Creating a sustainable water supply for Asia

14 Aug 2017

Water is, without doubt, the world’s most important resource. But though water covers about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, the world does not actually have enough of it to go around. Only 3 percent of the water on Earth is fresh and suitable for consumption.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 663 million people lacked access to improved drinking water sources in 2015. Furthermore, the WHO also estimates that half of the world’s population will reside in areas facing water shortages by 2025.


This problem is even more acute in Asia - global non-profit organisation Asia Society estimates that the region only has 3,920 cubic metres of water per person per year, far less than any continent in the world apart from Antarctica. As such, countries have inherently had to innovate and address the problem of water scarcity.


Singapore, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, has through decades of planning and innovation become a world leader in water research. Today, the country has managed to not only establish a sustainable domestic supply, but also exporting sophisticated water purification technologies to its international peers.


Strong government funding committed to research and development in the water sector has been one of the major factors behind the healthy growth of local and foreign water companies over the past decades. As of 2015, there are close to 200 water companies and 26 private research centres in Singapore.


One of these research facilities is the Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (NEWRI). Set up in 2008, the institute has since played a pivotal role in the development of the domestic clean water industry by turning research into cutting-edge technologies. NEWRI is funded by a host of agencies including Singapore's National Research Foundation, Economic Development Board, and Environment & Water Industry Development Council.


NEWRI has since its inception established partnerships with major industry players such as Sembcorp and Japanese firm Toray Industries Inc, and is also collaborating with the Vietnam-Singapore Industrial Park (VSIP) in Hai Phong in research and education matters.


With the looming threat of water scarcity in the near future, it is critical that research and development translate into commercially viable water solutions – something that the collaboration between many water firms and government agencies have resulted in over the years.


Hyflux, a local Singapore water company, is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of water innovations, having constructed the SingSpring Seawater Desalination Plant, the country’s first seawater desalination facility, in September 2005. The plant, which meets about 10 percent of the country’s water needs, was also the first in the world to use membrane technology.


Another of Singapore’s most well-known water projects is NEWater. The first NEWater plant was set up in 2000 and has since been treating wastewater using microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultra-violet disinfection technologies to produce drinkable water. Experts expect NEWater to meet up to 55 percent of the country’s water demands by 2060.


Singapore is also home to one of the largest and most technologically-advanced water reclamation plants in the world. The Changi Water Reclamation Plant in the eastern edge of the city state can treat up to 176 million gallons of used water daily. The treated water is then either discharged into the sea or sent to the NEWater facility for processing into potable water.


Earlier in June, Singapore’s Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli was quoted by Bloomberg saying that the country has become self-sufficient in its water supply. Regardless, the Singapore government will still be ploughing another S$200 million into the water industry over five years to stay ahead of the curve.


Exporting Water Solutions to Asia and Beyond


Beyond self-sufficiency, Singapore also intends to continue developing and exporting water solutions to Asia and the world.


According to Global Water Intelligence, Singapore will be aiming “to seize growth opportunities in the global water sector by developing solutions for the world in targeted areas”, with some of these sectors being identified as membrane, desalination and sensor technologies.


New developments are already underway. One example of this is the Separation Technologies Applied Research and Translation (START) centre that was set up in Singapore in June. The first of its kind in the Asia Pacific, START aims to commercialise research findings on membrane-separation technologies and reduce investment risks for companies in this particular field by providing means to co-sharing labour and equipment costs.


Singapore’s PUB has also indicated that the local government will be aiming to boost the number of jobs in the water sector as the country eyes further commercialisation and export of technologies. PUB said in July that Singapore companies had in 2015 secured seven overseas projects worth S$1 billion, as compared to the $340 million in 2004.


Confidence in Singapore’s water research capabilities runs high, with PUB chief executive Ng Joo Hee declaring in a recent interview: "Singapore today is really the Silicon Valley of water research and we started from nothing... We have invested and built up capabilities and, today, Singapore is one of the handful of places in the world where real cutting-edge research on water is taking place."


Opportunities abound in addressing Asia’s water challenges


Elsewhere in Asia, other countries are also making water a clear priority as well. China, for example, is harnessing Israeli water technologies in their desalination plants, to address water shortage issues in its northern regions.


In neighbouring Taiwan, the government passed a historic bill – the Reclaimed Water Resources Development Act - last year on the recycling of wastewater and will spend about NT$15 billion between 2016 and 2021 to build six water recycling plants.


It is clear that while global water supplies are slowly being depleted, this certainly isn’t the case for business opportunities for water tech companies. Global Water Intelligence has projected that the global water industry will be worth more than US$850 billion this year and it is expected to grow at a rate of 4 percent every year till 2020,


Given Singapore’s expertise in this field and the conducive environment for research and development, the city-state is no doubt one of the most ideal places in the world to be in to catch the rising waves in water technology.