When the rains returned, it might have washed away memories of the exceptional dry spell. But hold the celebrations. The dry weather affecting Singapore since mid-January set a new record when February became the driest month since 1869. The plain effects of that statistic, felt by both humans and nature, would serve a purpose if a lasting imprint is left on the constant need to conserve water.
Unfortunately, although plants were wilting and grass patches around Singapore's much vaunted city in a garden were turning brown and bare, water usage did not change much during the drought, prompting national water agency PUB to send reminders to 25,000 non-domestic customers, including town councils, commercial and industrial buildings, government buildings, and schools. It drew attention to cutting down on palpably high water use, from running water fountains to washing cars and irrigating plants. Hardly anyone would disagree that such activities are luxuries during a prolonged dry spell.
Saving water by fixing thimbles on taps and reusing non-drinking water are likely to become habitual if water is seen as being much more important than a mere commodity, whose usage is determined merely by the capacity of an individual or an organisation to pay for it. Water is a collective necessity and a strategic resource. In that spirit, Singapore's journey towards water sufficiency has gained pace with the introduction of recycled Newater, which adds to its other sources: treated seawater and rainwater, and the supply from Malaysia. But technology comes at a cost and consumes lots of energy. Essentially, Singapore is not self-sufficient and water insecurity will remain a reality, even if studies point to the prospect of viably tapping underground water.
Singaporeans are likely to forget this fact of life till nature intervenes occasionally to remind them. Given the El Nino threat, those interventions could well become more frequent and prolonged. Climate change experts are already pointing to the likelihood that extreme weather events will become increasingly common, with South-east Asia being especially hard hit. Every drop will become ever more precious.
On the political front, it does not help that global demand for water is projected to increase by about 55 per cent by 2050, leading possibly to social upheavals and even conflict between states over access to the scarce resource. Less dramatic but more immediate, the water rationing next door in Malaysia should help to make the complacent realise that emergencies can and do occur even in a well-endowed country. The dramatic decision by organisers to hold a dry Songkran water festival here next month will help drive this message home.
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