How to keep the taps running

How to keep the taps running

Many parts of the world are now facing droughts. These include cities in Australia, the United States and many in South-east Asia.

Last week, 15 provinces in north, north-east and central Thailand were officially declared to be under drought and receive emergency funding. Around mid-February, 37 out of 58 provinces of Vietnam were warned of higher risks due to forest fires because of dry conditions.

Malaysia and Indonesia are facing serious dry spells as well. Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Johor and Negri Sembilan have started water rationing for 3.6 million residents. Forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia have also led to hazy skies in the region, including Singapore.

While Singapore is also facing droughts like in many other places, it is at present comparatively in a much better situation. This is because it has developed over the years an exemplary urban water and wastewater management system, and unlike Australia and California, the city-state has very little agricultural activities. It is the agricultural sector that accounts for nearly 70 per cent of global water consumption.

Furthermore, Singapore has only one level of government and ministries and agencies have one common development goal. This, compared to other countries which have to deal with three levels of governments: central, state and municipal, make institutional coordination much easier in Singapore.

Floods versus droughts

In late 2011, when floods attracted protracted social, political and media attention, we expressed our views in these pages that Singapore should give more attention to droughts than floods. This is because Singapore already has a world-class flood management system. An average flood lasts less than 30 minutes, but a prolonged drought can continue for months, and even years.

Droughts are slow-building threats. Floods occur only in some specific flood-prone areas of a region but the effects of droughts can be felt across the entire country and often other countries. Floods usually inflict short-term pain whereas a prolonged drought, like the millennium drought in Australia from 1995 to 2012, has long-term economic and social implications.

While the present drought in Singapore has received much social, political and media attention, it cannot be compared to earlier similar historical events because its exact duration, severity and extent are still unknown. Also, each drought has different characteristics which makes inter-comparison very difficult.

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