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Water & Sanitation

Singapore is about more than chewing gum

John Aravosis

Contributed by Sharmishta Sivaramakrishnan, the current UN Youth Representative for Caring for Cambodia. 

As a Singaporean citizen, the first question I am usually asked is, “Is it true you can’t chew gum in Singapore?” To this, I patiently explain that you cannot buy gum within Singapore, but this does not mean you can’t chew it if you buy it outside of the country. Due to the many times I have received this question, I have often wondered why this seems to be the immediate reaction one has to Singapore. After all, the country has myriad other strengths, especially with regard to clean water and sanitation.

It sometimes seems that the country has managed to create everything out of nothing. Despite its origins as a fishing port, Singapore has overcome its resource limitations to become a global powerhouse. For instance in May 2015, Singapore was ranked third globally and first among Asian cities in the ‘Business of Cities’ ranking when it comes to areas such as education, mobility, science, and technology. Moreover, in September 2015, Singapore was marked as the best city for expats to live and work. Finally, in March 2016, the UN labelled Singapore as the happiest country in Asia-Pacific.

In light of World Water Day, which took place early last month, on March 22, it is a fitting time to celebrate Singapore’s journey in achieving a sustainable water system and adequate sanitation for all, and to recognize the need for other countries to share this journey.

World Water Day is marked as a day for international observance and it’s a chance for the global community to learn about issues surrounding water and sanitation. Established in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, World Water Day was voted as an official celebration by the UN General Assembly in 1993 with a different theme set annually by UN-Water. Since its inception, World Water Day is testament to the influence of unity in empowering global citizens to learn and to take action.

As stated on the website of Singapore’s national water agency, the Public Utilities Board, Singapore’s transitionary water story is one of “vulnerability to strength.” Having undergone periods of flooding, drought, and the pollution of its water supply, Singapore has also had to face the challenge of not having an abundant geographic area with which to accumulate and store water.

Despite these challenges, Singapore’s government developed Four National Taps through investment and planning in research and development in integral resources, each of which provides a sustainable and unique source of water for the population. Including local catchment water, imported water, purified and reclaimed water known as NEWater and desalinated water, the Four National Taps provide not only diverse but resilient sources of water for the country, especially in light of variable climatic conditions and low geographic capacity. Moreover, it has managed to use its immense technical strength through robust governance.  

Singapore also leads when it comes to sanitation. Like water supply, sanitation in Singapore is universal and of high quality. Singapore's approach not only relies on physical infrastructure, but also emphasizes proper legislation and enforcement, public education, research & development as well as international awareness raising.

Singaporean Jack Sim founded the World Toilet Organization in 2001 to bring international awareness to the issue of sanitation, and in 2013, under the leadership of the Government of Singapore, Singapore’s first UN resolution, entitled “Sanitation for All” was passed and adopted by the UN.  The resolution led to the formal recognition by the United Nations of World Toilet Day on 19 November – an annual global day to mark collective action to address the global sanitation crisis.

Since then, the world has come together to collectively mark World Toilet Day, with the UN putting up a large, inflatable toilet outside the headquarters in New York as a way to increase attention on sanitation issues. From NGOs and civil society organisations to world leaders in both the public and private sectors, World Toilet Day is quickly becoming an internationally recognised day of action and awareness raising.

Considering that 2.4 billion people currently lack access to improved sanitation, almost 1 billion defecate in the open and 663 million people lack a clean water source, we need leaders like Singapore to champion water and sanitation.

The island city-state is testament to the power of effective management and global advocacy. If Singapore’s accomplishments are celebrated and shared in the right way, I believe that the next time I say I’m Singaporean; I’ll receive a compliment on my island’s successful water sector instead of an incredulous comment about chewing gum.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of each of the partners of Global Citizen.