Commemorating the Architect of the Singapore Water Story

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore at the time of independence, was fully aware of what was required for the country to survive and become a sovereign state. With acute vision and excellent foresight, he championed Singapore’s journey towards water sustainability by making water a top priority in government policies.
In 1971, Mr Lee set up the Water Planning Unit in the Prime Minister’s Office with the aim of studying the scope and feasibility of new conventional sources such as unprotected catchments, as well as unconventional sources like water reclamation and desalination.
The first Water Master Plan was produced in 1972, outlining plans to develop local water resources in Singapore, including water from local catchments, recycled water, and desalinated water, to ensure a diversified and sustainable water supply for generations to come.Back in the 1970s, the Singapore River was like an open sewer. The water was polluted with little or no marine life. Squatters, hawkers and manufacturing industries dotted the banks of the river. Wastes were discharged into the water courses and stench pervaded the surrounding areas.
At the opening of Peirce Reservoir in 1977, Mr Lee Kuan Yew challenged the Environment Ministry to clean up the Singapore River. Mr Lee said, “It should be a way of life to keep the water clean. To keep every stream, culvert and rivulet, free from pollution.”
“In 10 years, let us have fishing in the Singapore River and Kallang River. It can be done,” he added.
To fulfil this resolution, 11 government departments took on the mammoth task of resettling and resiting the pollutants – this included squatter families, street hawkers, vegetable and fruit wholesalers, industrial operators and backyard trades. Pig and duck farms were phased out, and every residential and commercial premise in the area was sewered up.
The successful completion of this massive, ten-year clean-up effort in 1987 led Mr Lee to articulate another important vision, one that would come to fruition 30 years later and transform the cityscape of Singapore.
“In twenty years, it is possible that there could be breakthroughs in technology, both anti-pollution and filtration. Then, we can dam up or put a barrage at the mouth of the marina, the neck that joins the sea and we will have a huge freshwater lake.”
Indeed, advancements in membrane technology in the 1990s made it possible for the introduction of NEWater, ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water. This same membrane technology also made it possible for Marina Barrage to be transformed into an expansive freshwater reservoir, meeting 10% of Singapore’s water needs today. This engineering marvel was the actualisation of Mr Lee’s vision.
As a tribute to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership and foresight in charting the development of Singapore’s water sustainability, the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize was set up to honour outstanding contributions by individuals or organisations towards solving the world’s water challenges by applying innovative technologies, policies or programmes which benefit humanity.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew has left behind a great legacy. He was a visionary leader and the architect of the Singapore Water Story.
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