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Opinion

TAN: Treated Sewage is the New Water: Singapore’s Water Reclamation Story

It seems a rather cruel irony that water shortage issues would strike an island, which is definitionally surrounded by water. But it seemed like an even bigger joke when the Singaporean government, at the turn of the century, announced its innovative solution to the perennial problem of water shortage: to filter sewage water for potable consumption. Was this really the technological advancement that would replace Singapore’s need for traditional water treatises and sales with neighboring countries? Singaporeans asked themselves crudely: wouldn’t we literally be drinking our own pee? This image dominated the public consciousness in the early years of the water reclamation project. In a letter published by local newspaper, the Straits Times, a Mr. Mike Chan declared that the public still had “some doubts” about the reclaimed water. He subsequently predicted that “the sale of bottled mineral water” would soon surge. There was hardly an optimistic outlook in 2002, when the new project had just made its public debut at the National Day Parade. 

How could the state make this project palatable, rather literally, to its people? The answer came in the form of an elaborate public relations campaign, beginning with a futuristic, shiny new name: NEWater. As the name suggests, the reclaimed water would be “good as new,” meant to reassure the masses that there would be no impurities in their drinking water, which is certainly preferable to descriptions of what NEWater actually was: “waste water” or “recycled sewage water.” 

Efforts to counter public anxiety subsequently ramped up. The director of the Water Reclamation Department and Public Utilities Board (PUB) responded to Mr. Chan’s letter on the Straits Times, assuring him and the wider readership that “the quality of NEWater is well within the drinking water standards of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.” These statements were corroborated by a panel of local and foreign experts in engineering, microbiology, toxicology, amongst others, that advised the P.U.B. and the Ministry of the Environment on NEWater. Repeated references to several authorities strengthened the credibility and objectivity of the government’s claim. 

This immense effort in countering public anxiety was furthered by the NEWater Visitor Center, an entire facility built to educate the public about how NEWater was filtered and processed. The Center hosts regular tours for students, journalists and the general public, attempting to “bridge the gap between technical considerations and public perception.” According to NEWater’s website, visitors can “experience what it is like to be a water molecule undergoing treatment” and “discover membrane and ultraviolet technologies that make NEWater so clean.” As a student who has visited the NEWater Visitor Center three times, I can assure you that their messaging was  loud and clear. 

Promotional photo for tours at NEWater Visitor Center 

There was also the simple but effective strategy of emulation. What better way for the state to assure its population that NEWater was safe than to have its own Prime Minister endorse it? Indeed, if then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong could and would drink it, who was to say the average civilian couldn’t? Public confidence in the product increased over time as more government officials were spotted drinking it. 

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong drinking a bottle of NEWater after a game of tennis at the Istana 
The first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, holding up a bottle of NEWater

The true value of NEWater lies not in the filtration technology—it had already been under development in a pilot plant since the 1970s, producing water that passed World Health Organization guidelines for drinking water. It was only after the early 2000s, when the technology matured and prices decreased, that NEWater was introduced as a public policy. But above all else, the success of NEWater lies in overcoming the public’s psychological resistance, something that many cities looking to implement water recycling still encounter.

In San Diego, California and Tampa Bay, Florida, state officials have canceled water recycling plans due to public opposition, even if the water product had passed quality tests. As Carol Howe and Cynthia Mitchell, authors of Water Sensitive Cities argue, breaking the psychological barrier and changing mindsets are often the most crucial parts of the water recycling project. Indeed, as Singapore grapples with its resource issues and the formation of its public policies, effective communication with the population needs to be at the heart of any successful initiative like NEWater.