California is in the midst of a record-setting drought, which includes the lowest precipitation for any 12-month period, the highest annual temperature, and the most extreme drought indicators in more than 100 years of record.1 For the first time in 75 years, the California Department of Water Resources found no snow on the Philips snow course in Sierra Nevada and traditionally, snowpack is at its peak in early April each year. However, the snowpack measurements from April 1st, 2015, indicated that snowpack had less water content than on any other April 1st since 1950.2 Low snowpack suggests that cities and farmers will potentially face a water shortfall in the summer of 2015.3

In addition to the low snowpack, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, El Niño has arrived, but is likely too late and too weak to provide much relief for California.4 Traditionally, snowpack and precipitation provide adequate support to bolster reservoir levels. However, with 2015’s low snowpack and precipitation, reservoir levels may not meet supply needs. While the 2015 reservoir levels are higher than they were in 2014, the levels are still far below the historical average.2 As water shortages have increased, permitted water allocations continue to exceed the average renewable supply in numerous major river basins across the state.

In addition, Stanford researchers have found that the risk of severe drought in California has increased due to persistently warm conditions induced by human-caused global warming. Therefore, there is strong evidence that climate change is currently having an impact on California by increasing the likelihood of conditions that have historically led to severe drought.1 As a result, these water conditions could represent the “new normal” for California.

How does the public sector address the “new normal” of increasing water scarcity through innovative technology and policies? An example from Singapore illustrates one approach.

A Comprehensive Approach

Innovation is coming from an increasing number of organizations, innovation hubs and countries committed to addressing their local needs and exporting technologies as a business opportunity. Singapore is one example of how a country not only focused on addressing their own water issues but built a water technology export industry.

Singapore has emerged as a leader in developing innovative technologies in the water industry and establishing itself as a catalyst for collaboration in water innovation.6 The 45-year journey by Singapore in sustainable development and becoming a global leader on water practices and technologies is chronicled in The Singapore Water Story.7

Singapore’s relentless drive for water self-sufficiency in an urban context has shaped its development policies and agendas over the years, and continues to do so. The city-state made a very deliberate effort to address water scarcity and become a leader in addressing key water industry issues. The government created a comprehensive environmental management system, including water supply, control of river pollution, establishment of well-planned industrial areas, and a world-class urban sanitation system as the starting point. This became the foundation for their goal of creating a “sustainable water supply” for the island country.

A cornerstone to Singapore’s approach to water stewardship is what the Public Utilities Board (PUB) terms its “Four Taps Strategy.” The four taps are: water reclamation, desalination, water efficiency and importation (from Malaysia). This strategy captures current thinking on source diversification, with water reclamation and desalination as newer innovations.

“Tapping” Into Water Technologies

Singapore’s water reclamation strategy entails using membrane ultra-filtration, reverse osmosis and UV treatment to recycle water and successfully integrate it into the national water supply, initially for non-potable uses, and then blended with reservoir water for potable purposes. Reclaimed water is marketed as “NEWwater.” Singapore has a total of five PUB-built plants that meet 30 percent of the state’s water demand. By 2060 NEWater is projected to meet 50 percent of water demand. Singapore has taken recycled water a step further, selling bottled NEWater to increase consumer confidence in recycled water.

Singapore is also investing in desalination, its fourth “tap.” Opened in 2005, the SingSpring SWRO plant is Singapore’s first desalination facility, and one of the most energy efficient in the world. Water was priced at $0.48 per cubic meter, which was a record low for desalinated seawater when the plant opened. This plant has the capacity to produce approximately 136 million liters a day, which represents approximately 10 percent of the national water requirement.

For Singapore, water is not just a strategic risk; it is also a business opportunity. The country is promoting the development of water technology: Nanyang Technological University has three water-related research units, and Singapore’s water industry now counts more than 50 firms winning international contracts based on their water know-how.

Becoming a Center of Excellence

Most importantly, the country wants to be a hub for water innovation. To that end, in 2004 The Ministry for the Environment and Water Resources, the Singapore Water Association (SWA), and Water Network established a center for water excellence known as the “WaterHub.” The WaterHub, intended to be a strategic platform for the Singapore PUB and the national water industry, is focused on technology, learning, and networking to build a sustainable water industry in Singapore.8

A key alliance of the WaterHub is the Environment & Water Program Office (EWI), which was established in 2006 by Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2015 Singapore’s water industry is expected to contribute $1.2 billion to the country’s GDP and 11,000 new jobs, creating a global center of water industry expertise.9

The goal of the WaterHub and Singapore’s PUB Technology and Water Quality Office (TWQO) is to become a water research and development incubator center for the emerging water industry. This water innovation ecosystem in Singapore is seeking to increase water resources, keep water costs competitive, as well as manage water quality and security for the Singapore government. More than 70 water companies and 14 corporate research and development centers have already set up facilities and offices in Singapore.

Singapore is an example of the increasing focus on solving water scarcity and quality challenges through technology innovation. Currently, there are now several other locations and water technology accelerators/hubs addressing water as a complex economic, environmental and social issue facing the public and private sectors in the 21st century.

Parts adapted from “Water Tech: A Guide to Innovation: A Guide to Investment, Innovation and Business Opportunities in the Water Sector” (Earthscan, Sarni and Pechet, 2013).
Will Sarni is Director and Practice Leader, Water Strategy, Social Impact Services at Deloitte Consulting LLP and a recognized thought leader on water stewardship, technology innovation and sustainability strategies. He is a Board Member of the Rainforest Alliance and has worked with large multinationals, public sector agencies and NGOs as an advisor on water-related programs.

1 Yamazaki, A and Yang, J., “California Drought and Climate Change Linked – but Rain Isn’t the Only factor,” Spring 2015. (

2, “Sierra Nevada Snowpack Is Virtually Gone; Water Content Now Is Only 5 Percent of Historic Average, Lowest Since 1950,” April 01, 2015. (

3, “Record-low snowpack: Bad news for California, say Stanford experts,” April 02, 2015. (

4, “NOAA: Elusive El Niño arrives,” March 5, 2015. (

5 Hodson, H., “Inside California’s $7.5 billion drought-survival plan,” New Scientist, August 19, 2014. (


7 Cecilia Tortajada, Yugal Kishire Joshi and Asit K. Biswas (2013), The Singapore Water Story: Sustainable Development in an Urban City State, Abingdon: Routledge.

plants that meet 30 percent of the state’s water demand. By 2060 NEWater is projected to meet 50 percent of water demand. Singapore has taken recycled water a step further, selling bottled NEWater to increase consumer confidence in recycled water.