires.

Toilet to tap

The city state could serve an example to the world’s other water-starved regions, which is why it was picked as the destination for a research trip by members of the Pictet-Water Advisory Board, whose task is to advise our investment team on the latest trends and technological advances in the water sector.

road to water self-sufficiency

Singapore's water by source of production, % of total

water production

Source: PUB

What they discovered is that Singapore’s success stems from several sources. Of these, technology is the easiest to share with the world. Singapore could teach other countries about preventing leaks with big data, or about its NEWater initiative, which cleans wastewater and then applies additional treatment processes – microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection. The water made available through these processes is widely used in industry and is clean enough to drink. But technological know-how alone is not enough to power a water revolution.

Capital investment and changes in consumer behaviour are also necessary. Here too, Singapore leads. The city state is not only a major research centre for water technology but, through the establishment of pioneering public bodies such as the National Water Agency, PUB, it also ensured that water security and preservation is firmly at the top of the political and regulatory agenda. 

China's commitment

Only countries with similar existential challenges are likely to have the motivation to follow in Singapore’s footsteps towards water sustainability leadership. China stands out as a top contender, according to our Advisory Board. It is home to 20 per cent of the world’s population but only 7 per cent of its fresh water.

The authorities are committed: in the first half of 2017 alone, China launched some 8,000 water clean-up projects worth USD100 billion. Efforts to change public behaviour are also falling into place, taking the form of education campaigns in schools, higher pollution fines and the appointment of 200,000 local “river chiefs” with personal responsibility for water quality in their areas.

With the government’s backing – and its purse – technology and innovation should not pose too much of a problem either. Singaporean water companies are among those vying to take advantage of Beijing’s nascent commitment to sustainability.

emerging water leaders in action
Emerging water leaders in action

Source: Pictet Asset Management

Local problem for the whole world

Water management problems are not limited to the emerging world. Parts of US and Australia, for example, are threatened by drought, whereas the Netherlands is at risk from floods. Developed nations sometimes lack the strong official focus on water demonstrated by Singapore and China, but benefit from greater involvement by the private sector.

better treatment
Percentage of treated wastewater in 2015 by country income level, and aspirations for 2030
water treatment

Source: UN World Water Development Report 2017

Globally, the motivation to preserve surface water and below ground aquifers is only likely to get stronger. Rainfall patterns are changing, the global population is growing and natural fresh water resources – surface and underground – are being drained. Without action, by 2030, there will be a 40 per cent shortfall of fresh water.

Singapore’s example shows us that a lot of the technology for a sustainable water future is already here – and more is being developed. Other countries are now starting to identify both the existential risks posed by water mismanagement, as well as the opportunities for business and commerce presented by sustainability. With strong commitment to the cause, China and others can learn from Singapore’s example and build on it to create even more sustainable water systems.