When the price is right

SINGAPORE - "The day, water, sun, moon, night - I do not have to purchase these things with money" - Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 BC), Roman playwright.

While this was the situation in 200 BC, today in Singapore we pay for the water we use. With inflation and rising costs of almost everything in recent years, it is a comfort that the price of water has not increased. The cost of water supplied to households in Singapore has not changed since July 2000. However, is it possible for us to continue to enjoy high quality water at these rates?

In Global Water Intelligence's 2012 survey of water tariffs for 308 cities in 102 countries, Singapore's water tariff of US$1.68 (S$2.07) per cubic metre (based upon consumption of 15 cubic metres per month) was marginally lower than the global average of US$1.98 per cubic metre. However, Singapore's water tariff was one of the highest in Asia excluding Japan.

Water tariffs are only one side of the story. The other aspect is the cost of getting the water from the source to the tap and the waste water back from its source to the discharge point. This includes the cost of operating and maintaining the treatment plants, the storage of the water and the transportation of the water.

In the financial year that ended in March 2011, the cost to the Public Utilities Board of Singapore for the entire water and waste water system was S$1.3 billion. It was pointed out in Parliament last year that the collections from the water tariffs was not sufficient to cover this cost and drawing funds from the government coffers, which are largely tax revenue, was required.

However, we should not just be covering the cost of keeping the system running, but have surplus for other important tasks like investing in new technology, etc. Utilities should continue to carry out periodic maintenance and checks on the system, where possible automation should be used to achieve higher productivity gains with the goal of keeping costs down. Cost of energy is a key factor in water cost. It takes energy to treat water and to move water. Increasing energy prices will invariably have an impact on water costs. This is especially important for Singapore where energy intensive processes such as desalination and the production of NEWater from unconventional sources are increasingly being relied upon to meet our water needs.

To keep costs down, one option is to decentralise the water and waste-water treatment facilities in order to reduce the need for transporting the water to or from a centralised system. This would mean re-mapping our water and waste-water treatment facilities to ensure that the water travels the shortest distance from the source to the end point inclusive of distance to treatment plants. In addition, we could also consider building smaller capacity treatment plants that could be located nearer the point of use or discharge for water and wastewater respectively.

With Singapore's population projected to increase to approximately 6.9 million by 2030 and our second water agreement with Malaysia coming to an end in 2061, Singapore will definitely require more water to meet the new demand and subsequently need to treat a larger load of waste water. Strategies to cope with this would mean further increasing our catchment area, increasing our desalination and NEWater capacity and waste water treatment facilities. All this costs money.

There will always be arguments that water, which is critical to human life should be free or at least heavily subsidised. However, to ensure that a robust system can be put in place to provide high quality water sustainably, a fair tariff that balances the costs of the system and allow for future improvements should be practised.

Dr Gurdev Singh is head of water technology at the Environmental & Water Technology Centre of Innovation in Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

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