Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme
The Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme was launched in 2006 by PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency, with two objectives in mind: to improve water quality, and enhance liveability. It aims to transform Singapore's canals, rivers and reservoirs into beautiful recreational spaces where people can be close to water and naturally become stewards of the waterways and waterbodies. As of June 2017, PUB has completed 36 ABC Waters projects across Singapore.1
Singapore has an extensive network of drains, canals, rivers, stormwater collection ponds, and reservoirs. Seen as essential infrastructure that served the critical functions of flood alleviation and water storage in the 1960s and 1970s, they were originally built only to be functional and efficient. By the late 1980s, having overcome the basic water challenges of the early years, the government began experimenting with the idea of beautifying these concrete canals, and integrating the waterways and waterbodies with urban development.2
In the 1980s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) developed a vision to re-naturalise Singapore’s waterways as a means to incorporate more greenery into the city.3 The Waterbodies Design Panel (WDP) was thus set up in 1989 as an advisory body within the government to evaluate and provide advice on the design and aesthetics of major waterways.4 It was the first coordinated, inter-agency effort by the government to beautify waterways and integrate them into Singapore’s urban landscape.5
Chaired by Liu Thai Ker, then Chief Executive Officer and Chief Planner of URA, WDP involved various other government agencies such as the Drainage Department, the Housing and Development Board (HDB), the Parks and Recreation Department, the Port of Singapore Authority (now PSA Corporation, and regulated by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore), and the Public Works Department (PWD). The panel also included representatives from private companies.6
The Concept Plan of 1991 further enshrined WDP's aim of incorporating waterbodies in urban planning. To achieve its vision of “a city within an island which balances work and play, culture and commerce: a city of beauty, character and grace, with nature, waterbodies and urban development weaved together”, the Concept Plan included a Green and Blue Plan to guide the development of nature areas within the urban landscape.7
During the 1990s, WDP completed a few demonstration projects, most notably in residential areas, where it showed the potential of beautified waterways and waterbodies in rejuvenating entire residential areas.8 For example, amidst the high-rise public housing of Pasir Ris, the panel ensured that Sungei Api Api became a scenic river lined with lush mangroves instead of a typical concrete canal.9 However, the lack of an institutional framework to concretise WDP as a long-term project eventually contributed to its demise after 10 years.10
Building up to the launch of the ABC Waters Programme
In 2001, PUB was reconstituted to become Singapore’s national water authority overseeing water supply, drainage, sewerage, and the entire water loop. This reorganisation facilitated the implementation of the ABC Waters Programme in later years.
The reorganisation of PUB was followed by other developments in the early 2000s that set the stage for the ABC Waters Programme.11 In 2002, the Parks and Waterbodies Plan was unveiled as part of the review of Singapore’s statutory land-use master plan. Spearheaded by URA, the plan aimed to enhance the living environment and create more recreational opportunities by capitalising on green spaces and waterbodies.12 The next major development was the opening up of reservoirs for water sports and other recreational activities in 2004.13 The success of this initiative propelled the move towards a large-scale master plan to harness the potential of waterways, culminating in the launch of the ABC Waters Programme by PUB in 2006.14
The ABC Waters Programme was developed to enhance the living environment, and to meet recreational needs of the people while improving water quality too.15 These ideas are encapsulated in the programme’s acronym, “ABC”:
- Active: Creating new recreational and community spaces while bringing people closer to water.
- Beautiful: Transforming concrete waterways into vibrant and picturesque waterscapes that are well integrated with the urban environment.
- Clean: Improving water quality through holistic management of our water resources and public education by fostering better people-water relationships.16
Given the national scale of the ABC Waters Programme, a master plan was drawn up to coordinate the efforts of the multiple agencies involved and ensure the overall success of the programme. The master plan divided Singapore into three distinct catchments: Western, Central and Eastern. Each catchment presented unique physical characteristics. For instance, the Western catchment had a predominantly industrial land use, while the Central and Eastern catchments were more commercial and residential respectively. PUB engaged three consultants, one for each area, to plan for ABC Waters sites in line with each catchment’s land-use characteristic and topography. The concepts drawn up by the consultants were then developed further by PUB with the help of other agencies, mainly to dovetail proposed ABC Waters projects with upcoming and existing developments by other agencies.17 In all, the ABC Waters master plan identified about 100 potential projects that could be implemented in phases by 2030.18
To raise awareness of the programme, PUB launched the ABC Waters Exhibition in 2007. Besides inviting the public to learn more about the programme, the six-day exhibition also unveiled plans for more than 20 upcoming ABC Waters projects. Exhibits were subsequently brought on a roadshow to be displayed at community centres and public libraries.19 The exhibition and roadshow were part of a larger public relations campaign to extend the reach of the programme to the masses.20
At the same time, PUB developed three demonstration projects to prove the feasibility of the ABC Waters Programme. The first two, at Kolam Ayer and Bedok Reservoir, were opened in 2008. The third project at MacRitchie Reservoir was completed in 2009.21 Showcasing the possibility of converting concrete canals into beautiful, recreational spaces while catering for drainage needs, these projects garnered political support for the programme and convinced the public of its potential. Obtaining the buy-in of the masses was crucial, as it was necessary to ensure that these spaces would be integrated into people’s everyday lives and give them a stake in keeping the waterways and waterbodies clean.22 To test the ability of specific ABC Waters design features to improve water quality, PUB also conducted pilots at selected locations between 2008 and 2010. For example, a rain garden was created in Balam Estate where land depressions were designed to cleanse rainwater runoff as it was filtered by vegetation and soil.23
Following the successful implementation of these early projects, PUB went on to launch some 30 ABC Waters sites island-wide, including Lower Seletar Reservoir, Rochor Canal, and Kallang River. The rejuvenation of Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park is hailed as the flagship project of the ABC Waters Programme. Opened in March 2012, the project entailed the transformation of a 2.7-kilometre stretch of Kallang River that ran in a canal along the edge of the park into a lush river meandering through the park. When the water level in the river is low, users can enjoy recreational activities along the banks. However, upon heavy rain, the parkland next to the river doubles up as a conveyance channel, carrying excess water downstream. The concrete canal walls were naturalised using bioengineering techniques. Plants and bedding materials were also used to stabilise the banks, and to create a natural habitat for native plants and animals. Butterflies, dragonflies, water hens, egrets, purple herons and smooth-coated otters have been sighted here.24
As of June 2017, 36 ABC Waters projects have been completed.25 In developing these projects, PUB worked closely with other agencies such as the National Parks Board (NParks), HDB and URA as they had to take into account various factors from a multi-disciplinary perspective, such as land-use plans, demographics, hydrology, as well as historical and cultural considerations.26
Beyond its own projects, PUB encourages organisations in the public and private sectors to adopt ABC Waters design features such as bioretention swales, rain gardens and wetlands in their developments. As an incentive, public agencies and private developers are recognised for their efforts through PUB’s ABC Waters Certification scheme and the Building and Construction Authority’s (BCA) Green Mark Scheme. The ABC Waters Certification scheme recognises organisations that holistically incorporate ABC Waters design features in their developments. Separately, organisations can obtain points for implementing such features under the Green Mark Scheme, where developments are awarded Green Mark ratings according to the total number of points accumulated.27
To help industry professionals in the technical aspects of implementing ABC Waters projects, PUB produced the ABC Waters Design Guidelines handbook, which was first launched in 2009.28 To entrench these planning principles and build up industry expertise in the design of these water features, PUB rolled out the ABC Waters Professional Programme in 2011 in collaboration with the Institution of Engineers Singapore, with additional support from the Singapore Institute of Landscape Architects, Singapore Institute of Architects, HDB, Land Transport Authority (LTA) and NParks.29
Since the launch of the ABC Waters Programme, PUB has involved local communities (schools, organisations and residents) as stakeholders in caring for the water sites. One initiative is the ABC Waters Learning Trails, which encourage primary and secondary school students to explore, discover and learn about the ABC Waters sites. Through the Our Waters Programme, schools and other members from the public, people and private sectors can even “adopt” waterways or reservoirs, and organise community events or develop sustainable projects at these sites. As of March 2017, over 320 partners have adopted ABC Waters sites.30
Benefits of the programme
While conventional drainage engineering generates high peak flows of stormwater and large amounts of land pollutants that wash into canals, ABC Waters design features can slow down and treat surface runoff, thus reducing flood risk and making water cleaner before it enters the waterways. In terms of land use, ABC Waters projects have improved efficiency by allowing traditionally mono-functional water infrastructure to perform multiple roles like recreation and water storage. By beautifying waterways and waterbodies, and making them accessible for all to enjoy, the ABC Waters Programme has also enhanced liveability. The ABC Waters sites not only improve the living environment visually, but also provide more opportunities for water-based recreation while serving as educational tools to increase the public’s awareness of water-related issues. These sites tend to be rich nodes of plant and animal life as well, thus contributing to Singapore’s biodiversity.31
Centre for Liveable Cities
1. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, The Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme: Water as an Environmental Asset (Singapore: Centre for Liveable Cities, 2017), 49.
2. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 3, 48.
3. Khoo Teng Chye, “City of Gardens and Water,” Urban Solutions no. 8 (February 2016), 56.
4. Tan Yong Soon, Lee Tung Jean and Karen Tan, Clean, Green and Blue: Singapore’s Journey Towards Environmental and Water Sustainability (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2009), 221. (Call no. RSING 363.70095957 TAN)
5. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 17.
6. Tan, Lee and Tan, Clean, Green and Blue, 221; Khoo, “City of Gardens and Water,” 58.
7. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 20.
8. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 18, 34.
9. Khoo, “City of Gardens and Water,” 57.
10. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 24; Khoo Teng Chye, “Interview with Centre for Liveable Cities” (unpublished transcript), 2 January 2011. (Accession number CLC/027/2015/001)
11. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 25–26.
12. Vivian Balakrishnan, “The Opening of the Parks & Waterbodies Plan and Identity Plan Exhibition” speech, URA Centre atrium, 23 July 2002, transcript, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 2002072302)
13. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 28; Ridzuan Ismail, “Enjoy Reservoir Space Responsibly,” Straits Times, 5 October 2017, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 28–30; “Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme” PUB, accessed 14 August 2019.
15. PUB, “Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme.”
16. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 4.
17. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 47; N. S. Tan, “Interview with Centre for Liveable Cities” (unpublished transcript), 14 December 2016. (Accession number CLC/027/2016/006)
18. Khoo Teng Chye, “More Can Be Done to Tap Water’s Potential as an Urban Asset,” Today, 28 March 2016, 11. (From NewspperSG)
19. Leong Wee Keat, “Paving the (Water)way for Singapore to Become More than a Garden City,” Today, 7 February 2007 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Lee Hsien Loong, “The Active, Beautiful and Green (ABC) Waters Exhibition,” speech, Asian Civilisation Museum, 6 February 2007, transcript, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 20070206997)
20. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 40, 77.
21. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 39, 89.
22. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 10, 38, 48; Y. G. Tan, “Interview with Centre for Liveable Cities” (unpublished transcript), 3 September 2016. (Accession number CLC/035/2016/019); K. G. Yap, “Interview with Centre for Liveable Cities” (unpublished transcript), 22 November 2016. (Accession number CLC/027/2016/005)
23. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 90.
24. Khoo, “More Can Be Done”; Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 56–58, 89.
25. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 49.
26. Yap, “Interview with Centre for Liveable Cities”; Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, 49.
27. PUB, Active Beautiful Clean Waters Design Guidelines, 3rd ed (Singapore: PUB, 2014), 6, 19, 36–38, 101; Tan, Lee and Tan, Clean, Green and Blue, 225–26.
28. PUB, Active Beautiful Clean Waters Design Guidelines, 5–6, 112.
29. PUB, Active Beautiful Clean Waters Design Guidelines, 71.
30. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, xvii, 37, 60, 71; PUB, Programmes & Resources for Primary Schools (Singapore: PUB, n.d.), 1; PUB, Programmes & Resources for Secondary Schools (Singapore: PUB, n.d.), 10.
31. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme, xvii, 3, 35, 49, 57, 61; Khoo Teng Chye, “City of Gardens and Water,” 56, 60.
Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore and Public Utilities Board, Singapore, Water: From Scarce Resource to National Asset (Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia, 2012). (Call no. RSING 333.91095957 WAT)
Lee Hsien Loong, “Nee Soon South Community Day 2010 Cum Opening of ABC Waters,” speech, Lower Seletar Reservoir, 27 June 2010, transcript, Prime Minister’s Office.
Tan Nguan Sen, “Revitalising Singapore’s Urban Waterscapes: Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme” Urban Solutions, no. 1 (July 2012)
The information in this article is valid as at August 2019 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.