Friday, September 02, 2011

Water scarcity: turning weakness into strength

ON WEDNESDAY, Singapore's Public Utilities Board (PUB) handed over two Johor water treatment plants to the Johor government following the expiry of the 1961 Water Agreement. The handing over ceremony was a low-key affair, with officials from Singapore and Johor signing a pact to formalise the transfer at a scenic dam. Nearly 60 PUB staff - all of them Malaysians - have taken up PUB's offer to work at its other Malaysian facilities along the Johor River.

The fact that the expiry of the 1961 pact is no big deal, however, is a big deal. Following Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965, the two countries have duelled over issues such as Malayan Railway land in Singapore, the use of Malaysian airspace by Singapore military planes and Pedra Branca. But water has easily been the most contentious issue between the two countries. Former senior minister S. Jayakumar has recalled how then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told him in 1970 that the Water Agreements with Malaysia were 'a matter of life and death' which could lead to war if the agreement was not observed. In this sense, the expiry of the 1961 agreement represents a doing away of a potential point of contention between the two close neighbours.

Singapore's growing self-sufficiency in water has come about because of a steely-eyed focus, even obsession, on turning a strategic weakness into a point of strength. The handover will have no impact of Singapore's ability to secure enough water to meet daily demand. This is because the resulting shortfall has been more than made up for by new reservoirs here and technological improvements in recycling and desalinating water. Now, imported water from Johor is but one of 'four national taps' that PUB has kept running. Singapore will in all probability become completely self-sufficient in water by 2061, thanks to a growing supply of water from the other three taps: local catchment reservoirs, Newater and desalination plants.

To its credit, Kuala Lumpur has remained faithful to the Water Agreements through the years, which were actually lodged in the Malaysian Constitution. It has brushed aside occasional calls from populists to cut off water supply to Singapore, particularly at times when relations were poor. The fact the handover was smooth is yet another indicator that bilateral relations are on the mend. This is all to the good.

The Republic is now positioning itself to become a 'global hydro hub'. At a recent global water summit held here, several participants said it was possible that Singapore could play a leading role in helping developing countries tackle sanitation and water issues. Sometimes, good things do flow out from bad.