Lessons from Singapore on overcoming water challenges

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong engaged in a lively dialogue session with the participants at the inaugural Water Conversation at the Singapore International Water Week 2011. The session was moderated by Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In response to questions on advice or lessons for overcoming water challenges, Mr Lee shared that there is no magic solution, but governments have to treat water as a strategic necessity and take a long view. For Singapore, the most important step was to treat water as a strategic priority, build up self sufficiency, and spare no efforts to achieve it.

The administration must have the competence to govern, and put in place the necessary infrastructure and systems to serve the population. In Singapore,  our innovative approach is to merge the previously separate water supply and sanitation departments into one integrated water management agency that is responsible for the complete water cycle.

Mr Lee also advised that countries should make use of technology, and invest in new technology and R&D. Singapore started by watching new technologies, and when the technology becomes viable and less expensive, we were ready to take it up. Singapore would be investing more in desalination, and hope to have 50% of its water supply come from Newater. By 2061, Singapore would likely become self-sufficient.

Responding to a question on water pricing, Mr Lee said that governments need to get the pricing of water right so that people understand that water is a scarce resource, and businesses make their finances work. The price of water should gradually over time reflect its true economic value. However, this would bring about difficulties for the lower income groups. In Singapore, the government introduced schemes to help the low income households through subsidies and make sure that nobody cannot afford access to water.

There is also a need to educate the public on the importance of conserving water, and that every drop counts. For Singapore, we also educate people to keep the environment clean and not litter, as the litter would likely reach the water catchment areas.

Responding to questions on rich countries like Singapore taking a leadership role in helping less developed countries tackle their water challenges, Mr Lee explained that Singapore would be happy to share our expertise and know-how. However, the main challenges are within each country, it is not about the technology, but about its political and social constraints. He advises the less developed countries to focus on education and training, and to have the political will to treat water as a strategic necessity and move forward.

Image: SIWW

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