By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News
Water shortages are making waves all over the world, with supplies increasingly seen as an issue of national security. In Singapore, they have boiled it down to economics.
Singapore wants to store more rain
Singapore's water shortages have always posed a major challenge.
"Although we're on the equator and we've got lots of rain, we have nowhere to naturally store water," explains Khoo Teng Chye, chief executive of the city-state's Public Utilities Board, or PUB. "We have no groundwater."
For years, water has been imported through three pipelines from neighbouring Malaysia - an expensive and geopolitically troublesome solution that has long irked the Singaporean government.
The issue is becoming increasingly acute ahead of the expiry of two long-term supply deals that guarantee deliveries of Malaysian water for less than one cent per 1,000 gallons - some until 2011, some until 2061.
"The main Malaysian demand has been for a much higher price of water, which has varied from 15 to 20 times the current price," observes Cecilia Tortajada in her report Water Management in Singapore*.
So Singapore has set out to find alternative ways to provide its 4.4 million people with 1.36 billion litres of clean water a day.
As a first step, a string of massive reservoirs are being constructed to "harvest as much rain as possible", so that eventually, some two-thirds of the island's land surface will be under water, up from about half today, Mr Khoo explains.
In addition, desalination plants that turn salt water into drinking water provide 10% of Singapore's current needs.
But the real breakthrough has come from what Mr Khoo describes as NEWater, produced in water reclamation plants from so-called "used" water.
"We use the terminology 'used water' rather than sewage to create the understanding that water is a resource," says Mr Khoo with a grin.
The plants use advanced microfiltration or ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis membranes and ultraviolet technology to produce water that is almost as clean as the distilled variety, according to Mr Khoo.
Water for industrial use is transported in a separate pipe from Singapore's drinking water. The rest is mixed in with rainwater in the reservoirs.
"Singapore has successfully managed to find the right balances between water quantity and water quality considerations; water supply and water demand management... [and] strategic national interest and economic efficiency," according to Ms Tortajada.
Five years ago, it cost up to three Singapore dollars ($2.20; £1.10) to produce a cubic metre of water in the existing desalination systems, Mr Khoo says.
NEWater is so clean, it is bottled as a drink
Three years ago, the introduction of new technology on a vast scale reduced the cost to under a dollar. NEWater technology pushes costs much lower, so that now the cost of one cubic metre of water has been pushed down to 30 cents, which makes it all much more cost-effective.
Singapore's NEWater is produced in four plants that currently provide 15% of Singapore's needs.
A fifth plant is under construction. In three or four years, when they are all scaled up, they should provide 30% of the water needed in Singapore, Mr Khoo predicts.
Currently, each drop of water is used twice, which Mr Khoo refers to as "50% efficiency", though the target is 70%.
To achieve this, Singapore is using universally available technology, along with a rather big bundle of money.
Some $3.5bn (£1.75bn) has been invested in the last five years, and a further $3.5bn will be invested in the next five years.
"As we've built bigger and bigger plants, the cost per unit has come down dramatically," Mr Khoo says - partly thanks to economies of scale, but also because more clever ways of employing technology have been discovered.
"Our investment in water has created an industry in Singapore," Mr Khoo says. "It's a knowledge industry. We hire people from all over the world."
Last month, Singapore won the Environmental Contribution of the Year prize at the Global Water Awards 2008.
The people of Singapore are discovering new joys as the dams spread
"Singapore has led the world in water re-use," according to Christopher Gasson, publisher of the journal Global Water Intelligence.
"Other countries will surely follow its footprints."
"Water re-use and desalination are two key solutions for cities looking to manage their water supply in a sustainable way," observes Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, praising Singapore's efforts.
Next month, Singapore International Water Week aims to bring together water industry officials and policymakers to make the search for solutions a global effort.
"We have solved our problems," insists Mr Khoo.
"Now we want to create a platform where people from all over the world can share the solutions."
* Water Management in Singapore, International Journal of Water Resources Development, June 2006.