New Wave

Five years on, Singapore’s own brand of reclaimed water is making a name for itself in the international water circuit. NEWater was recently named Environmental Contribution of the Year at the Global Water Awards 2008. As the 10 millionth bottle of NEWater rolls off the production line, PUB Chairman Mr Tan Gee Paw talks about the evolution of NEWater, its future and its significance.

2008 IS OFFICIALLY NEWATER’S FIFTH ANNIVERSARY. DOES THIS PUT YOU IN A CELEBRATORY MOOD?

Everyone who has been involved in NEWater — whether it’s PUB staff or our partners in the private sector — has cause to cheer. Indeed, the whole country has reason to celebrate, because we have been blessed with the know-how, the political will and the financial wherewithal to achieve a sustainable water supply.

DID YOU EXPECT NEWATER TO BE THIS SUCCESSFUL?

Our initial target was for NEWater to meet 15 per cent of Singapore’s water demand by 2010. With the four NEWater plants currently in operation, we have already exceeded that target. Demand for NEWater has increased several-fold over the years, especially from new wafer fabrication plants and petrochemical companies. To date, more than 350 companies have taken up NEWater, and the number is likely to rise further.

To cope with the increasing demand, we have started ramping up the capacities of the four NEWater plants and we are building a fifth plant in Changi. That will be our biggest yet with a capacity of 50 million gallons a day. When that is completed in 2010, NEWater will be able to meet 30 per cent of Singapore’s water needs, or double the original target. This is far more successful than we had anticipated.

HOW HAS THE TECHNOLOGY OF NEWATER CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

In the 1970s, the main issue with the technology was cost and reliability. By 1998, our review found that the technologies especially membranes, had advanced to the extent that we could explore treating and purifying used water reliably for potable purposes.

These same membrane technologies of microfiltratioltrationn, ultrafiand reverse osmosis are still used in NEWater production. However, efficiency has continued to improve year on year. The systems consume less energy and chemicals and the membrane manufacturing processes have become more cost-effective.

DO YOU ANTICIPATE FURTHER CHANGES IN NEWATER TECHNOLOGY IN THE NEAR FUTURE?

Technology is never at a standstill. In recent years we have witnessed the advent of membrane bioreactors (MBR). This is essentially the coupling of membrane technology with biological treatment of used water. The result is water of a higher and more consistent quality than that from the conventional treatment process for used water.

The product water from MBR systems can thus be supplied directly as industrial water, or as feedwater to the reverse osmosis units for NEWater production. In the latter instance, the NEWater is not only of a better quality, it is cheaper to produce as well. This is because the use of MBR eliminates the need for the pretreatment step (microfiltration or ultrafiltration) and also the final effluent tanks. We are talking about a potential cost savings of 20 per cent. And the beauty of the MBR system is that its footprint is small compared to conventional systems — that’s important in land-scarce Singapore.

GIVEN THE ADVANTAGES OF MBR TECHNOLOGY, HOW CLOSE IS PUB TO ADOPTING IT?

We have been testing the technology extensively for the past four years. And for the past year we have been running ademonstration-scale plant with a treatment capacity of 23,000 cubic metres/day at the Ulu Pandan Water Reclamation Plant. This has been successful and we are now planning to call tenders to build two full-scale MBR plants whose combined treatment capacity will be 130,000 cubic metres/day. They will be located at the Ulu Pandan and Jurong Water Reclamation Plants.

WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT FOR PUB TO KEEP TRACKING TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES FOR NEWATER PRODUCTION?

It boils down to our desire to be as efficient as possible in our operations so that NEWater can be priced as cost-effectively as possible. For example, increases in the efficiency of NEWater production have translated into substantial cost savings for us, which we are able to pass on to our customers. This in turn helps industries in Singapore to keep their costs competitive.

IS NEWATER HERE TO STAY, OR IS PUB EXPLORING OTHER ALTERNATIVES?

NEWater will remain a very strategic component of our integrated water supply management because of its multiplying effect through recycling. But we are always on the lookout for other options to develop new sources of water supply. This is in line with PUB’s strategy to diversify our water resources so that we can maintain a sustainable and robust water supply.

CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THESE OTHER OPTIONS THAT PUB IS EXPLORING?

There are two up-and-coming technologies in particular that we are looking very closely at. The first is membrane distillation. This technology utilises the waste heat from industries — oil refineries, petrochemical complexes, power stations and so on — to desalinate seawater. The product water can be of a high enough quality to use for drinking or for high-end process use like boiler feed. And as you know, Singapore is surrounded by an abundant supply of seawater.

The second technology we are interested in is the variable salinity plant, which is something PUB designed in-house. This type of plant is able to process surface water and seawater into drinking water. When fully implemented, it has the potential to let us increase our water catchment to more than 90 per cent of Singapore’s land area.

WHAT OTHER TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENTS DO YOU FORESEE?

Without a crystal ball, we can’t say what else may emerge in the future. But what we know for sure is that the nature of technology is such that from a faint glimmer of an idea, great things can come about. And when an idea does take off, it can accelerate very quickly. This is exactly what happened with membrane technology, for example.

It is therefore crucial to be up-to-date on what is happening in the world of water R&D. PUB does this by collaborating closely with water companies, research institutes and even individuals at the forefront of their respective fields of expertise. And the Singapore International Water Week will continue to be an important platform for exchanging ideas and catching up on the latest thinking.

“To cope with the increasing demand, we have started ramping up the capacities of the four NEWater plants and we are building a fifth plant in Changi. That will be our biggest yet with a capacity of 50 million gallons a day.”

OUTSIDE OF SINGAPORE, WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NEWATER?

We have been sharing our NEWater knowledge with our friends in other countries, including Australia and the Middle East. Australia is now considering recycled water as an alternative source to meet its water needs. One Australian newspaper even asked PUB for several bottles of NEWater to conduct a blind tasting with the Australian public. NEWater topped the test, with a third of respondents picking it as the best-tasting water ahead of rainwater and bottled water. The government in South East Queensland is building a AUD $9 billion Water Grid, which will take water from where it is plentiful to where it is in short supply. The water grid connects a new desalination plant, new recycled water treatment plants and other water infrastructure via 450 km of pipelines. Mr Harry Seah, PUB’s Director of the Technology & Water Quality Office, is a member of the Queensland Water Commission Expert Panel for this project. Apart from providing technical expertise and assistance, PUB has been providing bottled NEWater to Queensland for educational purposes.

The NEWater Visitor Centre, a pillar of PUB’s public education efforts, communicates the NEWater story and more.

WE WERE NOT THE FIRST CITY TO RECYCLE WATER. HOW HAS SINGAPORE’S EXPERIENCE BEEN DIFFERENT FROM THOSE OF THE OTHER CITIES?

While Singapore is not the first to recycle water, we are probably doing it on a larger scale than anywhere else in the world. This was made possible because Singapore has physically separate networks for collecting stormwater and used water and the entire water loop is managed in an integrated and holistic way by a single agency. We are thus able to collect all our used water and reclaim it to a standard suitable for drinking. In many countries, the management of drinking water and used water systems are managed by different entities who may not have shared objectives.

WHAT ABOUT THE PUBLIC EDUCATION ASPECT?

Yes, our efforts to create public understanding and acceptance have been integral to the success of NEWater. Initially, people needed to understand that NEWater is ultra-clean, and we had the 30,000 scientific tests as proof that it is drinkable. Prior to launching NEWater, we carried out a comprehensive and targeted campaign. Briefings were held for community leaders, business groups, government agencies and the media. Journalists were taken on an educational tour to the US and Europe, where they visited cities with successful water reuse programmes. Finally, a documentary about NEWater technology and the experience of other countries in using reclaimed water was broadcast on television. In tandem with the public education campaign, PUB distributed bottled NEWater. A constant part of our public outreach efforts is the NEWater Visitor Centre. Since it opened in 2003 when NEWater was officially launched, it has shared not just the NEWater story but Singapore’s water story as a whole with more than 600,000 visitors.

IN YOUR OPINION, HOW SUCCESSFUL HAVE THE OUTREACH EFFORTS BEEN?

A survey by Forbes Research in 2002 indicated that 82 per cent of Singaporeans would drink NEWater directly and another 16 per cent would drink it mixed with reservoir water. In 2002, the NEWater demonstration plant received an Award of Excellence from the National Water Research Institute of the United States. More recently, NEWater was named Environmental Contribution of the Year at the Global Water Awards 2008.

WHY DO YOU THINK NEWATER HAS GARNERED SO MUCH ATTENTION AND ACCLAIM?

NEWater has proven to be a viable, sustainable source of water. The kind of technology we use to produce it is also cutting-edge. These two facts already make NEWater quite remarkable, and it was literally the toast of the Global Water Awards dinner in London! I would also like to think that NEWater is inspiring. It demonstrates the difference that technology can make, which in turn spurs on other R&D efforts. Second, if even a densely developed, landscarce country like Singapore can enjoy a sustainable, environmentally friendly water source, the same is possible for other countries facing water shortages. So you could say that NEWater gives people outside Singapore a reason to hope. As Dr Andrew Benedek [winner of the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize] points out, there are one billion people in this world who still lack access to clean water. When that is no longer the case, the whole world will have reason to celebrate.

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