As Singaporeans, we take water for granted. There is hardly any question in that statement, in a country where water is clean enough to drink out from the tap. It is therefore, rather remarkable that in Singapore today, there exists a generation that knows the pains of dehydration and the need to have rationed, scrimped and saved every drop of water they could during a tumultuous world war some 70 years ago. Any reasonably educated student in our country would be aware of the fact that while approximately 71% of the Earth is covered with water, only 2.5% of this water is freshwater while the rest of it is trapped in rather inaccessible stores such as glaciers and groundwater. The constant need for freshwater to support population growth throughout human history has gradually given rise to the demand for technologies to tap on as much water as possible. The extent to which countries of high and low levels of development have been successful in such pursuits, however, has been markedly different.
In landlocked Less Developed Countries (LDCs), reliance on groundwater extraction remains high while access to freshwater from lakes or rivers is declining in reliability. However, the 2012 discovery by the British Geological Survey (Diagram 1) of a vast groundwater network in the aquifers beneath Africa, where 300 million people live in environments where potable water is hardly attainable, points towards the possible amelioration of conditions there. Thanks to technological advancements, the use of magnetic resonance sounding (MRS) can aid in identifying easily accessible aquifers from which groundwater can be extracted for human consumption and agricultural or industrial use. However, the complexity in this water management strategy arises chiefly from the fact that the huge demand for potable water in such areas would surely undermine the sustainability of groundwater resources since the extraction of groundwater can occur at a faster rate than at which it is recharged. Thankfully, strategies such as NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) can help authorities to closely monitor groundwater stores so as to manage them sustainably. Ultimately, the success of such modern technology in aiding LDCs to overcome water scarcity will depend on the financial feasibility of these methods coupled with political willpower on the part of national or regional authorities to manage their water resources pragmatically.
Diagram 1: A newly-mapped out view of aquifer productivity in Africa, a sign of groundwater supplies deep under the ground surface.
In Developed Countries (DCs), water scarcity is usually rarely ever a national issue than it is a regional or a seasonal one. This is attributable to the extensive usage and supply of water through modern irrigation methods and utility services that exist in DCs. This is, of course, largely unsurprising, given that DCs tend to be more financially capable to afford the infrastructure required for the reliable supply of clean water to homes and industries as a basic necessity. Nonetheless, DCs have had to rely on modern technology to solve the issue of water scarcity within their own borders. Singapore is no stranger to this challenge. With the anticipated increase in pressure for water supplies due to the impending expiration of an existing water agreement with Malaysia in 2061, Singapore has had to throttle forth to attain self-sufficiency at a greater pace. This is envisioned to be achieved through the continued development of reverse osmosis (NEWater) as one of the four integral National Taps (Diagram 2) to the extent that it will meet 55% of our water demand, up from the current 30%, by 2060. Simultaneously, an increase in the demand, from 10% today to 25% in 2060, to be met by the use of desalinated water as another National Tap will enable Singapore to make better use of the waters around our island-nation in our quest for self-sufficiency. Hence, while the availability of water in DCs is not as life-threatening as it is in LDCs today, some DCs such as Singapore have to continue to upgrade their diversified water resource usage to maintain self-sufficiency while, in time, other DCs that currently depend on large water bodies as their main sources of water may have to re-evaluate their reliance on these sources as climate change gradually but inevitably makes drying lakes and waning rivers an eventual reality.
Diagram 2: Singapore’s 4-pronged strategy for water self-sufficiency.
Water may be a basic necessity but the demand for water is always increasing. Naturally, we require gargantuan quantities of water for sustenance – for our burgeoning populations, for our growing industries, for the regulation of global atmospheric temperatures amongst other things. Perhaps, the only time we fear water is when it acts as a natural destructive force through crippling floods, hurricanes and drought. This dualism that exists in the ways in which water affects our survival puts us in a somewhat ironic position as we go about developing ways to conserve as much water as possible in a world that has more than all the water it needs but still needs to water down the challenges preventing people from getting enough of it.
Gleick, P.H., ed. (1993). Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s Freshwater Resources. Oxford University Press. p. 13, Table 2.1 “Water reserves on the earth”.
McGrath, M. (2012, April 20). ‘Huge’ water resource exists under Africa. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17775211
NASA. (2013, April 30). Missions – GRACE. Retrieved from http://science.nasa.gov/missions/grace/
Public Utilities Board (PUB). Government of Singapore, (2013). Our water, our future. Singapore.
World Health Organisation (WHO). United Nations, (2012). Global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking-water (GLAAS).