Water conservation in Singapore
As an island that lacks natural water resources and land for water storage facilities, Singapore is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.1 To overcome these limitations, the city-state employs a multipronged strategy to ensure a sustainable water supply. A key part of the strategy is the national water conservation campaigns spearheaded by the Public Utilities Board (PUB), which aim to inculcate water conservation awareness in the people of Singapore.2
First water conservation campaign
The first water conservation campaign was introduced in May 1971, at a time when Singapore was facing the threat of water rationing after a prolonged dry spell.3 Launched by then PUB chairman Lim Kim San, the campaign aimed to encourage the public to take voluntary actions to reduce water consumption so that water rationing could be averted. Some of the recommended actions included refraining from washing things under a running tap and reusing the water from washing for other purposes such as flushing the toilet, cleaning the floor and washing the windows.4
The campaign had a positive effect as the public responded by cutting down its daily water usage. This helped tide the country over the dry spell without the need for water rationing.5 To maintain the momentum, PUB continued to appeal to the public to conserve water. It 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. Appeals were also sent directly to consumers with high water usage, while all PUB bills incorporated the reminder, “Water is precious. Don’t waste it”.6 In addition, PUB began meting out fines to those caught wasting water.7
Subsequent water conservation campaigns
Following the success of the first water conservation campaign, the PUB decided to launch a second one in December 1972 to inculcate in the population that water was a precious commodity, and that water-saving habits should be a way of life rather than a short-term effort like reacting to a threat such as a dry spell or water rationing.8
To mark the start of the second campaign, PUB held the weeklong Water is Precious exhibition at the Victoria Memorial Hall. The exhibition highlighted water-related facts such as the water production process in Singapore, the rising trend of water consumption and the costs of water production on the island.9 Posters featuring water-saving tips and messages such as “Don’t wash your car like fighting a fire”, “Water is more precious than gold, silver and wealth” and “Water is our life” were also displayed in the exhibition. Some of these messages were conveyed using humour and cartoons – a first for PUB’s campaigns.10 After its run at the Victoria Memorial Hall, the exhibition became a travelling showcase in the heartlands. It was one of the main features of water conservation campaigns of the 1970s. The campaigns during the decade also saw water-saving messages being communicated to the public through various channels including the radio and television, as well as publicity materials such as posters, leaflets and stickers.11 In 1973, a mascot called Bobo the Water Saving Elephant was introduced. Besides appearing in advertisements for PUB, the mascot also had a television cartoon series that taught children to save water.12
In 1981, PUB formed the Water Conservation Unit, which enhanced the water-saving campaigns. Other than managing water demand, the unit also took on the task of educating the public on saving water. To do so, it organised school and public talks, visits to waterworks, as well as travelling exhibitions and creative competitions. Its water conservation messages were also woven into the school syllabus, and a water conservation course was introduced in secondary schools to help students understand Singapore’s water challenges.13 The main campaign was rebranded with the tagline “Let’s Not Waste Precious Water” and launched in 1981.14 The campaign was a regular fixture throughout the 1980s. Its water-saving messages – such as “Let’s Save Precious Water”, “Use Water Wisely” and “Turn it off. Don’t Use Water Like There’s No Tomorrow” – were pushed out to the public using attractive posters and other mass media tools.15
During the 1990s, PUB continued with the same strategies in its water conservation campaigns. Nationwide activities were also held to expand the reach of its campaigns. For instance, as part of the 1995 campaign, PUB conducted six water-rationing exercises islandwide. Involving households from some 20 constituencies, each daylong exercise saw the water supply of participating households disrupted for up to 14 hours.16 The aim of this unusual exercise was to allow the public to experience the difficulties and inconveniences of water shortage. It was thought that they would then learn about the value of water and take action to conserve it.17
Water conservation campaigns from the 2000s
In 2005, the water conservation campaign had a new mascot – a grinning blue water droplet known as Water Wally. The mascot helped PUB spread its water messages by reaching out to the masses, especially the young, on how everyone could play their part in water sustainability by conserving water and keeping the waterways clean.18
Armed with the new mascot, PUB continued its water conservation messages with its annual water-saving campaigns. It also began to diversify its messages to include other aspects such as the processes involved in making Singapore’s water clean and how the nation was able to diversify its water supply and achieve sustainability through the Four National Taps strategy.19
Throughout the 2000s, the water agency increased its online presence by posting videos, infographics and posts carrying water messages in social media channels such as YouTube and Facebook.20 To create more even platforms to engage the public, PUB launched Singapore World Water Day in 2008. Held annually on 22 March to coincide with the United Nations’ World Water Day, the event was filled with many activities such as roadshows, exhibitions, door-to-door engagements and games. Meanwhile, it continued to hold water conservation activities. In 2006, it launched the 10-litre challenge to encourage every individual to reduce daily water consumption by that amount.21 During the 2019 “Make Every Drop Count” water-saving campaign, the PUB, together with Better Trails, an outdoor recreation company, held a water-rationing camp at Marina Reservoir. The camp allowed families to experience surviving on only five litres of water for 12 hours overnight.22
Impact on water consumption
Since the launch of the first water conservation campaign in 1971, daily water consumption in Singapore households has been on a downward trend. In 1976, for instance, Singapore’s daily per capita domestic water consumption was about 263 litres.23 By 2010, this had dropped to conservation in Singapore 154 litres, before reaching 141 litres in 2019. The PUB’s target was to reduce the country’s daily per capita water consumption to 130 litres by 2030.24
While water conservation campaigns have played a part in reducing the country’s domestic daily water consumption, there were also other factors involved including the introduction of water-related schemes and awards such as the Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme, Water Closet Replacement Programme and the Water Efficiency Awards. These are in addition to a water pricing system that penalises households that use water excessively and incentivising others to cut back on their water usage by giving a discount on their water bill.25
Lim Tin Seng
1. Singapore. Public Utilities Board, Our Water, Our Future (Singapore: Public Utilities Board, 2016), 2. (Call no. RSING 333.910095957 OUR); Cecilia Tortajada, Yugal Joshi and Asit K. Biswas, The Singapore Water Story: Sustainable Development in an Urban City-State (NY: Routledge, 2013), 1. (Call no. RSING 363.61095957 TOR)
2. “Singapore Water Story,” PUB. Singapore’s National Water Agency, updated on 10 May 2021.
3. “S’pore May Introduce Water Rationing,” Straits Times, 4 May 1971, 7; “These are the Seven Zones for the PUB Water Rationing Scheme,” Straits Times, 9 May 1971, 7. (From NewspaperSG); Singapore. Water Department, Annual Report 1971 (Singapore: Public Utilities Board, 1972), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 628.1 SIN); PUB, Annual Report 2012/2013 (Singapore: PUB, (n.d.))
4. Poteik Chia, “A Reprieve – if you Help,” Straits Times, 12 May 1971, 1. (From NewspaperSG); PUB, Annual Report 2012/2013.
5. Poteik Chia, “Water: Three Records in Five Days,” Straits Times, 5 June 1971, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Now PUB Acts to Cut Garage Water Waste,” New Nation, 13 May 1971, 1; Poteik Chia, “‘Don’t Waste Water’ Plea Gets Good Public Response,” Straits Times, 13 May 1971, 1; Poteik Chia, “Thank You and Keep It Up!” Straits Times, 14 May 1971, 1; Poteik Chia, “Keep It Up…,” Straits Times, 15 May 1972, 1; “Water Use up Again After Three-Day Drop,” Straits Times, 3 June 1971, 4; Poteik Chia, “Use of Water Stays Below 100 Million,” Straits Times, 9 June 1971, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Poteik Chia, (1971, May 28). “PUB Warns of Action Against Water Waste,” Straits Times, 28 May 1971, 8; “Wasting Water: PUB Officers Act,” Straits Times, 30 May 1971, 1; “First ‘Waste Water’ Fine,” (1971, June 5). Straits Times, 5 June 1971, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Bill Campbell, “Every Precious Drop Counts: Long-Term Plan to Inculcate Water-Saving Habits,” Straits Times, 4 December 1972, 14; “Save Water Drive is a Success,” Straits Times, 11 November 1973, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Exhibition to Boost Save Water Campaign,” Straits Times, 28 November 1972, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Bill Campbell, “The Lighter Side of Save Water Campaign,” Straits Times, 28 November 1972, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Save Water Drive is a Success”; “Water Use Rises Despite Warning,” New Nation, 11 February 1976, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Amelia Teng, “Mascots and their Messages,” Straits Times, 1 October 2016, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Tan Yong Soon, Lee Tung Jean and Karen Tan, Clean, Green and Blue: Singapore’s Journey Towards Environment and Water Sustainability (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2009), 164–65. (Call no. RSING 363.70095957 TAN); Siau Ming En, “Price of Success? How S’pore’s Water Conservation Message Got Diluted,” Today, 11 March 2017, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Tortajada, Joshi and Biswas, The Singapore Water Story, 115–16.
15. PUB, Annual Report 2012/2013.
16. Tortajada, Joshi and Biswas, The Singapore Water Story, 119.
17. Yeo Cheow Tong, “The Launch of the National Save Water Campaign,” speech, 24 June 1995, transcript, Ministry of the Information and The Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore, document no. yct19950624s)
18. Navene Elangovan, “To Build a Strong Water-Saving Culture, S’pore Needs More than Recycled Messages,” Channel NewsAsia, 19 March 2019; “PUB Water Wally,” PUB, Singapore’s National Water last updated 11 November 2020.
19. “Four National Taps,” PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency, last updated 14 September 2021.
20. Elangovan, “To Build a Strong Water-Saving Culture”; “About SWWD,” PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency, last updated 23 November 2020.
21. Elangovan, “To Build a Strong Water-Saving Culture”; Tortajada, Joshi and Biswas, The Singapore Water Story, 1.
22. Elangovan, “To Build a Strong Water-Saving Culture.”
23. “Consumption of Water on the Rise in Singapore,” Straits Times, 27 February 1977, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Water: From Scarce Resource to National Asset (Singapore: Public Utilities Board, 2012), 22. (Call no. RSING 333.91095957 WAT); “Make Every Drop Count: Continuing Singapore’s Water Success,” PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency, press release, last updated 16 November 2020.
25. Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore, Water, 19–21; Siau, “Water Pricing Based on Household Size”; Tortajada, Joshi and Biswas, The Singapore Water Story, 92.
The information in this article is valid as at 26 April 2021 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.