How Singapore is tapping innovation to save water

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Ridzuan Ismail, Director of Water Supply (Network) Department, PUB, Singapore's National Water Agency.

Water is no dry topic in Singapore. It is a small island state reliant on neighbouring Malaysia for most of its water needs; its current water demand is projected to double by 2061; and climate change will only make drinkable water even rarer worldwide.

In the 1960s, Singapore drilled water conservation habits into its population with water rationing exercises. Data and tech allows much more sophisticated and collaborative methods today, which will “empower” citizens to save water and utility bills, according to Ridzuan Ismail, Director of Water Supply (Network) Department at PUB, the country’s water agency.

PUB will roll out 300,000 smart water meters in seven zones across Singapore by 2023, as part of the first phase of the Smart Water Meter Programme. GovInsider spoke to Ridzuan to find out how smart water meters will make a difference for the country.

Near real time information

Currently, manual meter readings are taken for the 1.6 million water meters spread across the island once every two months. Customer bills are based on estimated readings every alternate month.

With smart water meters, PUB will eventually be able to do away with this time-consuming and labour-intensive method. Digital meter readings can be done remotely, a crucial move in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The smart water meters automatically collect data on water usage and send all this data back to PUB offices on a daily basis, says Ridzuan. The data can also help the agency understand water demand patterns at different times of day across estates.

For instance, young housing estates with a lot of working adults might use more water in the early morning, while mature estates might see higher water demand during meal times. Understanding these trends helps PUB better manage operations to cater to the demand patterns.

Over time, PUB can use data from the smart water meters to monitor water losses and identify potential leaks, Ridzuan explains. If water is consistently lost at a certain location within the water supply network or a customer’s premises, it could be a sign of a pipe leak.

Power to the people

Smart water meters don’t just help PUB understand customer demand, they help citizens monitor their consumption patterns too. The agency intends to link the smart water meters up to an online customer portal that shows users how much water they use daily. They can then compare this to their historical water consumption trends, and how much water other similar households are using, explains Ridzuan.

Citizens can even set water-saving goals and receive high usage notifications. The portal will also alert them to potential leaks, which customers can quickly fix to save on both bills and water. PUB intends to provide links to licensed plumbers on the portal to make this process easier.

All this will allow citizens to be “more aware of their water usage and be empowered to make adjustments in their consumption habits to save water”, says Ridzuan. He compares this smart water meter application to a fitness tracker - just as people monitor their fitness data to find out how they can adopt healthier habits, citizens can study their water usage and make the necessary changes to reduce consumption.

These smart water meters have helped citizens use water more wisely. PUB’s two pilot trials in 2016 and 2018 showed that households saved an average of 5 per cent of water, from both early leak detection and adopting water conservation habits, Ridzuan shares.

PUB will continue to monitor water savings as an indicator of a change in citizen’s consumption habits. The agency will also work on enhancing the customer experience of the customer portal, so citizens will be motivated to keep an eye on their water consumption on a “sustained basis”, Ridzuan says.

As water demand grows and climate change poses more stress on Singapore’s water resources, citizens and businesses will need to do their part for the country’s water security. And Ridzuan is optimistic that “smart water meters can give a major push to our water conservation efforts”.