Will Singapore be the world’s hydro-hub?

As the first Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) drew to a close on June 27 this year, it was clear that the country’s efforts to position itself as the hydro-hub of the world were paying off. Singapore has always been a favourite stop for water practitioners around the region, who come to marvel at the desalination and water reuse facilities. With SIWW slated to take place every year, this trend is only going to gain further impetus.

Last year, at a public lecture, noted expert Dr Asit Biswas said that Singapore has a golden opportunity to become the water knowledge hub for the world, including focussing on applied research on water management and looking into future water problems and policies needed to solve them. “There is absolutely no reason why an established institution in Singapore should not become the pre-eminent global authority in the area of water policy and governance, which the world at present simply does not have,” he said.

He also called for a Davos-like summit to be held because “nothing similar to this event was held in the field of water anywhere in the world.”

Responding to Dr Biswas’s suggestion with alacrity, Singapore has established the Institute of Public Policy and roped in Asian Development Bank’s Principal Water and Urban Development Specialist, Dr K.E. Seetharam to become its first Director.

Also, from the past few years, Singapore has made conditions attractive for many companies such as Siemens Water Technologies, Black & Veatch, GE Water and Process Technologies, Nitto Denko and others to set up their global centres in the city-state.

The Water Leaders Summit held during SIWW this year was an effort to emulate the World Economic Forum in Davos. If one were to judge by the numbers of top bosses who attended, the summit was successful.

Yet, one wonders whether Singapore can be a role model for say New Delhi or Chennai or Bangkok or Jakarta. After all, “an institution can only be as efficient as its management and the staff that work for it, and the overall social, political and legal environment within which it operates,” says Cecilia Tortajada, author of a well-known paper on Singapore.

When Singapore decided to develop alternative sources of water such as desalination and reclaimed water, it only had to look around for the best technologies available, set up pilot facilities to test them and finally apply them full-scale. There were no political or financial roadblocks or public demonstrations. The solid foundation of good governance had already been set some decades ago. But for many Asian countries with their multi-party democracies, sloppy legal systems and culture of corruption, there is a lot of groundwork to be done before water management practices can work.

Therefore, as many experts point out, it is quite pointless to get delegations from various countries to simply observe the workings of the water treatment technologies in Singapore. Technologies can be bought off the shelf. The real cat needed to be belled first.

However, this is not to devalue Singapore’s potential to be the world’s water knowledge hub. By holding an event like SIWW, by facilitating water research and by raising the profile of water-related issues, the country is indeed benefitting a worthwhile cause, even while it itself benefits.

Undoubtedly, Singapore will continue to inspire the world for demonstrating what can be achieved when pragmatism is combined with political will.

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