In Singapore, there is water everywhere and, belying the old adage, almost every drop can be drunk. Much of Singapore's water falls from the sky. Stand outside in the afternoon, when dark thunderclouds usually roll by, and you will probably get drenched. An average of 7.9 ft. of rain falls on Singapore annually, nearly 2½ times the global average. Moreover, this small, chestnut-shaped, 268-sq.-mi. island is surrounded by water, albeit the salty kind.
Hot, equatorial, but with limited groundwater, Singapore has made itself a global paragon of water conservation by harvesting--and reusing--the aqueous bounty of its skies and, to a lesser extent, its surrounding seas. "It is an exemplary model of integrated water management," said Lars Gunnarsson of the Stockholm International Water Institute in the citation given to Singapore's national water agency when it won the 2007 Stockholm Water Industry Award. "The story would fit well as a study example in the education of water managers."
Water is chronically in short supply in the world's megacities. In the arid Western U.S., cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix are in constant legal scrapes over access to the stuff, and there are strict rules for homeowners about usage. By 2025, 1 in 2 Africans could face water scarcity, leading to potential water wars between countries. Chronic shortages are also expected in Asia. And groundwater supplies in three of India's most productive agrarian states are rapidly shrinking.
Singapore's success story, like many happy ones, began in struggle. "When you have your back against the wall, you come out fighting," says Sam Ong, deputy CEO of Hyflux, a Singapore-based water-treatment company. "That's how Singapore is with water." The fight dates back to several old water agreements with Malaysia, the country Singapore acrimoniously broke away from in 1965--which ensured that as of Singapore's independence, 80% of its freshwater supply came from Malaysia through fat steel pipes across a causeway. Yet soon after Singapore signed the agreements over the course of 1961 and 1962, it began formulating Plan B. Fearing that its erstwhile master would use water as a "lever of pressure," as Singapore's first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, put it in his memoirs, the country has searched for more than 40 years for ways to wean itself off foreign water.
It has succeeded. Even though roughly 40% of the country's freshwater still comes from Malaysia, by building a sophisticated network of rivulets, storm drains and canals, Singapore has made itself into a vast catchment area for the thundershowers that regularly soak it. "We are a large-scale urban storm harvester" is how Khoo Teng Chye, chief executive of Singapore's PUB (formerly known as Public Utilities Board), puts it. "We do not have any groundwater, but we do get a lot of rain," Khoo says. "That was the starting point of our efforts."