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Investing in Technology for Water Sustainability
Singapore’s unique water environment requires innovative solutions, and research and development (R&D) has been the key to achieving a robust, affordable and sustainable water supply. With water demand expected to more than double by 2060, continual investment in R&D to seek more cost-effective and efficient ways of treating, recycling and supplying water is vital, especially in light of challenges such as climate change, rising energy costs, population growth and increasing urbanisation.

Innovation for water sustainability

As Singapore’s national water agency, PUB manages the water loop, from the management of our reservoirs, collection of rain, treatment and supply of water to the population and industries, to the collection and recycling of used water.

The country uses on average 430 million gallons a day (MGD) of water. With demand expected to more than double by 2060, collecting every drop of water, reusing water endlessly, and desalinating more seawater – principles that guide PUB in its integrated water management – are crucial. Continual investment in water technology R&D is key to achieving that.

Since PUB was established in 1963, it has faced challenges in ensuring a secure, safe and adequate supply of water. At that time, a lack of natural resources, pollution and a rapidly changing urban environment were among the various factors that led the country to invest in developing its R&D capabilities to build a diversified and sustainable water supply.

Singapore began looking into unconventional water sources as far back as the 1970s, but membrane technology was costly and unreliable at that time. It was only in the 1990s that the cost and performance of membrane technology improved considerably, and PUB revisited the idea of water reuse. After extensive R&D, including the commissioning of a full-scale demonstration plant, a three-stage membrane-based production process was developed, and NEWater was introduced in 2003. Treated used water is put through microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection, to produce high-grade, ultra-clean reclaimed water. Today, Singapore has four NEWater factories that can meet up to 30% of its water needs, and by 2060, NEWater will be able to supply up to 55% of the country’s water demand.

Following the success of NEWater, PUB introduced desalinated water in 2005 with the opening of the SingSpring Desalination Plant. Singapore’s second desalination plant, Tuaspring, commenced operations in 2013, and plans are in place for two more plants to be built by 2020 to boost the country’s drought resilience. Desalination will meet up to 30% of Singapore’s future needs by 2060.

Alongside these initiatives that diversified Singapore’s water sources and made supply more robust, PUB also aims to augment existing water resources by making every drop of rain count. Two-thirds of Singapore is water catchment, and the plan is to increase Singapore’s water catchment area to 90% in the long run.

Driving advancements in water R&D

R&D has helped Singapore achieve an adequate and secure water supply, and it continues to be vital in ensuring a sustainable water supply for the future. Water research is carried out with three objectives: (a) increase water resources, (b) reduce cost of production, and (c) improve quality and security.

Launched in 2004, PUB’s R&D programme supports local and global research institutions, water companies and utilities in developing innovation water solutions to meet these objectives.

It develops potential solutions in six technology groups – Intelligent Watershed Management, Membrane Technology, Network Management, Used Water Treatment, Water Treatment, and Water Quality and Security. The total number of projects the agency is involved in currently stands at 467, with a collective value of S$323 million, and continues to grow.

These projects are aligned strategically to achieve the three research objectives, and are detailed in a R&D roadmap that directs research efforts and connects new ideas to these larger, long-term goals. The roadmap currently covers seven key water domains spanning the entire water loop: biological processes; chemical redox technologies; desalination and water reuse; sludge and brine management; automation and robotics; watershed management; and water quality analytics and water distribution.

Reflecting PUB’s relentless drive for new and innovative solutions, three new focus areas were also recently added to the R&D roadmap, namely: groundwater and underground caverns for water storage and water facilities; decentralised water treatment technologies to optimise land use; and industrial water technologies to meet the challenges of industrial water management.

Building a global hydrohub

Beyond managing the water loop in Singapore, PUB plays a key role in nurturing the development of the local water industry, which has become a global hub for some of the most advanced and innovative water research across the entire water value chain. The complexity of water issues often requires close collaboration with partners both locally and globally – including governments, international organisations, research institutions and industry players – to foster strong and mutually beneficial networks.

It is in this spirit of sharing that the Singapore International Water Week, a biennial water conference that facilitates dialogue and learning among policymakers, water experts and industry leaders on global water issues, challenges and solutions, was conceived. PUB also facilitates sharing of experiences through hosting visits to its facilities, organising workshops for training and knowledge exchange, and collaborating with like-minded water utilities and organisations on R&D.

To this end, PUB has signed memorandums of understanding with various partners over the years, including agreements with Korea Water Resources Corporation on the collaboration in smart water grids, water quality monitoring, green energy and water treatment processes; Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Water Resources Research and Development Centre on knowledge exchange and sharing of best practices in water quality management and energy recovery; VCS Denmark to accelerate the sharing and creation of solutions, specifically in the areas of wastewater technology and operations, energy reduction and climate adaptation; and SUEZ on three projects in used water treatment, stormwater management and automated meter reading.

PUB, together with related partner agencies, also facilitates product development and offers financial incentives to encourage the early adoption of new technology by end-users. Private sector companies can test their new technologies on-site at PUB’s various facilities, comprising water treatment plants, water reclamation plants, NEWater factories, used water and water supply networks, reservoirs and waterways, all under actual operating conditions, a key step for the eventual application and commercialisation of these technologies. Stakeholders are also given financial and technical support for their activities.

Today, 180 local and international water companies, alongside more than 20 research institutes, create a dynamic water landscape in Singapore. In all, around 14,000 jobs have been added, and close to S$2.2 billion in value add have been created for the local economy in the past 10 years.

Thus far, Singapore’s technology-forward philosophy and investments in R&D have enabled the country to develop a world-class, innovation-driven water industry. As PUB continues to invest in innovation and use science and technology to address its challenges, it will be able to turn what seems impossible into endless opportunity.

This article is reproduced from Innovation in Water, Singapore (Volume 8), an annual publication by Singapore’s national water agency PUB, showcasing a selection of research projects that PUB is working on. For more information, please visit https://www.pub.gov.sg/ourlibrary/publications/research.
All photos credit to PUB Singapore

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