Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, at the Committee of Supply Debate 2012 [Speeches]

March 7, 2012 by  
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Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Committee of Supply Debate (Sustainable Future)

Date Published: 06 Mar 2012

SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

I thank members of the House for their questions and their suggestions. There are three broad themes behind all of MEWR’s programmes. First, to ensure that we continue to have a very high quality of life in Singapore; second, to do our part in an inclusive society, in particular, to always leave a low cost option on the table and also provide opportunities for fair wages and good jobs; and third, to make sure that we have a sustainable future.

2 Let me address or summarise our position as far as these three themes are concerned. First, on quality of life, many of you have mentioned the absolute importance of maintaining our reputation for cleanliness. SMS Grace Fu has explained what we are doing. To summarise, by having an integrated cleaning agency that will be in charge of all public areas -it will take on the contracts of all the multiple agencies that currently do the job. So you only need one number, one contact point. Secondly, to increase and step up enforcement. And you asked for evidence, for videos and all of it – we will certainly use the latest technology in order to enforce our actions and take enforcement actions against killer litter and other types of anti-social behaviours. Thirdly, to also promote public activism, the sort that Ms Penny Low has referred to, because we need all Singaporeans to become part of the solution, jealously guarding our cleanliness.

3 On hawker centres, I am glad that this has been welcomed not only by all members of this House but indeed many; I think I can say, practically all Singaporeans out there. And I want to assure Singaporeans that we will continue to make sure that we focus our top priority on ensuring that it is cheap, it is good and it is clean. Everything else would be a “nice to have”, but let’s focus on making sure these key priorities: cheap, good and clean. Similarly, when we talk about cleaners, I would like to make this commitment –that it is time that the wages of cleaners go up. And therefore we need to redesign jobs and we need to improve their productivity so that we can give them a fair wage. And at the same time, while some of that increase must filter back into prices; that firstly, people will accept that this is fair; and secondly, because we redesigned our processes, it does not necessarily lead to a sudden big jump in prices. For a long while, we in Singapore have enjoyed first world living and paid very little relatively for human services because they have been getting third-world wages. So in the name of an inclusive budget, this is the change that must come about and I hope members of this House will support that.

4 Let me then now move on to the question of a sustainable future. Singapore has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a clean and green city in a garden –a working model of the sustainable city of the future. This is not just a matter of national pride, but indeed a source of competitive advantage. And this is even more important now because we live in a world with seven billion people, and for the first time in human history, more than half of humanity lives in cities. Therefore the way we structure and organise ourselves, and the way we create a sustainable city for the future, will be a source of competitive advantage and will give us many opportunities for the future.

5 I say this so that you understand that our current environmental excellence was not achieved overnight but indeed over five decades, way before it was fashionable. Mr Lee Kuan Yew embarked on a clean and green Singapore; planted trees; made sure we did not pollute the air we breathe and insisted on clean water. And of course the iconic project was the ten-year clean up of the Singapore River, which was formerly an open sewer. Most of us in this House would still remember the pungent aroma of the Singapore River. Today: Marina Bay, an icon, a magnet for the world in the midst of our new downtown. The audacity, the ambition and the scale of that project transformed Singapore and in fact, has defined Singapore. We need to remember that we have to make sure we do not lose this pole position that we have and we have to continue to make the necessary investments and to take the long-term horizons that these sorts of plans require.

Building up climate research capabilities

6 One of the key uncertainties when you are taking a 50-year time frame is obviously climate change. Mr Liang Eng Hwa has asked how we are preparing for this and he has referred to his own anecdotal experiences with having wet weather programmes, having been invoked more often than it was in the past. Well, it is not just anecdotes –we have looked at 30-year data from the Meteorological Service and it has shown that the intensity and the frequency of high intensity rainfall have increased over the past thirty years.

7 Climate change, whether you believe in it or not, is going to be another confounding factor and, in the case of Singapore, it will increase the intensity and the frequency of such extreme weather events and we have to prepare for it. We have to make sure our infrastructure is ready and we cannot wait for a disaster to occur; you have got to prepare for years or decades in advance. And one of the problems with climate change and the difficulty overseas is that there is too much politics in climate change and not enough science. In the case for Singapore, we intend to approach it from a strictly scientific point of view.

8 So one of the things we are establishing is the Centre for Climate Research Singapore (CCRS) this year. The Centre will run high-resolution regional climate models. This will allow us to generate long-term projections of rainfall, temperature, wind and sea-level in Singapore over the next 50 to 100 years. The Centre will also undertake research on the complex weather systems which affect Singapore and the region, such as the severe tropical thunderstorms. Those of you who were looking out of the windows yesterday morning will have seen a very dark cloud – a Sumatran squall moving across from the west to the east. These types of events will increase and we need to understand the mechanics behind it in order to make sensible predictions and plans to deal with it. The CCRS will also build up its capability by leveraging on existing research partnerships and linkages with both local and international experts and organisations, such as the UK Met Office Hadley Centre.

Drainage and flooding management strategies

9 Last year, we appointed an Expert Panel to review our drainage and flood protection measures. The Panel concluded its review and shared its recommendations in January this year. I am glad to inform Mr Charles Chong that we have accepted the recommendations of the panel, and we will implement a comprehensive plan to strengthen Singapore’s flood resilience. This plan will cover the full spectrum of the drainage system: it will enhance the design and also impose tighter regulatory standards; it will explore new engineering solutions as well as improve the accuracy of flood risk assessments. The implementation of this plan has commenced, so for instance, by the end of the year, we will have a high resolution digital elevation map for the Marina Catchment area. This will enable us to carry out 3-dimensional modelling of the catchment and it will in turn allow us to engage in more accurate flood risk maps and to provide catchment-specific flood management solutions. For the Stamford Canal in particular, whilst the long-term measures such as the diversion canal or detention ponds are being considered, works are already underway within the canal itself in order to increase its flow capacity.

10 We will also have to extend inter-agency collaboration on drainage infrastructure and to focus on non-traditional measures, such as minimising urban surface runoff generated by new developments. We will continue to engage various professional bodies such as the Institute of Engineers, Singapore and the Association of Consulting Engineers Singapore, and all the other relevant professional groups.

11 I would like to assure Mr Chong that my Ministry will do our best and we will make all the necessary long-term investments into the drainage system. Over the next 5 years, we will invest in at least 20 new drainage infrastructural projects in order to achieve a higher level of flood protection across the entire island. And I also want to give this House the assurance that we will do so but with a very keen eye on the bottom line, and we will make sure that these investments are cost-effective, and we will also adjust the plan as the situation evolves.

12 Let me also say, quite candidly, given the complexity of the weather systems and the uncertainty in the future, it is not possible for any Minister for Water Resources to guarantee that floods will never recur. We will therefore have to take the approach of taking all reasonable and cost-effective measures to prevent and to mitigate the impact of floods in Singapore. This means not just drains but also looking at the protection of local buildings. I think someone recommended making sure basement car parks have flood protection measures. This will be imposed through regulatory standards.

13 Another key element of this strategy is transparency. We will make all the data from all our sensors available in real time –so that the public can be kept fully informed of the situation in real time and can take the necessary precautions. It will also be an avenue for more stakeholders to generate innovative solutions. That is why you may have noticed that whenever there is a heavy storm, there is literally a flood of SMS alerts; a flood of tweets from drain sensors; updates to social media platforms. Eventually we will put all the real-time closed-circuit television images available on websites and for the public to access. So remember, it is about keeping the public informed, being transparent and honest, and providing new avenues for innovative solutions. So that everyone can have the chance to become part of the solution, rather than just to complain about the problem.

Ensuring Water Resilience

14 Whilst flood management is an urgent task, the longer-term concern for my Ministry has to be the resilience and security of our water supply. This has been our abiding strategic obsession since independence. I think we are perhaps the only nation in the world whose independence documents have as an annex to it –water agreements –and water agreements which we have lodged with the United Nations. This gives you the idea of how central it is to our independence, to our survival, and our viability. It will also give you an idea of what a long time horizon we take. We look in terms of 50 years, in terms of 100 years.

15 We have Four Taps. The first Tap is imported water from Johor. You all know that it is a matter of public record that we have the rights to draw 250 million gallons a day (mgd) from Johor. What most people in Singapore do not realise is that the catchment area from the Johor reservoir which supplies half our water is twice the size of Singapore. I say this so that you understand what we are dealing with, and the vulnerability and preciousness with which we have to treat water in Singapore.

16 The second tap is our local catchment. As you will recall, we now have 17 reservoirs, and we have now made two-thirds of our island a water catchment area. What that means is that we have increased our local water catchment, and that is also one reason we could allow the first agreement (1961) to lapse last year; because we have enough in our current menu of choices. The latest two reservoirs, the Punggol and Serangoon reservoirs, were commissioned last year. Those, together with the Marina Reservoir, has led to our current situation where we have, given current circumstances, maximised our water catchment area.

17 But that is not enough. I have told PUB that we need to expand our water catchment area until we cover all meaningful land areas in Singapore. That poses a special challenge because it means we have to ensure that the quality of water drawn from all the catchments, or literally, from all land in Singapore, is suitable for treatment to potable standards, and eventually through your tap, to end up as a glass of water for you to drink or to make formula milk with.

18 Think about that: every drain in Singapore leads to your tap. That requires obsessive environmental engineering, enforcement, monitoring, cooperation and community ownership by every single Singaporean. We have to make sure that all activities on our island do not pollute our reservoirs, and we have to regularly update the processes in our six waterworks. Apart from desalinated water and NEWater, we have 17 reservoirs and 7 treatment plants –6 in Singapore and one in Johor.

19 As Mr Chong pointed out, because of variabilities in weather and the fact that we cannot assume we will always have surface water available, we have had to increase the resilience of our water supply by expanding rainfall-independent sources, that is desalinated water and NEWater. The construction of Singapore’s second desalination plant in Tuas commenced last year and will be ready next year. When that is ready, we will have a capacity of 100 mgd of desalinated water, In the longer term, we will also have to increase our capacity for NEWater. Currently it stands at about 120 mgd per day. We will have to step that up progressively over the next decade or two. In the long run, by 2061, we expect that desalination will provide about 30% of our water needs and NEWater will provide 50% of our water needs. This means that we will still be dependent on surface water for the remaining 20%.

20 Mr Charles Chong asked about electro-chemical desalting and Memstill. These are new technologies which are still in evaluation. The results are not in yet, but I assure you that in Singapore we will always be amongst the first to test whatever is new. In particular what we are looking for is lower energy expenditure in order to produce fresh water. The key thing that has changed in the last ten years, with the advent of membrane technology, is that now water per se is not the limiting factor. It is energy. As long as you have energy, you can produce water good enough to drink, and for consumption. With regards to Pritam Singh’s question about maximum population size: if you had asked that question 10 years ago, water would have been a limiting factor. Today water is not the rate-limiting factor, there are other rate-limiting factors for population size, but I do not intend to go into that now.

21 We need to continue to make investments to build up our Four National Taps and improve the security, the diversity and the resilience of our water supply, and it has to survive 50 years and beyond because we are planning for 2061. From these Four National Taps, from the 7 water treatment plants, the water goes to 14 service reservoirs. These are usually reservoirs on high land because from there, it gravitates down to the 1.3 million premises, about 1.1 or 1.2 million households and about 100,000 or 200,000 commercial premises. On top of every HDB block is between 3 to 5 high level water tanks, and so there are 54,000 high level water tanks. These tanks are a critical piece of national infrastructure and although the Town Councils are in charge of maintaining and looking after them and ensuring security, this is a national project. I also want to point out that we now have a closed water loop. After water is used, it goes into our sewers –we have 3,400 km of sewers; and also a Deep Tunnel Sewerage System, 50m deep into the ground, which ultimately leads to our water reclamation plants. Then it is treated. First we have to treat it to the level where it is fit for discharge into the sea. Then another separate pre-treatment and reverse osmosis is needed to make it suitable for use, for potable, or in our case, indirect potable use.

22 I have spent some time going through all this because I wanted to address Mr Low’s question. His question basically was: are we overcharging for water. Our plan for a 50-year safe, secure, resilient supply of water for our country does not come cheap. If you look at the annual report of PUB, it costs us basically $1.3 billion dollars a year to run the system. Of course it can be cheaper, and you can cut corners and not be so worried about future reliability. But this is what it costs. Mr Low asked about the charges. If you look at the annual report, for the sale of water (water tariffs), for the financial year that ended March 2011, PUB collected $674milion. For the waterborne fee and the sanitary appliance fee, they collected about $327 million dollars. That is nowhere near $1.3 billion. Even if you add the water conservation tax you still do not reach $1.3 billion. So the point is that we are not overcharging for water insofar as funding the system which we have.

23 In fact, we are here at the Budget debate, because my Ministry, and in particular PUB, is asking Parliament to approve an operating expenditure of $225 million and another $400 million of development expenditure for PUB* (Note: MEWR’s budgeted development expenditure in FY12 includes $409 million for PUB). This is because we need to continue investing in the system. So I want to give the assurance to Mr Low and all Singaporeans that we are not profiteering or overcharging for water. If you want to lower the prices further, you can, but it just means we have to come back to Parliament to ask for more tax revenue.

24 But I think it is very important for us to understand that we have to right-price water. And the Water Conservation Tax is a signal to remind all of us that water is precious, it is a scarce commodity and indeed our nation’s survival and viability depends on it. So please do not waste it. I did consider consolidating the Sanitary Appliance Fee (SAF) and the Waterborne Fee (WBF) as Mr Low suggested, to make it all a volumetric charge. But because this year’s Budget’s theme was “An Inclusive Society”, when I tried to merge the SAF and the WBF into a single volumetric charge, I realised that would mean charging smaller households more. And in a sense, the larger households with more toilets would get a bigger discount. I did not think that was right for this year’s climate so I decided we would not change the two. But I give you the assurance that the combination of the SAF and WBF is still less than the cost of treating used water. I would also like to confirm for this year that there will be no change to water tariffs and water charges, because I am assuming that Parliament will approve the budget and give PUB the additional tax dollars that it needs in order to continue investing in the water system.
25 Having said that, I am also glad to report that our water consumption in the domestic sector has actually been coming down. Our per capita water consumption (for households) has come down from 165 litres per day in 2003 to 153 litres per day in 2011. Since its introduction in 2009, the Mandatory Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme – the number of water efficient products with a minimum 1-tick water rating, has increased from 852 to 7,600. PUB will continue to reach out to the public and continue to run its annual Water Conservation Awareness Programmes.

Promoting Energy Efficiency

26 Let me now turn to energy – since I have told you that in the future, energy equals water, as well.

27 Dr Teo Ho Pin asked what the Ministry was doing to promote energy efficiency among our stakeholders. I agree with him that the public sector has to lead by example. For instance, public sector agencies are required to conduct energy audits of their large buildings and to implement cost-effective energy efficiency measures in order to reduce our consumption.

28 In the industry and transport sectors, energy management practices will be mandatory for large users from 2013 under the Energy Conservation Act which I will be taking through Parliament later this year. We will offer assistance to companies to improve their energy efficiency by appropriate design, building energy management capabilities and investing in new technologies. We have a scheme called the Grant for Energy Efficient Technologies. So far NEA has approved about 30 projects worth $65m by 27 companies. These is supposed to generate about $163m in cost savings over the lifespan of the equipment.

29 To further moderate energy consumption in households, we have the Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) which I am glad that Dr Teo has supported. So far this has been implemented for refrigerators and air conditioners, and it basically works by removing inefficient models from the market, and therefore consumers can avoid being locked into the high operating cost of inefficient appliances.

30 We will be further tightening the energy performance standards for household air conditioners and refrigerators by the end of 2013. MEPS will also be extended to general lighting by 2014. We will consider extending MEPS to other appliances, such as televisions, in the future.

Achieving better air quality

31 Let me now turn to better air quality. The major sources of air pollution in Singapore are the oil refineries, power plants and motor vehicles. We currently impose safe emission standards and progressively cleaner fuels on our industry. Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) and Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) remain pollutants of concern. In order to curb SO2, we require industries to use fuel oil with a low sulphur content of not more than 1%. To further lower PM2.5, NEA will require all new diesel vehicles registered on or after 1 Jan 2014 to meet mandatory Euro V standards. The introduction of near-sulphur free diesel for Euro V diesel vehicles will further reduce emissions from diesel vehicles and industry in general.

32 I am also glad to inform the House that we currently meet the World Health Organisation (WHO) Interim Targets on safe air quality for both SO2 and PM2.5. But that is not enough. We will continue to work on a roadmap to meet the final WHO Air Quality Guidelines in the medium to long-term. This will require us to consult industries and to work on a practical cost-effective plan in order to achieve those long term targets.

33 Vehicles and industries are not the only sources of particulate matter pollution. Our air quality is also adversely affected by transboundary haze. That requires us to work more closely with our neighbours and to put more commercial pressure on the companies which are burning the forests in the region around us.

34 NEA will be enhancing our air quality reporting system. We already publish the annual levels of PM2.5 and this is available on our website. We will be reporting the levels of PM2.5 more frequently and updating our website, and making that available for the public. So you can be rest assured that there will be complete transparency on all these data.

Developing a more robust waste management system

35 We will also be improving our waste management system. SMS Grace Fu has explained some of the changes we are making to the sector and more details will be announced later.

36 I am glad to tell you that our recycling rates have gone up from 40% to 59% in just the last decade. We will need to continue making these improvements in order to ensure our landfill site at Pulau Semakau lasts for another 50 to 100 years.

37 We will be amending the Environmental Public Health Act to introduce mandatory reporting of waste management data and improvement plans by large commercial premises, starting with large hotels and shopping malls in 2014. This will improve the companies’ oversight of the waste produced, and also sustain management focus on minimising waste.

38 NEA will also be implementing a Pneumatic Refuse Conveyance System on a district level for the first time at Marina Bay by 2015. This will be an automated system that centralises refuse collection. It improves efficiency and you do not have so many people on vehicles running around collecting garbage. It all goes underground, and then a single centralised disposal.

Growing our environment and water industries

39 We will also be trying to grow our environmental and water industries using technologies and prototypes which are developed in Singapore. This will help position ourselves as a hub for clean environmental technologies. That is why we are also acting as host to the inaugural CleanEnviro Summit Singapore which will be held from 1-4 July this year in conjunction with the fifth annual Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) and the World City Summit. Basically, we have turned strategic disadvantage into economic opportunity, and our companies’ calling card to the rest of the world is our success in Singapore.

Expanding the ABC Waters programme

40 I would also like to update the House on the ABC Waters programme – “Active, Beautiful and Clean”. It may have started off by making it more beautiful and getting community support and ownership and that continues to be important. But now it has also become clear that it is also part of the solution for dealing with floods and for preparing for climate vulnerability. For instance, in two weeks’ time, the Prime Minister will open the new Bishan Park where the Kallang River flows through. It used to be just a canal. If you go there today, it is a meandering river. If you watch it with a more technical eye, we have actually created a system in which its carrying capacity has actually increased; and it also now serves a dual function, not just cosmetic and community support, but also a functional drainage purpose.

41 We have identified about 100 sites across the island. 20 have been completed, 5 are currently under construction, 3 will be completed by next year – these are Sungei Ulu Pandan, Sungei Pandan and the Geylang River. PUB is finalising plans for the next batch, and they will include Kallang Riverside, Pang Sua Pond which is in Bukit Panjang, Sungei Pinang which I believe leads into the Punggol River, and the Jurong Lake.

Concluding Remarks

42 Ms Penny Low highlighted the importance of the 3P approach and while I do not have time to answer all the points that she has brought up, I agree that we certainly can and should do more to work closer with all three sectors and to allow ideas to be generated and to translate those into solutions.

43 I agree with Mr Seah Kian Peng’s suggestion that we need to make our national events more environmentally friendly. I think all of us remember the sight when South Korea was taking part in the World Cup, when they had practically a million people in their central square. The most amazing thing to me was not just the football, but the fact that after the million people left, it was clean.

44 We need to get that level of community and public spiritedness, that we leave a venue better than when we first arrived. And I also agree with Mr Seah that even at the organisational level, we need to do better. For instance, I am always slightly amused when we have a health promotion event and the food is not all that healthy, or when we have a recycling event, I notice we are still using plastic cups and all other paraphernalia, which may not necessarily be environmentally friendly. We need to do all these things with a certain amount of planning, forethought and consideration. The key thing again, is to persuade people that we, each of us, has a responsibility and has to become part of the solution.

45 I want to end by saying that making a choice to care for our environment has to reflect our values as a nation: that people come first, that convenience or profits should not come at the expense of the health or well- being of our families. And that everyone has the same equal right to clean air, clean water and green spaces. I think if we can bear these in mind, and if I can count on the support of members of the House for the programmes that we are running both in the short term and long term for my Ministry, I think we can continue to do our part to build a liveable and sustainable Singapore as our home, and as a working model of the future to our children and grandchildren.

Thank you.

Source: MEWR

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