Today, with more than half the world’s population living in urban areas, cities and countries everywhere have started grappling with the environmental, economic, and cultural challenges posed by rapidly growing populations. As it turns out, one country in Southeast Asia–Singapore–has been addressing these issues for decades, in ways that cultivate and conserve resources while reimagining and, quite literally, reshaping the nation’s physical boundaries.
At first glance, the minuscule city-state on the edge of the Malay Peninsula is an unlikely model for sustainability. After all, as one of the world’s smallest, most densely populated countries, the island might appear to have little room to make big changes. And yet since the mid-1960s, when the country’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, articulated a sustainable vision for the country, Singapore has developed ideas and technologies that signal it as a clear global leader in stewardship—a role that’s attracting the attention of tourists and businesses alike.
Consider Singapore’s multi-pronged approach to the most urgent challenge facing any island nation: a reliable fresh water supply. For a country that’s only about a fifth the size of Rhode Island, with a population of more than 5 million (five times that of Rhode Island’s), water conservation, distribution, and infrastructure are paramount. Singapore’s solution? Projects–like those pursued by Singapore’s Public Utility Board (PUB)–that marry cutting-edge tech with ambitious, imaginative governmental action.
The first of these approaches is a decades-in-the-making project dubbed NEWater, through which nearly a third of the city’s fresh-water needs are met by used and “gray” water purified by state-of-the-art filtration technologies and ultra-violet disinfection. In fact, NEWater is such an integral and celebrated component of the country’s drive toward water self-sufficiency that the NEWater Visitor Center has become something of a tourist destination in its own right, offering exploratory tours for kids and adults while creatively sharing the science behind the scenes. Where else can you experience what it’s like to be a water molecule undergoing treatment?
The second approach entails building and maintaining the island’s crucial reservoirs (17 thus far), which have been strategically outfitted with a complex, highly integrated network of drains, canals, rivers, and storm water collection ponds. Singapore is one of just a few countries in the world to harvest urban storm water for future use.
Third, Singapore has two of Asia’s largest seawater desalination plants, which today produce 100 million gallons of water a day–a full 25% of Singapore’s demand. (A recent announcement by Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s minister for Environment and Water Resources, indicates a third desalination plant is slated to open by 2017.)
The fourth and final tactic is, in a sense, a political as much as a technical approach. For decades, Singapore has imported water from Malaysia–a strong bilateral agreement that’s not up for renegotiation for another 40 years. In the meantime, conservation is a national byword: Singapore’s per capita domestic water consumption is a mere 39 gallons per day–less than half of the most conservative estimates of, for example, Americas’ 80 to 100 gallons per day. Singapore’s goal is to lower consumption to as little as 36 gallons per day by 2030.
As imaginative as Singapore’s water management is, though, it’s in the country’s policies of transformative land reclamation that one sees glimmers of a possible way forward for other nations seeking to mitigate urban density, create new sources of revenue, and actively address the perils of climate change.
Singapore’s boldest, most visible example of this is Marina Bay, a 900-acre business center and tourist destination along the southern edge of the island. With topflight resorts like Marina Bay Sands (owned by the Nevada-based Las Vegas Sands Corp.), the eye-popping ArtScience Museum (the building resembles an open lotus flower), the botanical marvel called Gardens by the Bay, the Marina Bay Financial Centre (a major draw for business travelers), Formula One Grand Prix racing, and other attractions, Marina Bay is a city within a city. And yet, the entire area used to be sea.
In a process that inevitably brings to mind similarly massive technological and environmental feats–Netherlands’ storied, centuries-long history of reclaiming land from the North Sea, for instance–Singapore in the 1970s resolved to both reshape and even expand its island boundaries. Today, using soil from quarried lands and hillsides, and through dredging the seafloor and importing countless tons of sand from neighboring countries, almost a quarter of Singapore’s total area is reclaimed land. And Marina Bay remains the exemplar of that effort–not least because it artfully melds the popular (high-end restaurants; bars, clubs, and theaters; the Sands resort Skypark, with its 360-degree views of the city skyline) with the technologically adventurous (the 500-foot-tall Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel; the world’s first curved, “double-helix” bridge).
But one particular achievement, the Marina Barrage dam, built across a quarter-mile-wide channel between the bay and the sea, captures much of Singapore’s can-do spirit in a single, thoughtfully planned structure. Marina Barrage (honored with a 2009 Superior Achievement Award from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers) is not merely a dam, but serves multiple purposes in Marina Bay. From its earliest conception, for example, the dam and its surroundings were envisioned as a means of cleansing the heavily polluted, much-trafficked Singapore River in the 1970’s. The Barrage has also been a cultural engine, of sorts, transforming all of Marina Bay and areas situated along the cleaned-up Singapore River, such as Clark Quay, Boat Quay, and Robertson Quay into thriving lifestyle destinations for Singaporeans and tourists. Because the dam keeps the Marina Reservoir full year-round, and its water level constant, the reservoir has evolved into a popular spot for windsurfing, kayaking, dragonboating, and other activities. Boat Quay, Clark Quay, and Robertson Quay house a multitude of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. Finally, Marina Barrage offers low-lying areas of the city-state protection from floods–no small feat on an island that receives close to 100 inches of rainfall a year–and can serve as a future barrier to climate change-driven rises in sea level.
The world is getting smaller. A growing global population requires not only access to adequate resources (like fresh water), but fresh ideas to ensure a secure, sustainable environment for everyone, everywhere. Singapore’s proactive, disruptive approach to tackling issues of both water and land use suggests a path other countries might take as they address civic and environmental challenges in the 21st century.
This article was authored by FastCo Works, Fast Company’s Content Studio.