Why Singapore’s Marina Barrage inspires respect

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Water is one of Singapore’s most important resources. Without a vast land area (approximately 718 square kilometres supporting a population of about 5.5 million) and being surrounded by saline sea, the city-state needs to conserve all the freshwater it can harvest. Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has depended heavily on Malaysia for fresh water supply. Being the larger country in terms of land area and having access to fresh riverine water, Malaysia often used this power to arm-twist Singapore into submitting to a higher price regime. The city-state, which comprises 63 islands linked by enormous land reclamation projects, has been reducing its dependence on its neighbour by maintaining reservoirs and engineering high-tech water management solutions.

To a visitor, the vast stretch of water that is Marina Barrage appears to be little more than a playground and leisure spot. After all, it offers a stellar view of Marina Bay, with the leisure resort of Marina Bay Sands, the Float at Marina Bay and the Singapore Flyer. Don’t be misled by the picnicking families, anglers and kite-fliers. Marina Barrage is much more. It is Singapore’s fifteenth reservoir and its most ambitiously conceived technological solution to its water woes.

Singapore's Marina Barrage

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The Marina Barrage works in a most interesting way: it keeps seawater out. If that doesn’t sound impressive, it’s because building the barrage — construction began in 2005 and ended in 2008 — was only the icing on the cake. The more substantial task involved dredging and cleaning the five rivers that merge at Marina Bay. All of this was done at a stupendous cost of S$226 million. Today, the Marina Barrage prevents seawater and freshwater from mixing. It also acts as a flood barrier, allowing stormwater to flow back into the sea without threatening the surrounding low-lying areas such as Shenton Way and Chinatown. Marine fish species were pumped back into the sea when the barrage became operational. The freshwater was soon populated by freshwater species and introduced fish such as tilapia. If you are quiet and patient, you can even catch sight of Smooth-coated Otters that have returned to make their home in the river.

With the functioning of the Marina Barrage, Singapore has significantly reduced its dependence on water from Malaysia. At present, Malaysia supplies about 40% of Singapore’s water. The first of two water agreements between the two countries expired in 2011; the second is due to expire in 2061. That is the deadline that Singapore is racing to meet. The city-state already has a programme in place to convert waste-water to usable water under its Four National Taps system. Called NEWater, this ‘high grade reclaimed water’ (as defined by Singapore’s water management agency PUB) is purified using high-end membrane technology. It is safe to drink and is blended with reservoir water.

The Marina Reservoir encompasses an area equivalent to one-sixth the size of Singapore. It’s impossible to maintain such a system without safeguards to ensure that the water remains clean and unpolluted. And that’s where Singapore’s law enforcement system tightens its grip. The fine for violating acceptable effluent limits is a steep S$50,000. And that’s the first time. Repeat offenders will have to shell out twice that amount.

Here’s the trump card: By 2060, Singapore aims to be completely self-sufficient with regard to water. Remarkable, indeed.

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