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Vol 20, No. 07, July 2016   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
H2O: Managing our Water and Technology

Why is managing our water so important?

Water, one of the three crucial ingredients in our life sustenance. We can only last for about 3 to 4 days without water. Our body is made of at least 60% water, and it helps keep us functioning daily. [1] Water is also a key component in agriculture, industrial and domestic use in the world. In industrialised countries like Belgium, 80% of water consumption is used for industrial purposes. [2] As countries expand in population, increase their energy demands, and move towards a more affluent lifestyle, the demand for water is increasing every year. Freshwater demand worldwide is increasing by 64 billion cubic meters a year (1 cubic meter = 1,000 liters) [3] And this is putting a strain on the already limited supply of freshwater we have on planet Earth. 98% of water on Earth is saltwater. The other 2% is freshwater. Of the fresh water, almost 70% is trapped in snow and ice, 30% is underground, and less than 0.5% forms the easily accessible water in rivers and lakes, etc. [4]

Singapore is a tiny island, with limited land space for rainwater catchment areas. Now, each person in Singapore utilises an estimated 150 litres of water every day. With water being so precious to life and work, coupled with its limited availability, the city state hopes to achieve self-sufficiency in water by 2060. [5]

Currently, Singapore has built up a "4 National Taps" strategy in sustaining her water supply.

I. The first tap is imported water from Malaysia. Singapore has been importing water from Malaysia since 1961. However, Singapore will no longer be dependent on Malaysia's water from 2061, when the water agreement contract expires. Depending on another country's water is not sustainable for the long term and exposes Singapore to political pressures from Malaysia.

II. Thus, ensuring other secure means of having our own water sources is crucial to Singapore's continued growth. As of now, 2/3 of land area occupied by the Little Red Dot is used for water catchments (drains, canals, rivers). These function as the second tap to collect rainwater, which is then stored in reservoirs.

III. The third water source is through water desalination. This makes sense as a water source as Singapore is an island surrounded by the sea. Reverse osmosis treats the water, which then forms 10% of our water supply.

IV. The last national tap is by recycling water. This uses reverse osmosis to purify used water. The clean water is branded as NEWater, and makes up 30% of Singapore's water needs. [6] NEWater is mainly used by wafer fabrication plants for cooling purposes.

Current & Future technology

Aquaporin Asia, a Singapore company, has developed a technology of 3 years old now, featuring a next-generation biomimetic membrane, that increases the efficiency of water purification membranes. Water purification membranes succumb to biofouling overtime, as microbes accumulate on the surface, decreasing membrane permeability. The biomimetic membrane is based off the concept of aquaporins found naturally in our cells. Aquaporins are water channel proteins that aid in fast and selective water transport to regulate osmotic pressure in our bodies. [7] Aquaporin Asia's technology of an aquaporin-covered membrane thus allows for high water permeability and high salt rejection rate, achieving a low biofouling capability. [8]

Last year, 2015, a team from NUS Environmental Research Institute developed a robot swan (NUSwan) to help in monitoring and testing of water bodies like reservoirs. Various probes and sensors attached to the swan can measure pH, oxygen, phosphate levels and more. Checking on phosphate levels is crucial to preventing algae blooms, which can wreck the quality of the water. This tech would save time and manpower that is normally needed for manual testing using boats. They aim to make NUSwan's navigation as autonomous as they can, through programming using GPS. And of course, it does not hurt to see these white elegant birds "swimming" around in reservoirs, albeit them being just robots modelled as swans. [9]

Besides technology for managing water we use, there is also technology for cleaning up of wastewater. Just in May this year, Max-Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany designed graphene oxided-based microbots (smalller than the width of a human hair) that could potentially remove 95% of lead from wastewater in an hour. The tube-shaped device has a nickel layer, enabling these microbots to be controlled magnetically. A platinum layer allows the robots to propel themselves through wastewater as well. [10]

In conclusion, working hand in hand to ensure maximal preservation of water resources, is the behaviour of people in using water. We cannot take the Earth's water source for granted, and even with improving water technology, it may not be able to keep up with our increasing demand for water. Water is such a precious liquid, and every action we take to use water wisely will all add up to contribute significantly to the conservation of water.


  1. Popkin, B. M., D’Anci, K. E., & Rosenberg, I. H. (2010). Water, Hydration and Health. Nutrition Reviews, 68(8), 439–458.
  2. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Water_use_in_industry
  3. Clarke, R. (2013). Water: the international crisis. Routledge.
  4. Cliford, N. J., Holloway, S. L., Rice, S. P., & Valentine, G. (2003). Key concepts in geography. London: SAGE Publications.
  5. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/singapore-needs-to-manage-water-demand
  6. https://www.nlb.gov.sg/sure/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/cheat-sheet-12Water-in-Singapore-final1.pdf
  7. https://aquaporin.asia/85/aquaporins.aspx
  8. https://www.siww.com.sg/pdf.php?file=WaterTechnologyFutures_AGlobalBlueprintforInnovation.pdf.
  9. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/robot-swans-bring-new/1958380.html
  10. https://www.waterworld.com/articles/wwi/2016/05/microbots-could-be-used-to-clean-up-industrial-wastewater-reveals-german-research.html

by Cheryl Lee Zhi Qin
Cheryl likes to write and "stalk" dogs during her free time, and hopes to do so more often after graduating from National University of Singapore. She aims to become conversant in Korean or Japanese through dramas.
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