Singapore and Cape Town: Lessons Learned in Water Infrastructure

Singapore and Cape Town are a study in contrast when it comes to strategic water infrastructure, be it planning, building or maintenance.

Singapore’s Strategic Water Planning:

  • Collect every drop of water
  • Reuse water endlessly
  • Desalinate seawater

Cape Town’s Water Crisis:

  • 3 Years Consecutive Drought
  • Poor Long-term strategic Plan
  • Severe Conservation Measures to avert Day Zero

The two mega cities are a poster-child of water infrastructure – one has a resilient, diversified strategy while the other is in the throes of a crisis, impacting day to day lives of citizens.

One is a role model while the other a cautionary tale for many US cities, especially in the Southwest and the West Coast, that are dealing with depleting fresh water resources.

Singapore's SingSpring Desalination Plant

Singapore consumes a lot of water, 430 million gallons a day to be precise – that’s enough to fill 782 Olympic-sized swimming pools. And that’s set to double by 2060.

For an island country located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, bordering the Singapore Strait – a part of the Indian Ocean, Singapore has little natural fresh water. But with innovation and ingenuity, the tiny country manages not only to meet its water demands – both from residential and commercial entities, but also create buffer for the future.

“Singapore is a model of water (crisis) prevention through strategy,” said Venkatesh Sharma, president and CEO of Aquatech, a global manufacturer of industrial water treatment equipment with more than 700 employees in 6 major locations worldwide.

Sharma was speaking on a panel last week titled “Managing Energy and Water Infrastructure Systems” at the Carnegie Mellon University Energy Week in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Carnegie Mellon University Energy Week 2018: From L to R Venkatesh Sharma, President and CEO, Aquatech; Meagan Mauter, Associate Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University; Herve Buisson, Vice President, Process Engineering, VEOLIA WATER; and Peter Fiske, Director, Water-Energy Resilience Research Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

“You would think Singapore would have focused on desalinization, being always threatened by Malaysia that it will shut off the taps,” Sharma said, referring to the country’s dependence on its neighbor for fresh water. “But instead, it has adopted a multi-track strategy.” 

Singapore’s has a holistic approach to water management, underscored by 3 key strategies:

  • Collect every drop of water
  • Reuse water endlessly
  • Desalinate seawater

“In Singapore, water is recycled – water is water, if it’s chemically clear, then you can drink it. That country has pioneered direct potable re-use of water,” Sharma added. “I am not sure if the US could accept it, but luckily we don’t have to do it anytime soon.”

“We ought to be tapping different water sources, given the changing pattern of precipitation,” said Megan Mauter, Associate Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering and Engineering & Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, “including ground water, surface water, desalinization, re-use, and more – given how precipitation changes are occurring.”

Cape Town
Theewaterskloof Dam, which once supplied the city with 50% of its supply, looks more like a desert today.

On the other side of the Indian Ocean, Cape Town is in the news for its water woes.

For months, the city of 4 million people, has been facing the doomsday scenario of the taps running dry. Although it has deferred the “Day Zero” from happening this year, the city still is grappling with low water reserves and draconian conservation measures.

The city has cut water consumption by 60 percent since February 2015.

Researchers have long said the city would run out of water, mostly because of changing rainfall patterns – the city’s main source of water. But those warnings didn’t result in comprehensive planning and execution of a resilient water infrastructure.

For instance, plans to tap the substantial underground water were delayed several times.

Three years of consecutive drought, coupled with poor planning and political infighting, has brought the city to a near-depletion of its fresh water resources.

Today, the city is looking at short-term fixes and long-term solutions such as small-scale desalination, water reuse and groundwater abstraction to resolve the crisis.

“Water should not be taken for granted,” Mauter. “Take your data and plan for water.”

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