Pee, poop and paani

Bharat Lal Seth recounts his experience of drinking water reclaimed from sewage

By Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Monday 19 September 2011

It is often said that if you see someone in the Lion City (Singa-pura) with oriental features and in good humour, he or she must be either a Filipino or a Filipina. The average Singaporean does not emote freely. They ensure their intentions are not misinterpreted; rarely do they smile, or acknowledge an unknown person. And often they are accused of being staid and boring, yet envied the world over as they strive for perfection on all counts. This clinical obsession is deep-rooted in their psyche and extends to how they look at water.

I'm pretty water-wonky, so during a visit to the city-state for a friend’s wedding, I couldn't resist dragging my betrothed, although, to her credit she came willingly, to a tourist Centre to sample water purified from shitty water or what the national water agency has branded as NEWater. No big deal, really; a wise man once said that water should not be judged by its history, but by its quality.

The NEWater Centre was inaugurated with much fanfare almost a decade back, as the then Prime Minister took a hearty gulp of the stuff after his game of tennis. Foreseeing the resistance to the concept of treating sewage for potable purposes, the Centre was opened to tourists. Nowadays four full-time staff members conduct tours, and educate 500 children each day in batches. Their aim is that every primary school student in Singapore must learn to value water early on by visiting the Centre at least once.

The tour begins as each person is handed a bottle of NEWater. I'm told 17 million such bottles have been handed out in the past decade or so. We gulped fearlessly, for the chaps at the Centre say they've had the stuff tested 65,000 times in various independent laboratories across the world. It is a tad bit salty since its purity comes close to that of distilled water. At present, 10 per cent of Singapore's water supply is reclaimed from sewage. In 2060, half their supply will be a derivative of wastewater.

The simple idea was that using water more than once, can multiply water supply by reducing freshwater abstraction, something they have little access to. The national water agency does not want to rely on Malaysia for water imports and hence is pursuing more expensive sources of water such as NEWater and desalinated water. Presently, imports account for 40 per cent of the total supply; the water agency aims to be self-reliant by 2060. Singapore is a land of no compromise, and NEWater is just one such example.

NEWater is ultimately purified thanks to a 0.04 micron ultra filtration membrane and a 0.0004 micron reverse osmosis membrane, which is 100,000 times thinner than human hair. The bacteria in water, if any, are then zapped with ultraviolet light.

But how are these technicalities explained to primary school students? The Centre has many interactive touch screens, which for instance compares a membrane to a wall and represents its pores as holes. Through the holes they show water molecules dressed as tennis balls squeezing through while anything larger is rejected. Contaminants are displayed by objects of varying sizes; estrogen endocrine disruptors are represented by a football, viruses are the size of trucks and bacteria the size of the Centre itself.

During the tour, you can walk through a curtain of membranes to get a feel of the stuff, and finally through a life-size replica of an ultraviolet chamber. You can even get a peep into the control room, which is staffed 24/7, 365 days a year. Every 8 hours, a sample is sent to a laboratory for testing. You can only marvel at the ingenuity of the man who designed the Centre. I recommend the tour to all public relation officers of government departments as a shining example of transparency.

Yet, in spite of this PR exercise, most of this water is not drunk by Singaporeans, or at least not directly. Most of the water is supplied to the technology manufacturing industry, which requires ultrapure water. The rest, around 5 per cent, is mixed into the water reservoirs and treated again before supply.

Insiders often feel the “ho-hah” associated with NEWater has been unnecessary. Water reuse is not a new idea and is common in countries where different communities share the use of a long river. In the United States and Europe this phenomenon, known as planned indirect potable use, where upstream communities use water, treat it and discharge it back into the river for use by communities downstream is very common. One of my professors at Oxford would often joke that the water we drink at Oxford has been through seven kidneys.

Although technically NEWater is not the same since rivers bring an element of dilution. India on the other hand is the land of unplanned indirect potable use. Agra for instance, along the Yamuna, is immediately downstream of Mathura's untreated flush, and therefore utility managers must heavily chlorinate and treat the water by hook or by crook. This is common in India since, and as my editor aptly puts it, we all live downstream.

The tour gets you thinking on these lines and possibly even gives the morning nature call a sense of duty. I'm told that in Singapore you can get fined for not flushing the toilet after use, although I'm not so sure how the authorities enforce this. So each time you haglo-bhaglo (flush and forget), in a sense you're discharging your duty and contributing to Singapore's water security.

The tour is fun and educative, and contrary to popular perceptions, the Singaporean guides have a great sense of humour. If you do decide to take the tour, remember that there is a free shuttle service from the Tanah Merah mass rapid transit station that takes you directly to the Centre. The tour and NEWater bottle souvenir too comes free. So if you're looking to keep it light on the wallet, it may be better then spending the afternoon lugging the missus' bags around Orchard Road.

Read also: Singapore taps its water


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