What Myanmar could learn from Singapore about urban water management
HERE is a vision of Yangon’s future. Its 17 reservoirs, fed by 8000 kilometres (5000 miles) of drains, rivers and canals, provide ample fresh water to residents, while also serving as boating lakes and beachfront attractions. Its sewers and gutters are cleared of garbage, its streets are never flooded no matter how hard it rains and water is drinkable straight from the tap, in the poorest homes in the city.
Sadly, Yangon’s present is nothing like this. The vision comes, in fact, from Singapore.
Our fellow ASEAN member, now so technically advanced, was not always so prosperous. Within living memory it too had floods, pollution and daily collections of night soil buckets.
As nowadays in Yangon, floods were common before Singapore’s independence in 1965, due to low-lying land, tropical monsoon rains and inadequate drainage infrastructure. But today, though short intense bursts of rain over small areas can still cause flash floods, these are localised and typically subside within an hour.
Singapore journalist Toh Yong Chuan, 47, grew up in the 1970s. “There was no sewer in the toilet. It was a bucket system. Once a day, we had to take the bucket to a truck that collected the buckets. When it rained, my responsibility was to collect water to wash clothes and the floor. Even today I still have that habit of collecting rain water. We use it to water the plants,” he said.
Since then, the government invested S$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) in drainage infrastructure.
“Drainage serves two purposes. One is for collecting water as a source of supply and the other is to convey water away as fast as possible to minimise flood risks,” said George Madhavan, director of the 3P Network Department of PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency.
PUB said careful land development planning, including setting aside drainage reserve and imposing platform levels, had helped bring about the change.
“We try to manage the rain at source, slowing the run-off or retaining some of it to reduce the loading onto the rivers, canals and drains. We try to improve them, deepen them and widen them where possible,” said Mr Madhavan.
Marina Barrage is one of Singapore’s success stories. In 1977, the city-state launched a 10-year project to clean up the Singapore River and Kallang Basin, which were heavily polluted. It required the development of housing, and sewage systems, as well as resettlement of squatters, industries and farmers and the phasing out of polluting activities along the river.
In 1978, shortly after the clean-up was completed, then-prime minster Lee Kuan Yew envisaged putting a dam across the Marina Channel to form a freshwater lake. The Marina Barrage and Marina Reservoir were completed in 2008.
Opened on October 31 that year, the Marina Barrage serves three functions: water supply, flood control and lifestyle attraction. Built across the mouth of the Marina Channel, Marina Barrage serves as Singapore’s 15th reservoir, and the first in the heart of the city.
In 2006, Singapore’s PUB launched the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Program to enhance water resources and remind residents how valuable these resources were.
“We look at our drainage system and identify areas where we can turn canals and drains into community space. Currently we have over 30 ABC Waters projects that are already completed. PUB, private developers and government agencies are working on the program. The whole idea is to make use of our water assets and turn them into environmental assets,” said Mr Madhavan, adding that the public plays an essential role in keeping the water bodies and environment clean.
“Most of us live, work or play in a water catchment. So it is important for us keep the catchment clean and not litter. We do a lot of outreach to educate the public on the importance of keeping the catchment clean and free of litter. We also stress the need for water conservation. We have the Friends of Water Programme, with 6000 members. There is a lot of work volunteers can do, such as organising activities, talks and clean-up at the water bodies,” he said.
Singapore made water supply improvement and enhancement of water quality look easy, though these are not easy tasks. Can Yangon do the same?
Aye Sapay Phyu was a participant in the Asia Journalism Fellowship, a threemonth program in Singapore run by Temasek Foundation International and Nanyang Technological University.
Singapore polytechnic students operate a “dengue-fighting” mini tank in a drain in Singapore. The remote-controlled machine dispenses insecticide at mosquito-breeding sites like drains and canals.