Singapore's Water Dilemma: Developed Countries that Still Import Water

Singapore's Water Dilemma: Developed Countries that Still Import Water

Since 1962, Malaysia and Singapore have had a water import agreement until 2061, whereby Singapore is allowed to take up to 250 million gallons of raw water per day from the Johor River, while Malaysia is entitled to 5 million gallons of water distilled by Singapore. Before Singapore was finally separated from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965.

Before Singapore was excluded from the Federation of Malaysia, its water supply was dependent on the state of Johor, as Singapore's clean water resources could only be obtained from the Johor River. Singapore is heavily dependent on Malaysia for its water supply, with 80% of Singapore's total water supply coming from Malaysia.

Water Scarcity in Singapore

Singapore, with an area of approximately 724.2 km2, ranks last in Southeast Asia in terms of water resources. Due to the scarcity of natural lakes and aquifers, it ranks 170th out of 190 countries in terms of freshwater availability. With a population of about five million in 2011, Singapore was only able to meet about five percent of its national water needs independently.

In 2019, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) recorded Singapore's daily water demand at 430 million gallons, which is expected to double in ten years. By comparison, the average global water consumption in 2014 was 4 trillion m³. Specifically, in 2019, water consumption per person in Singapore will be 141 liters per day, which is equivalent to an eight-minute shower for residents of the United States.

However, according to PUB Singapore, Singapore's current water demand is about 430 million gallons per day (mgd), which is enough to fill 782 Olympic-sized swimming pools. About 45% of Singapore's water demand is used by households, while the rest is used by the non-domestic sector. However, by 2065, Singapore's total water demand is expected to almost double, with the non-domestic sector accounting for about 60%. To meet this increased demand, clean water and desalination are expected to meet most of Singapore's water needs in the future.

 Singapore Imported Water Source Map (©
Singapore Imported Water Source Map (©

Between Cooperation and Conflict

Singapore's dependence on Malaysia often leads to conflict between the two countries. Malaysia is the closest neighbor to Singapore, making it easier to import water. On the other hand, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has tried to increase the price of water sold to Singapore by ten times in 2018. The reason is that the 1962 agreement is detrimental to Malaysia because Singapore controls all water sources in the southern region of Malaysia.

Although the 1962 water agreement states that the agreement can be evaluated after 25 years, Malaysia did not request an evaluation in 1987 because of the dilemma it faced. If the agreement were to be reviewed, it could affect Singapore's decision in setting the price of distilled water sold to Malaysia. As a result, both countries still use the 1962 agreement as a reference without any revision to date, and Mahathir Mohamad's decision is still being discussed between the two countries.

Singapore's Progress in Water Management

Due to its limited water resources, Singapore eventually developed sustainable water management and technology or commonly referred to as hydrohub. In fact, Singapore is one of the leading countries in the development of "hydrohub". This feat has been achieved thanks to the rapid development of water technology and information at the national level. Singapore's development approach is based on four main stages called the "Four National Taps", which include water importation, the NEWater program, water desalination and rainwater harvesting.

Singapore is also the only Southeast Asian country to be selected as a WHO Collaborating Centre, among fifteen others, to implement drinking water management and urban water resources. Singapore also mentors and trains WHO Member States in building their respective water management capacities. In addition, Singapore's R&D advances in sustainable water management have led the country to develop research on the quality and safety of drinking water. Singapore also has a direct responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance related to the availability of clean water in emergency or disaster situations in some regions.

NEWater Treatment Process (©
NEWater Treatment Process (©

In 2018, NEWater technology met 40 percent of Singapore's water needs and is expected to reach 50 percent by 2060. In addition, Singapore successfully developed desalination technology in 2005, which can convert seawater into potable water, and was able to meet 25 percent of the demand for clean water in 2018.

Beyond technology, Singapore is also working to improve the use of water resources by building channels, canals, ponds and rivers that can link the 17 reservoirs it owns. By 2011, Singapore had managed to use about two-thirds of its total land area as rainwater catchment areas. As a result, by 2012, Singapore will be able to independently meet half of its total national water needs, with 20 percent coming from rainwater harvesting, 30 percent from NEWater, and 10 percent from water desalination.

Between Reality and Hope

Despite Singapore's domestic efforts to meet its daily water needs, water supplies from Malaysia remain the country's main source of water. Almost half of Singapore's total daily water demand comes from Malaysia. The three domestic efforts have shown improvement in meeting Singapore's water needs, but Singapore is still unable to meet its own water needs independently without relying on water supplies from Malaysia.

Singapore's limited water resources do not pose a significant threat to its existence or national security. However, Singapore's dependence on Malaysia as its main source of water does pose a risk to Singapore's national security, as a potential interruption of water supplies could cause damage to sectors in Singapore. Therefore, Singapore views the issue of water resources as an important security issue because water is an essential commodity for human survival and Singapore continues to depend on Malaysia to meet its water needs.


PUB Singapore’s National Water Agency. Imported Water

PUB Singapore’s National Water Agency. Singapore Water Story

PUB Singapore’s National Water Agency. Singapore Water History (2019). Total Land Area of Singapore 

Taylor, Mihael. (2019). Thirsty Singapore Taps Into Innovation to Secure Its Water Future. The Jakarta Post

Tortajada, C & Joshi, Y. K. (2013). Water Demand Management in SIngapore: Involving the Public, Water Resour Manage, 27

Tortajada, Cecilia. (2018). SIngapore’s Water Success And Lessons For The Region 

Teo, Justin. (2015). The Impact of Water on Business in SIngapore

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