How Singapore tracks its water use

The water agency’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Tan Nguan Sen, discusses how it helps people cut down on waste.

People have invented creative ways to please the rain gods. Native American tribes perform rain dances, while Hindu priests pray submerged in barrels of water. Climate change is leading to more extreme weather patterns, with either too little or too much rain. Singapore experienced its driest month in almost 150 years in February 2014. The island state has taken a more pragmatic approach to deal with shifting weather patterns. The water agency - PUB - is helping households cut down on consumption, says Tan Nguan Sen, Chief Sustainability Officer at PUB, and save water for drier days. Cutting water waste Demand for water is projected to increase, but the government is trying to keep this to a minimum. “We also have to try to bring down the water consumption in Singapore, and that is through the changing of behaviour of consumers,” says Tan. PUB has been piloting smart water meters in homes since last year. These constantly monitor water consumption, and provide residents with daily data online on how much they are using. PUB hopes that this will make residents “more conscious of the amount of water that they use, [and] they will then at least try to cut down the usage”. The agency is also testing how it could use this data to create more targeted water conservation efforts. “There is potential for big data analysis”, Tan says. For instance, it could find the particularly heavy-consuming housing blocks and target campaigns at them. It has already taken this approach for industrial users. Heavy users are required to submit a “water audit”, where they analyse their own water use, identify potential savings and develop an implementation plan. PUB is using this data to develop water-saving benchmarks and guidelines for different industries. Save every drop As rainfall gets more unpredictable, every drop of water is precious. PUB has to act quickly to prevent any water leaks in its pipelines. It has set up a smart grid, fitting the 5,490 km of water pipes with 320 sensors. “It’s like measuring the pulse of your body,” Tan says. These constantly monitor the pressure, flow and quality of the water, and alert officials to leaks. “Once we can actually pre-empt where potential leaks can occur, we will be able to take action and repair the leak before it happens,” he adds. This allows the agency to cut down on response times, and reduce the impact of any disruption for consumers. Climate change PUB’s Sustainability Office was set up two years ago to build agency-wide programmes to mitigate the effects. “The whole push was really climate change”, Tan says. First, he is looking at how the city would cope with very heavy rainfall. The city is digging deeper and wider canals to carry more water out. It is also creating more storage in and around buildings. All real estate developers are now required to build tanks that will hold excess rainwater. PUB is also encouraging builders to incorporate greenery into their design, so that it can absorb more water. It is looking at new spaces for longer-term storage of water. It is exploring underground reservoir and drainage system where water can be stored for drier months. This study will be completed by the end of next year. The exact extent of climate change impact is not yet known, Tan says. The city must be prepared for the worst. “We have seen some effects of the prolonged drought, but how bad it's going to get, we don't really know.” Lasting impact A more deep-rooted change in mindset is needed to create lasting impact, however. PUB wants people to see water as a valuable resource, rather than just a utility. Ten years ago, it launched the ‘Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters’ programme, converting concrete canals into green waterways and community spaces, Tan says. 80 projects have been completed by PUB and its partner agencies so far - including the Kallang River at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. The parks bring people closer to water, in the hope that they will make more effort to keep it clean and not waste it. “It’s also about conservation - in a way influencing their mindset so that they see water as something precious, something to be valued,” Tan says. Rain or shine, Singapore is ensuring that its residents have a dependable water supply. It will likely not have to depend on the moods of the rain gods.