Relentless need to find, and save, water

Relentless need to find, and save, water

SINGAPORE - Like other countries exploring for underground water sources to secure future supply, Singapore is favoured by the balance of statistical probability. Fresh water trapped in aquifers - basically, underground lakes and river systems recharged with run-off filtered through permeable rock and sediment - is estimated by scientists to be 100 times greater than is found on Earth's surface. No region is by dint of geography or rainfall pattern likely or less likely to be thus blessed, only geological factors matter. Researchers at PUB think the Jurong rock structures are a promising area to drill.

So Singapore starts on an equal footing in the quest for gushers of the vital kind. Test wells will be sunk but the indicative depths of 10m to 20m are, in industry practice, merely scratching the surface. Aquifers reach deeper, about a mile down in the case of fossil water (sealed underground for a long time and sadly not replenishable). PUB obviously has to be realistic about the prospects. Exploration is costly and extracting the water more so, depending on the depth as water is heavy.

The biggest barrier is the built-up topography. Mining of aquifers lowers the water table, which could lead to serious land subsidence. This is why tapping of huge aquifers in West Asia, North Africa and the American Midwest occurs in mainly empty expanses of land. The activity would be unviable in Singapore, even catastrophic in a city of high-rises and underground transport networks, existing or planned.

But the PUB is right to think of aquifers - if discovered and of commercial size - as a reserve to be exploited in emergencies and if demand looks to be outstripping conventional supply. Population and industrial needs require viable options to be tried constantly besides the reverse osmosis and desalination, two undertakings which have reduced the nation's reliance on imported raw water.

There is little doubt underground water will before long acquire the same importance as reaching for oil and gas ever deeper down on land and under the seas. Israel receives one-third of its fresh water needs from aquifers in the occupied West Bank. Underground sources supply half of Saudi Arabia's household consumption and under Libya's desert sands rests the world's largest known fossil water deposit. What is demonstrated in Singapore by venturing boldly underground is the importance of treating water as a strategic resource, planning ahead of demand, and overcoming inherent limitations by thinking in unstereotyped ways.

Whether or not great reserves of water lie beneath, such efforts should not blunt the national need to always value and conserve water as it will never come easy.

This article was published on April 2 in The Straits Times.

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