Singapore will ramp up its NEWater and desalination capacity such that by 2060 they will account for 80 per cent of Singapore’s water demand.

These targets had been set ahead of the expiry of Singapore’s second water agreement with Malaysia.

Malaysia has agreed to supply Singapore with water till 2061.

Speaking at the inaugural Water Conversation at the Singapore International Water Week on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained that the need to be self-sufficient in water has long been seen as a strategic necessity.

NEWater now meets 30 per cent of Singapore’s water needs and the target is to raise that to 50 per cent.

Desalinated water currently fulfils 10 per cent of demand, and capacity will be ramped up significantly when its second and largest desalination plant, located at Tuas, is operational by 2013.

During the dialogue, a participant said Singapore could be self-sufficient sooner, but Mr Lee said even so, the Water Agreement still stands.

Mr Lee said: “The water treaty is not just a matter of self-sufficiency; it’s an inviolate founding document of our republic.

“When we became independent, one of the terms of the independence was that both governments – the Malaysian and the Singaporean governments – guaranteed that Johor will supply water to us until 2061. That absolutely cannot be changed and I think we have to stick by that until 2061.”

Among countries, there are generally three schools of thought when it comes to the pricing of water.

Some think it should be free; others provide it heavily subsidised; and some, like Singapore, believe in the need to reflect its economic value – which is the cost of producing the next drop using desalination or NEWater techonologies, while directing subsidies to the low-income households.

It is estimated that these schemes, such as the U-Save rebates, more than cover the 3 per cent of income that households spend on water on average.

The PUB also imposes a conservation tax to reflect the need to use water wisely.

Beyond pricing, authorities also recognised the need for a mindset change.

“You almost have to make it a religion. So every drop of water counts, and even if it’s a lot of trouble to save this, and maybe you do the sums and it doesn’t quite add up, but I want you to have that in your mind, and to treat it as if it’s something very, very precious,” said Mr Lee.

Over time, water rates in Singapore have tripled, and now approximates its real cost.

Households now pay S$1.17 per cubic metre for the first 40 cubic metres a month; above that they pay S$1.40 per cubic metre, before taxes.

But Mr Lee said there was concern in the late 1990s over how the public would react.

PM Lee said: “I think one reason people accepted this was because at that time, regularly, there were reminders from various quarters in neighbouring countries that if we were not compliant, they would threaten to turn our water off. And therefore Singaporeans could see this and could understand that this was a national security issue.

“I don’t know that you can replicate that solution in other countries, and we have very good relations with our neighbours. But at that time that was the backdrop, and for the purposes of educating our citizens, it was not unhelpful.”

Across Asia, an estimated 1.8 billion people do not have access to clean and safe water, and some participants asked if Singapore could do more to help.

But Mr Lee said it can only do so much.

He said real change will come about only if these regional governments have the political will to act. CNA