Singapore: niche diplomacy through water expertise

Authors: Mely Caballero-Anthony and P. K. Hangzo, RSIS

Through strategic planning and investment in research and technology, strong political will, and effective governance, Singapore has emerged from water insecurity to become a global hydrohub.

It has built a robust and diversified range of water sources and has successfully addressed its water challenges in the process. As a result it has earned international recognition as a model city for water management. This has also led to a new direction in its water diplomacy, which is no longer centred on securing Singapore’s water supply from Malaysia.

Singapore has in recent years capitalised on its domain expertise in water management. In the process, its water diplomacy has taken on the character of ‘niche diplomacy’. The term was coined to describe how middle powers, through their ideas and positive international impression, can influence international issues regardless of their size and lack of military power. Singapore, in this context, has been able to turn its niche expertise in the management of an increasingly important resource — water — into an approach to diplomacy that has allowed it to enhance its regional and international standing and influence.

It has done this through sharing water expertise as well as humanitarian activities. Singapore’s growing expertise in water management has also enabled the country to set the agenda on a number of global water issues, including water standards, which remain a challenge worldwide.

In March 2012, the Technology and Water Quality Office of Singapore’s national water agency, the Public Utility Board (PUB), was designated World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for safe drinking water management and integrated urban water management. Under this arrangement, Singapore serves as the WHO’s regional policy research hub on relevant concerns, such as regulatory issues, water industry structure and water pricing. It will also conduct capacity-building activities and training courses for WHO member states, particularly those in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region.

Urban water security has become an important policy agenda in most countries. Cities in developing countries are under pressure to meet the burgeoning demand for water brought about by rapid economic and population growth. With the number of people living in urban areas projected to increase from 3.6 billion in 2011 to 6.3 billion by 2050, the situation is set to become more critical. However, it presents significant opportunities for Singapore to contribute to tackling global water security challenges.

There are already several Singaporean projects along these lines. For example, the Singapore Cooperation Enterprise (SCE) signed an agreement in 2011 with the government of Mauritius to assist it to develop a system capable of providing an uninterrupted supply of potable water, to reduce non-revenue water to a minimum, to improve the country’s Total Water Management system and to develop a plan to meet increasing and changing needs.

In June 2012 the SCE also signed an agreement with the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) in India to set up waste-water treatment plants to generate water for consumption. The program is co-funded by DJB and the Temasek Foundation, and will establish a water reclamation plant with 40 million gallons per day capacity. It is projected that this plant will benefit 3–4 million consumers.

The SCE and Temasek Foundation established a similar arrangement with the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewage Board (BWSSB) of the city of Bangalore in southern India. BWSSB officials would be trained to manage, operate and maintain recycle-and-reuse plants and would also help them develop strategies to raise public awareness and acceptance of recycled waste-water.

Singapore is increasingly integrating its water expertise into its response strategy for humanitarian emergencies in Southeast Asia. In the wake of the devastating floods in Thailand in 2011, which caused more than 800 deaths, PUB delivered water quality monitoring equipment to Thailand’s Metropolitan Waterworks Authority (MWA). PUB, together with industry partners, also provided training to MWA staff on risk assessment and water safety plan formulation, as well as laboratory services for the testing of water samples.

Other initiatives have involved tackling more chronic needs. Through the Water for Life project launched by the Singapore International Foundation in 2010, Singapore helped rural communities in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to gain access to clean water, providing some 2000 bio-sand filters to help reduce the incidence of water-borne diseases. This was followed by a similar project in Kampong Speu.

Singapore has made determined efforts to extend its water expertise beyond its shores. Its niche expertise in water has strengthened its ties with other states and increased its influence at the regional and international level.

Mely Caballero-Anthony is Associate Professor and Head of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

P. K. Hangzo is Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article was first published here in NTS Insight, and appeared here as RSIS Commentary No. 221/2012.

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