Sustainability in Singapore: Holding up a mirror to the world

As Singapore celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence, the country can take immense pride in its rapid transformation from a humble fishing village to the modern, first-world city it is today. What is particularly remarkable is that this amazing transformation has happened despite its inherent limitations of size and availability of natural resources. Not only has The Little Red Dot – an adoring and self-deprecating reference to the country’s physical size on the world map- overcome serious existential challenges in the early years following its breakaway from Malaysia but has also shown itself as a shining example of nation development.

The Singapore story- from third world to the first- is the tale of an unfinished journey from survival to sustainability, one that the city-state pursues relentlessly with unflinching commitment and great vigour. The first seeds to make Singapore the Garden City that it is today were sown by the country’s founding father, Mr.Lee Kuan Yew back in 1963, as he believed that “we need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits.”

Since its very inception as an independent country, densely-populated Singapore has been at the leading edge of promoting excellence in urban planning and management. When combined with a highly-evolved and efficient governance and a steady focus on continuous innovation in the use of both technology and commercial models, the result is a city that’s achieved enviable success.

Singapore has consistently fared very highly against the parameters that characterize great cities: liveability, vibrancy, sustainability and quality of life. The vast expanses of greenery that envelope high-rises all across Singapore is the outcome of a continuous effort from the outset to ‘go green’. Today, the city can boast of its water and energy capacity to meet industrial, commercial and residential needs. It’s public transport system is one of the smoothest in the world and its residents get to breathe clean air, surrounded by greenery and waterways. Not surprisingly, Singapore is the best-performing city in the Asian region when measured against a range of sustainability criteria, according to the Green City Index, a project conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and sponsored by Siemens.

Overcoming inherent challenges
Singapore’s fundamental challenges at the time of its independence persist today: small size, with limited land, water and other natural resources. The dense and growing population (albeit, slower than what the country ideally would like to in order to maintain its thriving economy) continues to put considerable stress on the city’s limited resources and its environment.

The consequence of the country’s growth is a continual increase in demand and the competition for scarce resources. As an import-dependent country– even for most of its basics such as food and water—Singapore has to contend with any potential disruptions to imports. Doing more with less, resource conservation and efficient use are thus an absolute imperative for the country.

Like any progressive and forward-looking country, Singapore faces- and takes on- the challenge of environmental degradation/ pollution and climate change very seriously. The country has been very clear that economic growth and environment-friendliness are not two mutually-exclusive objectives; rather, sustainable growth can be achieved only when these two go hand-in-hand.

As a result, Singapore has used the following three drivers to fuel its development
1. Be efficient – Develop using less resources and generate less waste
2. Be clean – Develop without polluting the environment
3. Be green – Develop while preserving greenery, waterways and natural heritage.

Four ‘national taps’– the key to water sustainability
Almost a decade ago, Singapore had identified water and environmental technologies as a growth sector. The Environment and Water Programme Office (EWI), an inter-agency body led by the country’s water agency, the PUB, is leading concerted efforts to transform the country into a global hydrohub. With almost half a billion dollars committed to R&D in the water sector and a cluster of over 130 companies and 26 research centres, the vision of becoming the global hydrohub is very close to reality.

Singapore’s success in addressing its water challenges, with very little natural water sources, makes it a global example for effective and efficient water management. The city now has diversified and sustainable sources of meeting its water requirements through its Four National Taps: water from local catchment areas; imported water; Newater, reclaimed water; and desalinated water.

One of the select few countries to harvest urban storm-water on a large scale, the country has already successfully increased its water catchment area to almost two-thirds of its land surface. The long-term goal is to take this figure to an astonishing 90%.

Noteworthy as this seems to be, nothing illustrates Singapore’s success in water sustainability than its ability to recycle and desalinate water. Almost 30% of the country’s current water needs can be met by NEWater, a high-grade reclaimed water that is produced from treated used water after extreme purification with the use of advanced membrane technologies and ultra-violet disinfection. Among other uses, this water is being used by semiconductor wafer fabs, which require water of greater purity than that required for drinking. Four NEWater plants currently supply reclaimed water; Singapore expects to increase this capacity such that by 2060, up to 55% of the city’s water demands can be met by NEWater.

Singapore can also proudly stake claim to be the home for Asia’s largest seawater reverse-osmosis plant. The two desalination plants in Singapore has a total capacity of about 100 million gallons of water per day that can meet almost a quarter of the country’s current water demand.

In addition to ensuring an adequate supply of water, Singapore is actively pursuing a water conservation strategy. These efforts have already lowered the per capita domestic water consumption from about 165 litres per day in 2003 to 151 litres now, with a goal to lower this to 140 litres per day by 2030.

Singapore continues to invest in and develop its competencies in water-related technologies. For example, in May this year, the PUB entered into a collaborative agreement with French company Suez Environment to collaborate on research into waste water treatment, storm-water management and automated meter reading. Besides working on creating a smart water grid, the two entities will also carry out a pilot project to develop an energy efficient waste water treatment process.

Singapore demonstrates its leadership in the area of water sustainability and water treatment technologies by hosting the biennial Singapore International Water Week, which is among the most important events in the international calendar in this realm. The event seeks to ‘share and co-create innovative water solutions’ and brings together the top technologists and leaders in the water sector sector from around the world.

The “Green mantra” in public housing
The Housing Development Board (HDB), whose over 1 million flats spread over 26 towns and estates house the majority of Singapore’s population, is attempting to test-bed smart technologies to usher in a new generation of public housing.
As the HDB looks to ‘build future homes for better living’, sustainability and greenery have been inextricably ingrained in the organisation. Clearly ‘Green’ is the beacon that will guide it forward in its quest to create green flats, green neighbourhoods and green communities. In fact, the HDB Greenprint provides an integrated framework of goals and strategies for creating sustainable homes and greener towns. This includes numerous initiatives to better manage waste, conserve energy and use clean energy where possible.

Waste collection: Automating waste collection from residential estates with the use of the Pneumatic Waste Conveyance System (PWCS) is an important means to address both the environmental and sanitary issues related to open waste collection. Using underground pipes and vacuum to transport waste to sealed containers not only provides a better living environment for residents but also results in reduced manpower requirements and higher productivity.

Energy conservation: The HDB has already installed several Mega Watt Peak (MWp) of solar photovoltaic systems in different localities across the city. Such systems convert natural sunlight into solar power which is then harnessed to power lifts, corridor and staircase lighting and water pumps. Fuel cell technology is also being tried out to generate clean energy to power the common areas in HDB’s residential estates.

Similarly, the Elevator Energy Regeneration System (EERS) helps recover almost 20% of the energy consumed by a lift without affecting its operation.

Another key initiative in its energy conservation drive is to progressively replace the current outdoor street lights with LED lights. It is estimated that such a replacement, island-wide, could result in almost a 70% reduction in energy consumption compared to current levels.

Private-public participation: With its Green Homes Package, the HDB helps residents get access to energy-efficient products from private suppliers of products like refrigerators, air-conditioners and lighting systems at discounts.

Food security and sustainability
Singapore’s heavy reliance on food imports- Malaysia, China, US and Australia being the top sources for fruits and vegetables- poses a big challenge for the country.

Only about a tenth of its food requirements being produced locally. Apart from eggs, where Singapore is able to produce about 26% of the current consumption, the city’s fish and vegetable farms contribute modestly to meeting local demand.
Disruptions to food supply, volatility in food prices or food safety challenges overseas caused due to outbreaks of spreadable diseases such as bird flu, for example, are serious issues that the city has to be well-prepared for.

The Food Security Roadmap, unveiled some time ago by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) of Singapore, outlines the strategies (categorized as ‘core’, ‘supporting’ and ‘enabling’) that the government intends to pursue for both food supply resilience and food safety.

Chief among the core strategies is Singapore’s continuous efforts to diversify its food sources. Regular sourcing trips, led and facilitated by the AVA, for local food suppliers to potential new source countries play an important role in this direction. Another smart initiative is to move ‘upstream’ through contract farming in other countries in order to secure food at source. For example, Singapore has invested in a Food Zone in Jilin in North East China, which could become a reliable source for meat products.

The country is also emphasizing boosting local production of food, especially those that are not as limited by land availability. To stimulate higher local food production and productivity in the sector, the AVA offers the Food Fund for companies, besides working working closely with them in R&D and capability development. As of October 2013, about S$20 million of the Food Fund had already been spent, that resulted in increased local production of fish and vegetables by 550 tonnes and 360 tonnes, respectively.

Local production efforts got another boost in August 2014, with the announcement of a S$63 million Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF). This Fund is designed to help provide local farmers with funding support to expand production capabilities and invest in innovative, transformational farming systems, equipment and infrastructure.

Singapore’s efforts in improving its food security are bearing fruit, as can be seen from the most recent Global Food Security Index (GFSI) released by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Singapore ranked 5th in the world in 2014 out of the 109 countries that are tracked as part of the index, a jump of 11 places from its position in 2013. The GFSI, based on tracking the food security levels in around the world, measures availability, affordability and quality & safety of food.

Recycling of food waste
Over 788,000 tonnes of food is thrown away in a year in Singapore- a figure that has risen by almost 50% in a decade. With only about 13% of the food waste being recycled currently, the Government is taking important steps to capitalise on the significant opportunity in this area.

Singapore is commencing two 2-year pilot projects with the aim of encouraging the wider population to recycle their food waste. Launched by the Second Minister for Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu in March 2015, the pilot programme will provide two hawker centres with a recycling machine each which can convert the food waste and left over food into compost and water. Relevant workers at the hawker centres will be trained by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to properly segregate the food waste.

The Government is also evaluating the economic viability of collecting food waste from shopping malls, hospitals and a host of other institutions and treating this waste at a centralised recycling facility. Clementi, in the West of Singapore, has been chosen for this district-level food waste pilot programme, mainly due to its proximity to the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant. The pilot will also study the possibility of recovering energy from the food waste and the used-water sludge at the plant.

Green Tourism: beyond traditional ‘eco-tourism’
Tourism is a significant revenue source for the Singapore economy– with over 15.6 million visitor arrivals in the country in 2013, tourism receipts for the year were pegged at about $23.5b. While Singapore may not figure at the top of “eco-tourism” destinations, it is taking steps to ensure that all tourism is eco-friendly.

In November 2013, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) launched Sustainability Guidelines to serve as a reference guide for Meetings, Incentive Travel, Conferences & Exhibitions (MICE) industry players in Singapore. The objective of the Guidelines is to encourage more local MICE players to meet global sustainability standards. Applicable to seven categories including hotels, venues, event organisers and meeting planners, transportation, food and beverage, as well as audio-visual set-up, the guidelines offer advice on waste management, efficient use of water and energy as well as actions that could facilitate active participation in sustainable practices by employees.

Leading hotels and convention centres now adopt sustainability practices. Marina Bay Sands, now a prominent landmark in Singapore, adopts a global strategy labelled Sands ECO360° Sustainability programme that consists of four pillars: Green Buildings, Environmentally Responsible Operations, Sustainable Meetings and Stakeholder Engagement. It holds the honour of being the first MICE facility in South East Asia to obtain the ISO 20121 Sustainable Events Management System certification and is also the largest building in Singapore to achieve the Green Mark Gold Award by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA).

Similarly, the Sentosa Development Corporation has a sustainability plan to safeguard the environment and safeguard the island’s heritage assets. A finalist in the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow Awards in 2013, Sentosa is home to several Green Mark certified buildings as well as 30 carefully-preserved heritage trees and over 30 conserved buildings.

The Park Royal on Pickering is another hotel that has made a name for its eco-friendly/ sustainability practices. According to stats published by the hotel, it could power 680 households with its annual energy savings and 32.5 Olympic sized pools saved through water conservation efforts annually. The hotel has 2m2 of lush greenery for every 1m2 of its total land area. Use of solar cells, sunlight and rain water harvesting, light, motion and rain sensors combine to make this a truly eco-friendly hotel.

The Sustainable Singapore Blueprint (SSB)
The Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development (IMCSD), set up in January 2008, identified four key strategies as part of the original Sustainable Singapore Blueprint to achieve Singapore’s sustainable development and enable the country to be efficient and competitive in the long run.

The four pillars of this blueprint were to improve resource efficiency, enhance urban development, achieve community action, and build technologies & capabilities. A wide-ranging action plan with specific steps to tangibly fulfill each of these objectives- improving greenery and cleanliness, reducing air pollution levels, investing in solar energy and other R&D, enhance public transport, to name just a few- was executed in the last six years. Singapore is well on its way to achieving the ambitious goals and targets it had set itself for various parameters related to sustainability as part of the SSB 2009.

The Ministry of Environment and Water Resources and the Ministry of National Development have now published the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint for 2015, which outlines the country’s vision for a more liveable and sustainable Singapore. The vision is for Singapore to be: A Liveable and Endearing Home, A Vibrant and Sustainable City and An Active and Gracious City.

Operationalising the blueprint
In a written response to a question in the Parliament on the steps being taken by the government to operationalise the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015, Dr.Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Environment and Water Resources, said that many of the initiatives were already in progress. “For example, to improve our air quality, NEA has tightened the emissions standards of vehicles in recent years and will further implement Euro VI emissions standards for new petrol and diesel vehicles from 1 September 2017 and 1 January 2018 respectively. To achieve a “car-lite” Singapore while bringing commuting convenience to residents, LTA and URA have drawn up plans to make towns more walkable and cyclist-friendly.”

Dr.Balakrishnan emphasized the role that the community at large, including businesses, must play in realizing the vision set out in the SSB 2015. “We need everyone to take stewardship of our environment and sustainable development. It should be second nature for people, businesses and the Government to come together to care for our common spaces and environment, and champion a sustainable way of life. Together, we can be the proud stewards of a liveable home and sustainable city, one that can be enjoyed by many more generations of Singaporeans to come,” he wrote.

- By Manoj Aravindakshan

This is an edited version of an article I wrote for a commemorative publication “Sustaining Singapore’s Success” brought out by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) on the occasion of Singapore’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations.

Leave a Reply