United Nations Environment Programme

The Singapore story

Environmental achievements of this nation-state over the past five decades
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Singapore is diversifying its water supplies by expanding its catchment areas and securing drought-resilient supplies through investment in high-grade water reclamation and desalination.

Singapore has come a long way in its journey towards sustainability. In the 1960s, Singapore was like any other developing country of that time – dirty and polluted, lacking proper sanitation and facing high unemployment. These challenges were more acute for Singapore given our constraints as a small island city-state with no natural resources.

The imperative of a clean and green Singapore was recognised early on by Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He believed that “a blighted urban jungle of concrete destroys the human spirit” and that “we need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits”. In 1963, Mr Lee planted the first tree to kickstart the national effort for tree planting. Today, almost 50 per cent of Singapore is covered by greenery, with about 3 million trees in our streetscapes, parks and residential areas.

Besides our early efforts to green the country, we also shifted pollutive industries away from residential areas and made new laws against pollution. As a young nation that needed to attract industries and secure economic growth, our leaders were committed to ensuring that the environment was not compromised in the pursuit of rapid industrialisation.

One of our largest transformations involved the Singapore River, which was literally an open sewer in the early days. The cleanup of the river was an enormous endeavour that required the efforts of numerous agencies. It involved the relocation of thousands of street hawkers, squatters and pollutive industries such as pig farms, and the removal of over 250 tons of rubbish accumulated in the river and its banks. The cleanup took 10 years, and when it was completed in 1987, the water was finally clean enough for fish and other aquatic life to return.

It was, however, not enough to simply clean up the Singapore River; we made bold plans to transform the riverine stretch into an attractive waterfront promenade. The successful cleanup also set in motion a process to create a reservoir in the heart of the city. By damming the mouth of the Marina channel, the Marina Barrage, completed in 2009, offers the triple benefits of water supply, flood control, and a place for recreation.

Driven by our vision to make Singapore a ‘City of Gardens and Water’, we launched the Active, Beautiful, Clean (ABC) Waters Programme in 2006 to transform utilitarian drains into attractive waterways, bring people closer to water, and improve runoff quality using green cleansing features. Our waters have become a part of ‘home’ that Singaporeans enjoy and cherish.

As a small island with limited land for water storage, Singapore needed to diversify our water sources. Apart from water import, we expanded our local catchment areas to capture as much rainwater as possible, and invested in drought-resilient sources, namely NEWater - high-grade reclaimed water produced from treated used water that is further purified using advanced membrane technologies and ultra-violet disinfection, making it ultra-clean and safe to drink - and desalinated water. We also planned water infrastructure well ahead of demand. For example, we are now building Phase 2 of our Deep Tunnel Sewerage System that will meet Singapore’s needs for the next 100 years.

Given our dense urban development and large industrial base, maintaining good air quality is another top priority for Singapore. To ensure good air quality, we have implemented strict enforcement programmes and air quality monitoring since the 1970s. Over the years, we have shifted from the use of fuel oil to natural gas in our power plants, mandated the use of near sulphur-free diesel for vehicles, and regularly tightened our emissions standards. As a result, Singapore today enjoys a high standard of air quality.
Singapore has also made great strides in building an effective waste management system and aims to become a ‘Zero Waste’ nation. In 1979, we built our first waste-to-energy plant, where waste is incinerated to generate energy. Today, about 37 per cent of waste generated in Singapore is incinerated at four ‘waste-to-energy’ plants and most of the remaining waste is recycled. We aim to achieve a national recycling rate of 70 per cent by 2030. The ash generated from the incineration process and non-incinerable waste is disposed at our offshore Semakau Landfill. The landfill not only meets our waste disposal needs, but also supports a thriving ecosystem with rich biodiversity. It is a good example of how countries can pursue environmental protection in tandem with development goals.

As part of plans for a ‘car-lite’ Singapore and to further reduce our carbon footprint, we are investing heavily in our rail network, bus services, and supporting infrastructure such as sheltered walkways and cycling paths. Electric car-sharing is being trialled alongside a state-of-the-art GPS-based Electronic Road Pricing system to regulate car usage.

To appreciate Singapore’s transformation, we have distilled our urban development journey into the Liveability Framework. The Framework has three policy outcomes that have been constant in how Singapore has envisioned liveability. They are: a competitive economy that attracts investments and provides jobs; a sustainable environment that helps the city thrive despite limited natural resources, especially land and fresh water; and a high quality of life that benefits people. These outcomes are built on the twin foundations of integrated master planning and development, and dynamic urban governance.

Integrated master planning means planning for the long term, while retaining the flexibility to review plans as needs change. Dynamic urban governance means leading with vision and pragmatism, underpinned by a culture of integrity in the public service, and strong institutions with well thought-out systems and processes. It is also important that government agencies engage the public and community groups, giving everyone a stake in their country’s long-term good. With these principles, we have made many environmental achievements over the last five decades and they have helped to make Singapore an endearing home.

As we work towards our vision of a liveable and sustainable home, we also need to exchange knowledge and share experiences with others, within and outside Singapore. International conferences - such as the World Cities Summit, the Singapore International Water Week and the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore - are useful for this knowledge-sharing. As a responsible global citizen, Singapore supports international efforts, including those by the United Nations, to chart a sustainable development pathway for the world.

Singapore today is the result of visionary leadership, careful long-term planning and resolute execution by our forefathers. To chart the next phase of our sustainable development till 2030 we have developed a Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015 that outlines our national vision and plans for an even more liveable and sustainable Singapore. Collective action and commitment are central to securing the vision laid out in the blueprint and we will continue to encourage greater stewardship over the environment, where it becomes second nature for everyone to care for our common spaces.

Our journey towards sustainability is a challenging one. Together, we can build more liveable and sustainable cities for present and future generations.