“I’m scared I will be out of a job,” says Harry Seah. He does have a risky line of work – experimenting with new ideas to secure his country’s water supply.
Seah is the Chief Technology Officer of PUB, Singapore’s water agency, and supply is the country’s greatest challenge. Without importing millions of litres from Malaysia every year, Singapore would simply not survive.
Seah’s job is to find new ways to keep Singaporeans topped up with their blue gold. The population is rapidly growing, and demand will have doubled by 2061 – the end date for the country’s import agreement with Malaysia.
“The whole idea here is to make myself not needed,” he says. Singapore must have surplus water without overseas reliance.
Water, water all around
The country’s approach is to re-use as much water as possible. First, rainwater is vital. The country has 17 reservoirs, covering two thirds of the island. But land is at a premium – Singapore is only 710 square kilometres – and digging up more reservoirs is not feasible, he says.
So the second option is now preferred – reusing as much water as possible. It’s the “only way to solve the problem,” he says. Since 2003, Singapore has been recycling sewage and turning it into drinking water.
These efforts are being increased. The fifth recycling plant will begin operating this year and, by 2060, 55% of the country’s water will come from these plants, he says. It’s “the key” to the nation’s strategy.
But how can this be safe? Seah’s answer is technology. Everything is fitted with sensors, from the factories to the pipes leading to citizens’ homes. “Every drop of water we send out must be safe,” he says. The Internet of Things is crucial to this.
The persuasion game
The country found its solution in 1998 during a trip to the United States. Seah was overseas visiting water filtering plants, which were testing out new membranes to clean their water.
Seah was struck by the nascent technology, and Singapore’s willingness to take risks paid off. Seah proposed that the country skip testing the membranes and and go straight to demonstration phase – building an entire plant using the new technology. “I asked for $14 million for the demonstration plant – that was a lot of money – and I got it.”
This was a bold step, but the plant was operating in seven months, turning out water that exceeds World Health Organisation standards.
For an engineer this was the “easy part”, however. Communications is much harder.
“The question is: how do I tell the public it is safe?”, Seah says. The brand ‘NEWater’ was picked because it “softens” the term, focusing on freshness not its provenance.
“The question is: how do I tell the public it is safe?”
PUB has been “very careful with the words we use,” he adds. There is no mention of ‘wastewater’ in PUB’s document on its 50-year strategy. Instead, it is “used water” and sewage plants are “water reclamation plants”.
Another big problem
The country is on the right track, but another problem presents itself. Water recycling consumes an enormous amount of energy – another resource that Singapore lacks. “Today’s technology only buys us time,” he says.
His agency has responded by building a culture of experimentation, trialling every approach, seizing on every idea. “We don’t say no to any ideas. We never say no; we say yes, always yes”, he insists. Every idea is welcome, and every proposal must be explored.
One idea seems quite promising. Copying the filtering mechanism of human kidneys, scientists have been able to cut filtration energy consumption by 30%. Local scientists recently had another breakthrough, using a natural protein that is found in the human body. The technique is in its early stages but, by 2026, it could be ready for operation, Seah says.
Building an ecosystem
This is where the private sector comes in. PUB works with companies to make new technologies ready for implementation, he says.
The agency has to take up much of the risk. It funds new plants, and is always willing to be the first adopter. “It is in our interest to get wider acceptance for new technology,” he says.
This makes companies more willing to work with PUB, he says, building a more competitive pool of vendors. Today the agency is working with nearly 20 companies to test techniques.
PUB anticipates increased demand, but doesn’t want that to happen. Instead, they want Singaporeans to be a little thriftier.
If everyone in Singapore saves five and half litres of water a day, it would save a huge amount of water and energy for the future, he says. “Even if the economy and population double, we [should] still use the same amount of water,” he believes.
The challenge is to change the culture. Seah wants people to realise that conserving water is a national duty. “It technically isn’t your water. I loaned it to you, I want it back,” he says.
Technology can also play a big role, he believes. PUB is installing automatic water meter readers in homes, allowing citizens to track their water use by the hour. “We would like to feed the public as much information in real-time as possible”, he says.
The agency is running a two and half year pilot, testing how more information on water usage changes Singaporeans’ habits. By promoting the idea of saving money, they hope to naturally reduce consumption.
Seah hopes that this island will one day become self-sufficient, which would – as he puts it – leave him out of a job. But given the challenges of a growing population, Seah’s job at the PUB is far from over.