Few consumer products foment as much controversy as bottled water. What was once only brought to homes and offices in giant blue jugs is now seen as a luxury item, a necessary convenience, or both. Despite the growing backlash, bottled water is here to stay, whether it is tap water bottled at a local beverage plant or hauled thousands of miles from a distant South Pacific island.
One new bottled water product that has occasionally appeared in Singapore, however, may not be so bad. Singapore, the uber-modern country that has witnessed envious economic development the past 50 years, has long faced issues securing a reliable supply of water. Water recycling in Singapore has its origins as far back as 1974, but only kicked into high gear in the late 1990s. The country’s first desalination plant opened in 2005, but cost is a huge issue. Recycling wastewater proved to be cheaper, and since 2003, Singapore’s national water agency (Public Utilities Board, or PUB) has provided the resulting ultra-clean water, which PUB calls NEWater to wafer fabrication plants and electronics manufacturers. Now NEWater is no longer relegated to industry.
Since 1961, Singapore imported drinking water for its now 5 million citizens from Malaysia. One of the contracts expired this year, and for political and economic reasons Singapore’s government did not renew either agreement. What was at one time 40% of the country’s drinking water, however, has got to come from somewhere, so now water from the tap will come from salvaged rainwater, desalination, and finally, NEWater.
Singapore’s transformation of what went down toilets and drains to reemerge as pure NEWater involves several steps. First the water runs through standard wastewater treatment facilities, and then is further purified via micro-filtration, reverse osmosis, and finally ultraviolet waves. Five different water treatment plants are scattered throughout Singapore, the most recent of which opened in May 2010. Meanwhile, Singapore also benefits from a maze of rain water catchments that also has also assisted the country to wean itself off of imported water.
NEWater now supplies about 30% of Singapore’s tap water, and it is also available at the NEWater Visitor Center. What ends up as distributed as bottled water is only handed out at community outreach events. Despite some rumors that state NEWater will appear on store shelves, for now, most Singaporeans will only see it gush out of faucets, mixed with other drinking water supplies. As for a few bottles passed out at events that promote awareness, that may not be such a bad idea. Singapore, always orderly and innovative, may be the best laboratory on the planet for a demonstration on how cities and countries can confront future water scarcity.