1 June 2015

Water should be brought into the urban planning agenda in an integral way.

By Mr. Khoo Teng Chye

(The following text is part of the interview by OOSKAnews correspondent, Renee Martin-Nagle, with Mr. Khoo Teng Chye, Executive Director, Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), to gather insights on Singapore’s urban water planning and city governance, which was held as part of Singapore International Water Week’s (SIWW) series of 1 on 1 interviews with global water industry leaders, Conversations with Water Leaders.)


What was Singapore’s approach to governance that caused it to go from what it was 50 years ago to one of the most livable cities in the world?

When we talk about governance, we talk about a number of things.  One of course is leadership, and I think we were very fortunate to have a leader like Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, our first prime minister who was prime minister for many years, who was both visionary as well as pragmatic.  He had a clear idea of what Singapore ought to be and then had the ability to make that vision happen through his leadership.  Water was very clearly identified by him as a top strategic priority for the nation, and he set up the water office in his prime minister’s office so that every single department in the government would see water as a priority.  He got a young engineer, who subsequently became the chairman of PUB, to draw up a plan and help to execute that plan to make Singapore as self-sufficient as we possibly could be.

That’s the leadership part of governance.  Then integrated planning flows from that.  Look at the way that water has been managed in Singapore.  Obviously the supply side is extremely important, but so is the demand side.  The other part of the equation is to look at water holistically as the whole water cycle.


As a result of its strategic urban planning process, Singapore became one of the first cities in the world to harvest stormwater from urban catchments to supplement its water supply. How did Singapore manage this feat?

If you look at supply, we were getting water from our neighbor Malaysia.  We had a few reservoirs that we inherited from the British, but the rain falling from the sky was being washed to the sea because we didn’t have the reservoirs to collect it.  And the worst part of course was that a lot of the water got very, very polluted.  It was an extreme problem of trying to create more reservoirs to collect and store the water, and making sure that that water, before it gets to the reservoir, doesn’t get contaminated or polluted.  This was not an isolated problem but one that required attention from land-use planners, environmental managers and housing authority to come up with an integrated approach. Hence, there was a need to work across different agencies to tackle these problems.

As a result of this integrated approach, we have become the first city in the world to do urban storm water harvesting on a scale that I don’t think anybody else does.  In Singapore, the rain that falls on two-thirds of the land is collected now in 17 reservoirs, including the Marina Reservoir that is right in the heart of the city.

And that’s not something that happened overnight but it has happened progressively over decades as we systematically experimented with one or two reservoirs and catchments and then gradually put in the right policies, laws, enforcement mechanisms and technology to make this happen. The solution involved a combination of policy action, research into new technology, and effective implementation, not just by the water agency but in a coordinated way with multiple agencies.


For a city that is beginning its approach to water sustainability, where would you suggest that they start?  

I think the starting point has to be clarity that water is very high on the political agenda of the city.  If the city has a water problem, then water has to be treated as a strategic priority.  The political leadership has to take ownership of it and empower their planners and water engineers to be given the authority to do what is necessary, to take an integrated approach to manage the supply and demand of water, and to put in place the right policies, legislation, programs and so on.  That’s the most important thing that needs to be done.

Water should be brought into the urban planning agenda in an integral way with urban planning, with urban design, rather than to see water planning as the domain of the water engineer.  Integrated planning actually has got quite a number of aspects to it and uses a combination of policy action, research into new technology, and effective implementation systematically, not just by the water agency but in a coordinated way with multiple agencies.


Very often, urban planners plan a city looking at land use, traffic, greenery, but water, like other utilities – electricity, telecommunications, gas, and so on –is not given much attention.  Water is an afterthought, and as a result we see all the negative impacts of water infrastructure in cities.  I talk about monsoon canals and monsoon drains, and when they are not filled with water – which is most of the time because you don’t get heavy rain storms all the time – then they are ugly, concrete structures.  You also have pipes and treatment plants that are unsightly.

In our case we have the Marina Barrage in Singapore.  If it had been left purely to water engineers, the barrage would have been a big ugly pump house.  But because of the intervention of urban planners, the Marina Barrage has been beautifully redesigned with a green roof and other sustainable features.  It’s become a wonderful community resource in Singapore.

So if water can be brought up front into the urban planning agenda, then programs like Singapore’s ABC Waters and other similar programs in other cities will become more common throughout the world.  Some cities – like Seattle, Philadelphia, Seoul, Tokyo, and cities in Australia — are beginning to see the value of planning for water resources in an integral way with other urban planning and urban design.  If water planning is solely the domain of water engineers, then water designs and water features that could enhance the urban experience get forgotten when cities are being planned.


Mr. Khoo Teng Chye is also member of our Advisory Panel.