Linda Macpherson to speak at the International Water Summit in Abu Dhabi. She will join the Singapore Public Utilities Board to share insights from Singapore’s successful water reuse and recycling program.

By Linda Macpherson, CH2M HILL Reuse Principal Technologist

Macpherson will be presenting on the topic of water reuse strategies during the International Water Summit. She will share her global expertise during the panel discussion, “Analysis of the Successful Strategies Implemented in Singapore for Water ReUse,” on January 21, from 3:20-3:50pm.

The International Water Summit, hosted by Masdar at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre January 20-22, will gather the leading minds from the global water community in policy, business, academia, and science to accelerate the development of sustainable water solutions for arid regions and bring to life the pressing issue of water scarcity.

At the inaugural International Water Summit (IWS) in 2013, I had the privilege of speaking on the topic of water reuse and public acceptance. Water reuse involves treating used water to create high-quality reclaimed water for a new, beneficial purpose. Water reuse is quite simply using treatment technology to create the right water for the right use. Nonetheless, the concept of reusing water often triggers a negative emotional response which research has shown is largely due to the language that is used and the absence of context about water use and reuse.

This year, I return to Abu Dhabi for the second IWS and have been invited to join the Singapore Public Utilities Board (PUB) to share additional insights and lessons learned from Singapore’s successful water reuse and recycling program, known as NEWater.

Introduced in 2002, NEWater is Singapore’s own brand of high-grade reclaimed water and currently provides 30% of Singapore’s water supply. Singapore Public Utilities Board (PUB) began work on the country’s first water masterplan in 1972, and the first pilot plant was built to turn used water into potable water in 1974. However, the technology was premature and the costs to treat used water were not sustainable. In 1998, PUB revisited the concept and in 2000, the first NEWater plant was built. Today, Singapore has four NEWater plants operating, with plans to open a fifth. The country hopes to meet 50% of its future water demand by 2060.

Although three decades in the making, NEWater overcame common challenges associated with water reuse projects, and the NEWater Visitor Centre illustrates to the world how technology and public understanding can be successfully aligned. The centre has helped build critical community understanding and support of water treatment technologies and their benefits. By promoting understanding of the full spectrum of water supply solutions needed to address shortages of fresh water, it showcases that drinking water reuse is a water supply solution that must be included in our technology tool box.

The success of the NEWater project in Singapore, though a marvelous achievement, is not unique from a technology perspective. The technologies are proven, and the world has been employing them for a long time. Unfortunately, the public has been unaware of the technologies that have protected their water supplies – it has principally been the ‘out of sight/out of mind’ service. What is unique is that Singapore combined technology and understanding by embracing education and communication as an important part of their project.

Singapore built new understandings. The visitor centre opened hearts to open minds drawing from the best in social research, providing information in a non-stigmatizing manner within the context of the urban water cycle. Grounding technical concepts and systems within this context, in a transparent and exciting manner, produced an enticing and memorable educational experience. The Singapore NEWater Visitor Centre shines a bright light for the world on how to transform thinking. On its wall is a statement from Dr. Lucas vanVureen, National Institute of Research in South Africa, “Water should not be judged by its history, but by its quality.” Providing a visitor centre inside a fully operational treatment plant gave visitors a new perspective — a perspective that changed mental models.

Every organization I have worked with to build a visitor centre has found it has had a transformational impact on public understanding. Unfortunately, too few are making such investments.

I am looking forward to sharing how initiatives like those implemented in Singapore can be applied to arid regions, such as Abu Dhabi and throughout the Middle East at IWS this week. With the world’s population expected to double over the next 20 years, our world, and especially arid regions, will experience greater demands on water in energy and food production, as well as general potable usages. In regions where water security is already a concern, it is critical for water stressed areas to look for opportunities to manage water supplies and effectively allocate resources now to secure water in the future. We can take what was learned in Singapore and start applying similar strategies to help other water scarce locations.

The Singapore NEWater story is not only fit for Singapore, an innovative island nation — but it is instructive for the world.

Linda Macpherson is Reuse Principal Technologist for CH2M HILL. For more than 30 years, she has led broad ranging efforts with governments, utilities, service districts, and professional associations around the world to overcome barriers to sustainable water management. Linda is an expert in developing public education campaigns and policy strategies that build consensus among parties who are grappling with challenging water, wastewater, and environmental quality issues. She is a strategist and a sought-after speaker on sustainable water resources management. In 2012, Linda served as the keynote speaker at the International Water Association World Water Congress and was recently a keynote speaker at Reuse 2013 held in Windhoek, Namibia. She is based in the firm’s Portland, OR office.