Transform drains into rivers says Singapore

On a pleasant morning by the river, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined plans to transform the waterways of the island nation. The country has made news in the past for its advancements in water reclamation and desalination. NEWater has become a brand name associated with Singapore. In what is considered a ringing endorsement of Singapore’s policies, drought-ridden Australia is planning to follow the NEWater model to produce drinking water for its citizens. 

What’s new this time is Singapore’s plan to turn utilitarian infrastructural assets such as drains, canals and reservoirs into beautiful and clean streams, rivers and lakes that are open for the public to enjoy. Until now, many of the country’s 14 reservoirs were protected areas and bore signs such as “No Fishing” and water sports were unheard-of. “Now, we will bring people closer to water so that they will enjoy and cherish it more,” said Mr Lee.  Two years back, the construction of Marina Barrage was started – a S$226 million project to build a barrier across the Marina Channel and create Singapore’s 15th reservoir in the heart of the city. This reservoir will help to increase the catchment area from half to two-thirds of Singapore by 2009. The barrage will also help to alleviate flooding in the low-lying areas of the city. But what Singaporeans really look forward to is the chance to engage in sports such as kayaking, water surfing and boating in the new water bodies being created. 

The concrete-lined canals of Singapore are about to make way for a softer look with grassy embankments and landscaped features. Water curtains, artificially created rivulets, fountains and footbridges will be created to enable residents to touch and play with water. “Native plant species will be re-introduced along the river, as an extension of the nearby nature reserves,” said Mr Lee. The Prime Minister urged the citizens to keep litter out of the waterways in order to enjoy the benefits of living near waterfronts. 

An interesting feature to watch out for is the re-circulating of water from downstream to upstream of major rivers in order to prevent stagnation and to enhance the aesthetics of the waterscape. 

It is perhaps ironic to observe that in most Asian countries, major rivers are turning into sewers carrying foul industrial and municipal wastes. Once-beautiful rivers such as the Yamuna in India on the banks of which kings built several monuments including the Taj Mahal are now decaying, dead rivers. Among China’s seven major rivers, five are seriously polluted. Little attempt has been made in these countries to transform the river banks into clean, green recreational spaces. 

Yet, here in Singapore where there are no rivers in the strict sense, they are being created. Unlike India’s Ganga or China’s Yang-Tse, which originate from icy glaciers and get a perennial supply of water, here the rivers are actually backwaters – intrusions of the seawater into land. But the country is making the most of whatever it has. 

Nowhere are rivers worshipped and included in traditions as much as in the Buddhist and Hindu cultures of Asia. It is a paradox that the rivers in these very cultures are suffering the worst of urban excesses. It is time to reclaim these rivers from the sewers. When Singapore can turn its drains into rivers, why can’t other countries let their rivers remain rivers?

2 thoughts on “Transform drains into rivers says Singapore

  1. It is not true that ‘little attempt’ has been made in countries like India to clean up mighty rivers like Yamuna and Ganges. In fact, these attempts have been made on a national level by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, GoI. However, it is true that these attempts have not been very successful. Till recent past, the main reason for lack of success was paucity of funds. The work done to date in River Action Plans (GAP / YAP) was to buid STPs by the funds loaned to GoI by JBIC.
    The STPs have not been very effective in contaning pollution as the towns where these were built do not have proper sewerage systems. Surprised? The STPs were built to treat the dry weather (basically sewage) flowing in storm water drains. Sewage was being discharged in these drains as the towns lack a piped sewerage system in most of the areas. In the areas which have a piped sewerage system, the sewers are old, hydraulically overloaded and more often than not, choked with silt. The local agencies take the easy way out breaking the manholes / pipes and letting the sewage flow into the nearest drain. We have observed this situation in all towns of UP, Haryana and even in Delhi.
    Why are these sewers not rehabilitated / upgraded? Because funding under the River Action Plans was not sufficient to fund both the STPs and the sewerage systems. It is easier to build STPs, more convenient for administrators and politicians to ‘inaugurate’ these plants and claim that action is being taken to clean up the rivers. It is so difficult to take credit for pipes which get buried under the ground before they are commissioned.
    Moreover, in most of the states, ; laying laterals was the State Government’s responsibility. Central Governement funding was available only for construction of trunks and treatment plants. As laying of sewerage systems was not high on the priority list of financially starved State Governments, this turned out to be a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.
    As of now Central Government has started the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission, under which funds are being given as grants / loans to State Governments for modernisation of urban infrastructure. So hopefully, things will change for the better.
    Another aspect which needs to change is the unsatisfactory O&M practices in the STPs, costing millions of Rupees, which have been built under the programmes. Due to various reasons, these are not treating wastewater to the designed discharged standards. This aspect needs urgent attention.

  2. Hi Amita, what you are saying is that attempts have been made to clean up the Yamuna and Ganga but they have been totally ineffective. When I said “little attempt”, I meant little of a genuine attempt, not just seeming to have made an attempt..but I guess there’s no point splitting hairs over this expression.

    It is so surprising that WWTPs are being built without first building proper sewer systems. Rs 15 billion have been spent in the first phase of Yamuna Action Plan, all to no avail! I am told that only 15% of the 130 km turnk sewers are in order. 17 WWTPs can only treat half the sewage produced, which in turn covers only 60% of the population in Delhi. Thanks to problems of operation, only 60% of the capacity of the existing treatment plants is used. The end result is that less than 20% of the pollution load into Yamuna is treated.

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