Water Champion

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

Harry Seah: Making the Unthinkable Drinkable
July 2009

By Maria Christina Dueñas Knowledge Management Officer ABOUT THE CHAMPION
Mr. Harry Seah is the Director of the Technology and Water Quality Office of PUB Singapore, the national agency responsible for managing the country's water resources. PUB handles the collection and management of raw water, production and supply of drinking water, and collection, treatment and reclamation of used water. The Technology and Water Quality Office manages water quality and coordinates the research and development initiatives in PUB, among them on strategic fields of water technology, chemical and biological water quality, membrane technology, and seawater desalination. Before moving to his current unit, Mr. Seah devoted significant years to developing NEWater, Singapore's reclaimed water produced from used water and purified to drinking water standards. He was part of the 1998 NEWater study that assessed the potential of reclaimed water as a viable source of raw water for Singapore's needs. Next, he helped build and operate the NEWater demonstration plant, which showed that NEWater is safe and meets global drinking water standards. From there, he moved on to managing NEWater plants and the water reclamation plants that provide feedwater to them. Since its launch in 2003, NEWater has become one of Singapore's four water sources ("national taps").

What is NEWater? NEWater is Singapore's own brand of high-grade reclaimed water. We purify treated used water using advanced membrane technologies (microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection), in the process making it ultraclean and safe to drink. We supply NEWater to non-domestic sectors such as wafer fabrication parks, industrial estates, and commercial buildings for industrial and air-cooling purposes. A small percentage is also mixed with raw reservoir water before being treated at the waterworks as drinking water. How has NEWater impacted on the country's water situation? I'd say NEWater is a pillar of Singapore's water sustainability. Our country has no natural aquifers or groundwater. We used to rely on rainfall from catchments and raw water imported from the neighboring Johor state. Both, however, are subject to the vagaries of nature, leaving Singapore vulnerable. With NEWater, we are able to implement our robust and diversified water supply strategy-the Four National Taps, meaning water from local catchment, imported water, reclaimed water (NEWater) and desalinated water. With these four national taps in place, Singaporeans enjoy access to clean drinking water despite our natural constraints. In fact, the 4 operational NEWater plants can meet 15% of Singapore's water needs. When the fifth and largest plant becomes operational in 2010, NEWater would be capable of meeting 30% of Singapore's water needs.

How did the idea of NEWater evolve? In the 1970s, Singapore studied the feasibility of producing reclaimed water. While results indicated that reclaimed water was technically achievable, things couldn't go any further because of costly membranes and unreliable technology. By the 1990s, however, membrane technology has radically improved and the cost of membrane has dropped substantially. In 1998, PUB formed a water reclamation study team to test the latest proven membrane technology for water reuse. In 2000, a 10,000 m3/day full-scale demonstration plant was commissioned to undertake extensive full-scale plant studies. It tested the quality of reclaimed water and the technical capability and operational reliability of the membrane technology. The results removed doubts on NEWater as a viable and sustainable source of supply for Singapore. How do you ensure that NEWater is always of the highest quality? We benchmarked its quality against the WHO Drinking Water Guidelines and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Drinking Water Standards. Then we developed and implemented a comprehensive water sampling and analysis program involving the most advanced local and foreign water testing laboratories. We also formed an international panel of experts comprising renowned local and foreign experts in engineering, biomedical science, chemistry and water technology to provide independent advice on the water reclamation study and to evaluate the suitability of NEWater as a source of water for potable use. The test results and the plant operations were regularly audited and reviewed by the panel.

In all, more than 290 parameters and over 65,000 analyses have been carried out to-date, showing that NEWater has surpassed WHO requirements and is safe for drinking. How did you market NEWater to the people? An important part of the NEWater success story is its high public acceptance. But this didn't happen overnight. We had a long and extensive public education program done in various phases. Before NEWater's launch, we held extensive briefings for critical groups-community leaders, business communities, government agencies. We organized an educational tour for the media, bringing them to Europe and the United States to observe the various places where water reuse has been practiced for many years. We also produced a documentary on the technology of NEWater and the water reuse experience of other countries, which we televised. An independent survey by Forbes Research at the end of 2002 showed that NEWater had garnered a 98% acceptance rate, with 82% of respondents indicating that they would drink NEWater directly and another 16% saying they would drink it mixed with reservoir water. How do you sustain people's acceptance of NEWater? We set up the NEWater Visitor Centre in early 2003 to give visitors a glimpse of the philosophies and practices that go into producing NEWater. Since then, we've had more than 700,000 visitors. The Center was even named Best Sightseeing/Leisure/Educational Program at the 2005 Singapore Tourism Awards and given the International Water Association's Marketing and Communication Award for School Information Program. PUB has also been distributing bottled NEWater to encourage public sampling. To countries interested in water reuse, what lessons can you share about NEWater? NEWater is the product of years of investment in used water infrastructure and research on water technologies. Countries interested in water reuse on a municipal scale would need to have a comprehensive used water infrastructure in place. Correctly pricing the reclaimed water is also crucial for the reuse program's long term financial sustainability.

Do you think this technology will be easily adaptable to other water-scarce communities? Yes, but technology is only one aspect of the whole setup. You also need good infrastructure, proper management of water, and technically competent staff. Are there aspects of the NEWater that you want to improve? We want to keep costs low and affordable through operation and treatment efficiency. I think technology would be our best weapon for doing this. Case in point, by using membrane bioreactors (MBR), not only do we use less energy, which means lower costs, but we also achieve better quality NEWater. What insights can you share regarding your involvement with NEWater? First is the importance not just of being able to collect and treat every drop of water used, but of doing it properly. That would mean safety for the users, economic and efficiency gains for the operators, and protection for the environment. Next, I would highlight the need to translate complex technical jargon into terms that are easily understood by the public. Acceptance, which is crucial to such projects, will not come without this understanding. RELATED LINK
NEWater: From Sewage to Safe

_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in July 2009: http://www.adb.org/Water/Champions/2009/harry-seah.asp. The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB’s developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.