Water shortages and rationing in Singapore

by LCNA:Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore

Singapore is considered to be one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. It is heavily dependent on rainfall due to the lack of natural water resources, and limited land is available for water storage facilities.1 Prolonged dry spells cause or threaten to cause water shortages, the most recent being in 1990.2 Under severe conditions, water rationing was implemented; the last occasion was in 1963–64 though there have been mock water rationing exercises since then.3

Water shortages in pre-independence Singapore
Providing an adequate supply of water was a challenge during much of Singapore’s pre-independence history. Despite the completion of the Impounding Reservoir (later renamed MacRitchie Reservoir) in 1867 and its subsequent expansion, there was not enough supply to meet the increasing demand.4 The droughts of 1885, 1895 and 1902 put such severe pressure on water stocks that the municipal authorities restricted the water supply to as little as two hours a day.5

To meet growing demand, two more impounding reservoirs were built in Singapore and water schemes were developed in Johor to provide an additional source of supply.6 Still, there continued to be anxiety over water shortages during dry spells.7 The government began looking into developing new water sources in Johor in the 1940s, but their plans were interrupted by the Second World War. After the Japanese Occupation, Singapore faced another water crisis as consumption rose beyond the capacity of existing resources by 1946. To alleviate the situation, the government expanded the capacity of existing facilities and restarted efforts to import more water.8

Despite the progressive completion of these projects, Singapore’s water supply remained barely sufficient to meet consumption needs.9 Recognising the urgent need to develop new water sources, the government began developing major water schemes in Johor in the late 1950s.10 However, before these projects could be completed, severe droughts hit Singapore and Johor, forcing the government to impose water rationing in 1961 and 1963.11 Through radio broadcasts and newspapers, the public was also constantly reminded to save water and reduce wastage.12

Water rationing in 1961 and 1963
For the purpose of water rationing, Singapore was divided into seven zones. When water rationing was imposed on 1 September 1961, the water supply was cut off at fixed times every day, with each zone receiving no supply for six hours four times a week based on a predetermined schedule.13 With rainfall in January 1962, water rationing was lifted on 26 January.14 However, daily water rationing was imposed again on 23 April 1963, with the supply in each zone cut off for six hours four times a week.15 Seven days later, more severe restrictions were introduced, with the water supply cut off for 12 hours three times a week.16 This lasted almost nine months until the Public Utilities Board (PUB), which had been formed in May 1963, eased the restrictions in January 1964 after sustained heavy rainfall. Water rationing was finally lifted on 28 February 1964.17

Water situation in post-independence Singapore
The water supply from Johor was significantly increased with the completion of two new waterworks in 1965 and 1968.18 However, another dry spell in early 1971 led to warnings of water rationing again.19 The PUB appealed to the public to conserve water and promoted water-saving ideas such as bathing no more than once a day, putting a brick in the toilet cistern, and using buckets instead of hoses when washing vehicles. Posters were also put up in public places. Appeals were sent directly to consumers with high water usage, while all PUB bills incorporated the reminder, “Water is precious. Don’t waste it.”20 In addition, the PUB took legal action against those caught wasting water, an offence that carried a maximum fine of S$500.21 The campaign, now known as Singapore’s first “Water is Precious” campaign, succeeded in reducing water consumption, thus staving off water rationing.22 Since then, public education programmes have been a key component of Singapore’s water demand strategy.23



Author
Centre for Liveable Cities




References
1. PUB. (2016). Our water, our future. Singapore: PUB, p. 2. (Call no.: RSING 333.910095957 OUR); Tortajada, C., Joshi, Y.K., & Biswas, A.K. (2013). The Singapore water story: Sustainable development in an urban city-state. New York, NY: Routledge, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 363.61095957 TOR)
2.
Tortajada, C., Joshi, Y.K., & Biswas, A.K. (2013). The Singapore water story: Sustainable development in an urban city-state. New York, NY: Routledge, p. 117. (Call no.: RSING 363.61095957 TOR)
3.
Tan, Y. S., Lee, T. J., & Tan, K. (2009). Clean, green and blue: Singapore’s journey towards environmental and water sustainability. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, pp. 125–126. (Call no.: RSING 363.70095957 TAN)
4.
Tortajada, C., Joshi, Y.K., & Biswas, A.K. (2013). The Singapore water story: Sustainable development in an urban city-state. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 9–10. (Call no.: RSING 363.61095957 TOR); Yeoh, B.S.A. (2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 207. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO); Shorthand report of the Legislative Council. Singapore, 27th June, 1870. (1870, August 6). The Straits Times, pp. 2, 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5.
Presgrave, D. G. (1885, April 28). Municipal notice. The Straits Times, p. 4; Untitled. (1895, May 22). The Straits Maritime Journal and General News, p. 3; A water famine. (1902, September 4). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser Weekly Mail Edition, p. 145. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Singapore water supply. (1912, March 20). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yeoh, B. S. A. (c2003). Contesting space in colonial Singapore: Power relations and the urban built environment. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 181. (Call no.: RSING 307.76095957 YEO); Tortajada, C., Joshi, Y. K., & Biswas, A. K. (2013). The Singapore water story: Sustainable development in an urban city-state. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 10, 13–15, 18. (Call no.: RSING 363.61095957 TOR); Public Utilities Board. (1988). Singapore’s water supply. Singapore: Author. (Call no.: RSING 628.1095957 SIN)
7.
Singapore water supply. (1911, June 29). The Straits Times, p. 6; The water shortage. (1923, November 28). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), p. 5; Water shortage. (1926, April 17). The Straits Times, p. 9; The water supply. (1927, September 20). Malaya Tribune, p. 8; Our water supply. (1929, April 2). Malaya Tribune, p. 8; Prolonged drought. (1929, September 25). The Straits Times, p. 11; No water shortage in Singapore. (1935, February 12). Malaya Tribune, p. 12; Singapore’s $5,670,000 water supply project. (1940, May 21). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8.
Public Utilities Board. (1988). Singapore’s water supply. Singapore: Author, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 628.1095957 SIN); Big efforts to build up city’s water supply. (1946, May 30). The Straits Times, p. 3; Water rationing likely in Singapore. (1946, June 19). The Straits Times, p. 5; Public urged: ‘Save more water’. (1946, June 29). The Straits Times, p. 3; $40,000,000 waterworks extension. (1946, November 20). The Straits Times, p. 5; Water may be rationed in S’pore. (1947, January 10). The Straits Times, p. 3; Water economy needed in S’pore. (1947, March 23). The Straits Times, p. 3; Water plan: Start made. (1948, May 23). The Straits Times, p. 3; $3 million water scheme is approved. (1948, June 28). Malaya Tribune, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Singapore must still save water. (1947, September 28). The Straits Times, p. 3; Use of water ‘still rising’. (1948, April 10). The Singapore Free Press, p. 5; Water ration warning. (1949, April 29). The Straits Times, p. 1; Water rationing likely. (1949, June 27). The Singapore Free Press, p. 5; ‘Save water’ call to S’pore. (1950, February 14). The Singapore Free Press, p. 6; Rationed water in April? (1950, November 2). The Straits Times, p. 5; Singapore’s stocks of water are running dry. (1951, June 19). The Straits Times, p. 5; Singapore has 40 days’ water. (1951, November 15). The Straits Times, p. 7; Singapore’s water. (1953, September 10). The Straits Times, p. 6; Daily use of water in S’pore rose 4m. gals in year. (1954, November 25). The Singapore Free Press, p. 7; The big thirst. (1956, October 24). The Straits Times, p. 6; Water shortage. (1958, May 26). The Straits Times, p. 6; S’pore water consumption. (1959, November 26). The Singapore Free Press, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Water shortage. (1958, May 26). The Straits Times, p. 6; Sizeable drop in reservoir water levels. (1958, October 15). The Singapore Free Press, p. 5; Singapore water from the Johore River – big scheme. (1959, November 7). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1; Sam, J. (1961, September 3). $70 m. water plan. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Water rationing for Singapore. (1961, August 30). The Straits Times, p. 1; Rationing today – and an urgent appeal to ‘save water’. (1963, April 23). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Jalelah Abu Baker. (2014, March 5). When it didn't rain, you just queued up. Retrieved 2018, August 20 from AsiaOne website: http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/when-it-didnt-rain-you-just-queued
12. New ‘save water’ plea: The forecast is ‘no rain’. (1961, June 26). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1; Water rationing for Singapore. (1961, August 30). The Straits Times, p. 1; 4-hour downpour for Singapore. (1961, September 14). The Straits Times, p. 4; Water crisis. (1963, March 19). The Straits Times, p. 1; Rationing today – and an urgent appeal to ‘save water’. (1963, April 23). The Straits Times, p. 4; No water rationing for today. (1963, July 13). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Restrictions for 6-hour periods 4 times a week. (1961, August 31). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Ration: Cut to twice a week. (1962, January 6). The Straits Times, p. 1; Singapore ends water rationing. (1962, January 26). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. S’pore rations water. (1963, April 23). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Water: 12 hours off from today. (1963, April 30). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Hours of water rationing are cut to six. (1964, January 3). The Straits Times, p. 5; Water cuts now only three days a week. (1964, January 28). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Public Utilities Board of Singapore. (1965). Annual report of the Water Department 1964. Singapore: Public Utilities Board of Singapore, p. 1. (Call no.: RCLOS 628.1 SIN)
18. Fading fast – that fear of water rationing in S’pore. (1965, April 4). The Straits Times, p. 10; Lee, G. (1968, April 20). Sultan opens $30m. waterworks. The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. S’pore may introduce water rationing. (1971, May 4). The Straits Times, p. 7; These are the seven zones for the PUB water rationing scheme. (1971, May 9). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Public Utilities Board Singapore. (1972). Annual report of the Water Department 1971 [Microfilm: NL 9979]. Singapore: Public Utilities Board, p. 1.
20.
 Now PUB acts to cut garage water waste. (1971, May 13). New Nation, p. 1; Chia, P. (1971, May 13). ‘Don’t waste water’ plea gets good public response. The Straits Times, p. 1; Chia, P. (1971, May 14). Thank you and keep it up! The Straits Times, p. 1; Chia, P. (1971, May 15). Keep it up… The Straits Times, p. 1; Water use up again after three-day drop. (1971, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 4; Chia, P. (1971, June 9). Use of water stays below 100 million. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Chia, P. (1971, May 28). PUB warns of action against water waste. The Straits Times, p. 8; Wasting water: PUB officers act. (1971, May 30). The Straits Times, p. 1; First ‘waste water’ fine. (1971, June 5). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Tan, Y. S., Lee, T. J., & Tan, K. (2009). Clean, green and blue: Singapore’s journey towards environmental and water sustainability. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, pp. 260–261. (Call no.: RSING 363.70095957 TAN)
23. Tan, Y. S., Lee, T. J., & Tan, K. (2009). Clean, green and blue: Singapore’s journey towards environmental and water sustainability. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, pp. 257–258. (Call no.: RSING 363.70095957 TAN)


Further resources
51 schools have water all day at exams time. (1963, October 29). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Centre for Liveable Cities & Public Utilities Board. (2012). Water: From scarce resource to national asset. Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia.
(Call no.: RSING 333.91095957 WAT)

Cholera – so water rationing eased in city. (1963, December 4). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at February 2020 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.

Subject
Water-supply--Singapore--History
Water security--Singapore--History
Domestic policy (Water Resource Management)