Cleaning Up the Singapore River: A Model for Asia?

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In 1969, Singapore’s then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew initiated a plan to clean up the polluted Singapore River, focusing on the removal or relocation of polluting sources and waterway clean-up. Over the course of nearly two decades the government relocated people and businesses, and removed mud and refuse, at a cost of nearly $164 million USD.  Today, restaurants and condos line the transformed riverbanks.National University of Singapore Professor Asit Biswas says that while the Singapore model can be used elsewhere, it is not necessarily straightforward, because Singapore is different from other countries because it has just one institution with full control over water resources, which makes coordination far simpler. In Sweden, for example, there are 54 institutions that deal with water at the state, central and municipal level.

Biswas told OOSKAnews in an interview this month that what other countries can take from Singapore’s experience is the philosophy and process for cleaning up the river. When Lee first suggested that the river should be cleaned up, bureaucrats thought it would be too expensive and time-consuming.

“Now look at what has happened. Places that had no economic value are expensive,” Biswas said.

With hindsight, the clean-up has had a very positive cost-benefit ratio. The land value and economic activity have both risen, and the people with limited economic means who used the river for waste discharge were given compensation and are now housed. They have also been given training to move into other jobs.

“We can show that it would have cost significantly more to leave it dirty,” because the health, social and economic costs would be quite significant,” Biswas said.

Since all of Asia’s rivers are becoming increasingly polluted, Singapore could have an excellent opportunity to export its model, he said. But unfortunately, Singapore is so focused on technology that the country has not looked at exporting its management skills and river-cleaning expertise.

“They’re not exporting it for their benefit and the benefit of other countries. The knowledge is disappearing,” Biswas warned.

He said one challenge now is the lack of records. In countries like Canada or the United States, there are minutes of meetings about policy decisions and costs. In Singapore, there is no paper trail: “We don’t know why decisions were done, what were the internal discussions, and who will do what. We only know what was done.”

Biswas said he has suggested that Singapore compile an oral history from people who played crucial roles. So far, however, officials have not seen enough cost benefit to compile the history.

For his part, he was able to write about the clean-up because he could interview Lee himself, who sat down and talked through the problems and difficulties. Biswas augmented those discussions with research in the national libraries of Australia and the United Kingdom, since their records from that era are now open to the public.   

“On the water side,” Biswas said, “he’s [Lee] the only prime minster I know who has realized the importance of water for economic development.”

As prime minister, three people in his office looked at any decision from a water perspective, and their perspectives were taken into account in any development decision. The government even turned down applications from multinationals to locate in Singapore if the potential water pollution seemed unacceptable. 

Today, Singapore is working to sell desalination plants to countries in Asia as well as the Middle East; Biswas sees this as a short-term decision with potentially negative consequences.

“I’ve told the EDB [Economic Development Board] that five years from now those plants won’t operate. They [the countries where the plants are being built] don’t have the operational maintenance culture. They’ll say you sold us the wrong technology. Until it breaks down, no one will blame Singapore. When it breaks down, they’ll say Singapore did not choose the right technology.”

When that happens, he said, Singapore may lose some of its water business.

Biswas believes there is an unexploited business opportunity in exporting its river clean-up expertise.

“There’s a tremendous benefit for Singapore. They could advise on the Ganges River clean-up, in the planning institutions and legal process. They have a lot of expertise about how to look, and what to look at. The potential is there,” but is not yet being recognized.

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