Thinking Differently about Water Policy: The Role of Social and Cultural Dynamics

Jun 22, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Hits: 1433

By Ezra Ho

Water security is Singapore’s Achilles’ heel, and this vulnerability is deeply engrained in our national consciousness. Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 after they captured our reservoirs. Water supply was for many years a source of bilateral tensions with Malaysia, which used to provide up to two-thirds of our water supply. So crucial was the water issue during Singapore’s developing years that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew revealed in 2008 that “[e]very other policy had to bend at the knees for our water survival.”

Today, our water situation is arguably less precarious due to a mix of prudent water management and innovation. We have four national “taps” or key sources of water — local catchment water, imported water from Malaysia, highly purified recycled water or NEWater, and desalinated water. While this policy mix has made Singapore an exemplary case study for water management, its continual effectiveness is being put in question.

After decreasing annually for a decade until 2015, water consumption per capita rose to 151 litres per day from 150 litres the year before. Furthermore, recent reports that water levels in the Linggiu Reservoir in Johor — which helps to meet half of Singapore’s water needs — have hit a new low have increased the sense of urgency around Singapore’s water security.

Looking ahead, the emphasis on technological innovations to increase supply and price controls to manage demand does not seem sustainable. These approaches, based on aggregating demand and predicting the needs of the “average” water consumer, are reactive and fail to address underlying factors that shape how people use water. By reframing our water management strategy around the social and cultural dynamics of water use, my argument is that policymakers will gain a better understanding of the sort of interventions necessary for a systemic reduction in water consumption.

The limits of current water management

For decades, water policy has largely been the domain of engineers and economists. Engineering and technological innovations such as reverse osmosis, membrane bioreactors and variable salinity plants, have helped enhance our water self-sufficiency. Water prices are calculated on the basis of cost-recovery. Through an elaborate system of taxes, Singapore has been able to ensure that the cost of water is manageable for residents, while keeping revenue sustainable to maintain and improve the water infrastructure.

Yet, as the impact of climate change intensifies, we are likely to see water consumption increase as people take more showers to cool themselves off during hot spells, and dangerously low reservoir levels in Singapore and Johor due to erratic rain patterns. To better manage future demand, water experts like Professor Asit Biswas and Dr Cecilia Tortajada from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy have suggested that the government raise water tariffs by at least 30%. Members of the public have also chimed in, calling for water rationing exercises.

Raising tariffs may have worked in the past, but it is unclear if they will now. Back in 1995, then-Trade and Industry Minister Yeo Cheow Tong pointed out that the large increase in tariffs of 36 per cent and 40 per cent in 1973 and 1975, respectively, slowed the rate of growth, and subsequently reduced consumption rates. But in the context of today’s higher household incomes and increasingly affluent population, it is unclear how much tariffs would have to be increased to have a substantial effect, and whether the government is willing to incur the political costs of doing so.

What about water rationing? In societies with a strong water conservation ethos, people use water prudently because they have to. In rural parts of the world, profligate use of water can be a matter of life and death, hence their strong culture of water conservation. In Singapore, it is unlikely that regular rationing exercises will take root because these are disruptive to everyday life. Moreover, the knowledge that the government is able to ensure a stable supply of water will not motivate people to change their water habits. Former political editor of The Straits Times Han Fook Kwang, in a 1995 article titled “How to change cavalier attitude towards critical water issue”, explained it as such: Singaporeans know the government “has done all the worrying for them, will continue to do so, and do a rather good job of it too.”

Addressing the social and cultural dynamics of water demand

How we use water is the product of evolving social conventions, beliefs, cultural norms and infrastructural standards and arrangements. For instance, taking daily showers only became widespread in the western world from the 19th century, due to the growing association of such practices with cleanliness and moral purity, therapeutic benefits, social status, individual pleasure, as well as the technical advancements that brought piped hot water to homes. Across many cultures, water is seen as a purifying agent, and this understanding is so ingrained that we would find it unsettling if our waste was not transported away with flowing water, even though dry toilets have been around longer than our conventional toilets. Even when it comes to doing laundry, what matters is whether our clothing looks, smells and feels cleaned, even if it may not have been dirty (in the conventional sense of the word) to begin with.

Thus, efforts to modify or change water habits will have to go beyond campaigns that educate, moralise or incentivise people to correct “wrong” behaviour by addressing the shared notions that govern water use. For policy interventions to work, they will have to target the social, cultural and infrastructural norms of our modern lives. Understanding how unsustainable practices are carried out will make these policy interventions more aligned with peoples’ everyday lives.

Thinking differently about water policy

For instance, the Japanese government embarked on a “Cool Biz” campaign in 2005 to reduce energy usage during the summer and winter months. They encouraged companies to relax their dress codes for employees so that the heating or air-conditioning would not have to be turned on at full blast. In government offices, the thermostats were set at 20 and 28 degrees Celsius during winter and summer, respectively, and civil servants were encouraged to come to work in casual wear during summer. Furthermore, the fashion industry was brought on board to promote “Cool Biz” wear in departmental stores and at fashion shows. Hugely successful, the campaign was able to simultaneously influence the public’s idea of socially-acceptable and fashionable office wear and reduce energy consumption, helping the country avoid 2.2 million tons of carbon emissions in 2012.

In Singapore, the government has been encouraging a “car-lite” culture by addressing the social needs that drive car ownership. It has embarked on initiatives to improve public transport infrastructure and enhance the experience of non-car users with dedicated cycling lanes and plans to build wide walking paths with shaded greenery. It now has national events like “Car-free Day” and the recent “Walk, Cycle, Ride” campaign, and should continue working with a diverse range of actors such as start-ups that provide bicycle storage or showering services, or car-sharing services such as Uber and Grab to promote alternatives to car ownership.

Likewise, more can be done to promote more sustainable ways of using water. For instance, to reduce the number of laundry cycles, mindsets about what it means for clothes to be clean and refreshed would have to change. Besides detergent and washing machine manufacturers, fashion and healthcare firms may need to recalibrate their marketing spiels accordingly. In the long term, novel ways of cleaning clothes without water may become possible. Such technological innovations will require the development of standards and codes to become widespread. Likewise, reducing water consumption during showers will require changing our understanding of how — and what is necessary — to clean ourselves. For example, in 2011, the British skincare product maker, Soap & Glory launched its “2-minute rinse” challenge that associated short showers with women “who have excellent taste and their priorities straight”.

By observing and understanding what people do and the thinking that shapes their practices, policymakers can develop a broader and diverse range of interventions that will hopefully result in intended outcomes. More importantly, this approach will enable them to understand how seemingly disparate aspects of society relate to, and support, sustainable or unsustainable ways of living. This also means that the government will need to engage a broader range of actors and institutions productively to coordinate an effort to steer how people use water and other resources.

Naturally, approaching water policy from social and cultural perspectives will cause much upheaval in a water bureaucracy that is used to the disciplines of engineering and economics. Moreover, much effort will be required to develop the expertise to grapple with such complex dynamics. However, Singapore’s approach to policymaking has always been non-ideological. We should not see alternative paradigms as a threat. Rather, we should see this as an opportunity to harness novel analytical tools to complement what we already have.


Ezra Ho graduated from the Bachelor of Environmental Studies programme at the National University of Singapore. He is a research assistant at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University. This essay is inspired by his
prior research paper on household energy consumption.

Top photo from IStock.

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