The Inconspicuous Truth of Singapore’s Water: Cleaned rather than Clean

Exposed to the environment, Singapore’s waterways are prone to litter. Credit: Waterways Watch Society

A Four-Part Series on Water (Part 4: Cleaned Water in Singapore)

Introduction: Harnessing Cleaned Urban Waters

Singapore’s “City in a Garden” vision was met with anticipation and great expectation by the international community. This new vision marks a stepping up of its environmental sector from simply being a “Clean and Green City.” This vision also served to integrate water into Singapore’s green matrix, signifying the interconnectedness of nature. As the population grows in this land-scarce city, so does the need for both its greenery and water to be well integrated to ensure their sustainability.

Currently, Singapore continues to face challenges to its water supply due to its scarce land availability for water storage and the pressure to meet the huge domestic household (45% of Singapore’s water demand) and industrial demand of 430 million gallons of clean fresh water per day. Singapore has built a diversified water supply from four water sources known as the Four National Taps – 1) local catchments, 2) imported water, 3) NEWater and 4) desalinated water. However, to be more self-reliant, Singapore has to be less dependent on imported water.

Receiving a mean rainfall of 2,165.9mm per year, Singapore uses two-thirds of its land to collect urban stormwater, channelling it into the 17 reservoirs the city has today (with the aim of expanding its urban catchment to 90% of the island in the near future). Through its 8,000km interconnected waterway network, water channelled into reservoirs is subsequently treated and distributed to households. This makes Singapore one of the few countries in the world to harvest urban stormwater on a large scale for potable consumption.

Singapore: “Cleaned” rather than “Clean”

Notably, this urban waterway network passes through the island’s heartland as drains, canals and rivers. Exposed to the environment, these water channels are prone to litter, eventually polluting the reservoirs. Additionally, litter can create further issues when it clogs drains and canals. In 2018 alone, NEA issued around 39,000 fines for littering offenses (21.9% increase from 2017), and 2,600 Corrective Work Orders (CWOs) for repeated offenders (30% increase from 2017). In 2019 and 2020, Waterways Watch Society (WWS) collected 12,141 kg of trash from Marina Reservoir (one of the 17 reservoirs) during their clean-up programmes and patrols. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, besides traditional litter such as tin cans, plastic bottles and bags, disposable masks are now one of the most commonly collected. In the past three months alone (December 2020 to February 2021), WWS volunteers conducted 25 rounds of patrol, collecting more than 700kg of litter including more than 500 masks. Unfortunately, these figures do not include litter collected during our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Values-In-Action (VIA) programmes with schools and corporates which would reflect a more dire situation.

This certainly unveils the hidden fact: Singapore is a “cleaned city” rather than a “clean city.” En route to being a “cleaned city”, Singapore strictly enforced numerous laws and policies to regulate, govern and more importantly protect the environment. These include the Water Pollution Control and Drainage Act introduced in 1975, the Environmental Protection and Management Act 2008, the Environmental Public Health Act. Additionally, essential waste infrastructure such as traps and gratings were installed at drains, canals, and rivers. Regular dredging and drain maintenance were also conducted to prevent litter from blocking the waterways. Cleaners were also employed to clean the rivers and reservoirs daily. Disappointingly, even with the current efforts of manpower deployment (close to 70,000 cleaners) and a well-structured infrastructure, WWS volunteers still observe a lot of litter during their normal patrol rounds, especially in litter hotspots frequented by the general public. Eerily predicting such circumstances, the late Mr Lee Kwan Yew once said “The difficult part was getting the people to change their habits so that they behaved more like first world citizens.”

Lapse in Understanding among an Urban Population

Laws and regulations are ultimately meant to serve as deterrents for potential offenders. However, it is not enough to simply rely on laws and regulations nor is expanding more resources to clean Singapore’s waterways the way forward. The lack of awareness and concern towards protecting this vital source tap remains the crux of the matter; a vital issue the nation has to tackle. Therefore, a long-term, sustainable solution is to cultivate responsible civic behaviour without the need to rely heavily on enforcement.

Currently, there seems to be a significant lapse in understanding the various impacts of littering, more importantly, how it eventually affects the quality and sustainability of clean water. This lapse could be attributed to the urban population who have settled comfortably without the need to fret about water scarcity and sanitation problems. Therefore, the inconspicuous truth of Singapore being a “cleaned” city and not a “clean” city needs to be iterated regularly to its citizens.

“Zero-waste Nation” still a Distant Goal

Despite its inception in 2014, becoming a zero-waste nation is still a distant goal for Singapore to achieve. Singapore’s only landfill, the purpose-built trash island of Semakau is projected to be completely full by 2035 at the rapid rate it is filling up. In addition to the population’s high waste generation (even though there seems to be a declining trend), Singapore also faces a declining recycling rate even when the nation’s recycling initiatives have seemingly increased over the last two decades. In 2019, about 59% of the nation’s total waste was recycled, a 2% decline from 2018. In particular, the recycling rate from households further declined by 17% in 2019, reflecting a general passiveness from the public.

For Singapore to advance its recycling agenda, especially in residential households, it is imperative to increase public awareness and understanding of “Recycling Right”, the official slogan championing good recycling practices unveiled in 2019. As a start, it is crucial to guide Singaporeans on what can or cannot be recycled.

Hoping to benefit from a water-energy-waste nexus, Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) is considering the development of an Integrated Waste Management Facility (IWMF) to help Singapore meet its future waste management needs and achieve long term environmental sustainability. One worrying consideration is that the establishment of an IWMF could drive an intrinsic demand for waste. If so, would this not be at odds with Singapore’s objective of active recycling? Will becoming a zero-waste city impact energy production by the IWMF? The articulation of how the development of the IWMF is aligned with recycling efforts is thus crucial, and something every citizen should be mindful of.


Environmental education is a long-term investment; one which may be difficult to yield concrete results within a short period of time. Despite this, the difficulty in quantifying results and level of impact should not be taken as a legitimate reason or warrant for us to be less conscious about this prevailing issue. It is now timely to come together to move away from simply being “cleaned” to a truly clean nation. To achieve the vision of becoming a “City in a Garden” requires the cooperation and responsibility of every individual, to adopt strong civic-mindedness, rather than its reliance on the government and current regulations.

It is always easy to play the blame game when it boils down to the issue of undertaking responsibility, but what is more important, is always about being honest and frank about where we are, what needs to be done, and what we are doing now, as an individual, an organisation, a corporate, an industry, and a nation.

Part 1: Tackling Riverine Litter in Indonesia: All Contributions Matter

Part 2: Sustainable Water: Lessons from an Indonesian Community Forest in a “Barren Village”

Part 3: Valuing Water through Community Empowerment in Malaysia

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Goh Chia Chia is a volunteer of Waterways Watch Society. WWS is a special, independent environmental organisation established in 1998, with a mission to bring people together to love our waters and to inspire stewardship for our environment through education and volunteerism.

  • Ma YiYuan is a volunteer of Waterways Watch Society. WWS is a special, independent environmental organisation established in 1998, with a mission to bring people together to love our waters and to inspire stewardship for our environment through education and volunteerism.

  • Shanice Xinyi See is a volunteer of Waterways Watch Society. WWS is a special, independent environmental organisation established in 1998, with a mission to bring people together to love our waters and to inspire stewardship for our environment through education and volunteerism.

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