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The Big Read: To build a strong water-saving culture, S'pore needs more than recycled messages

PUB's water conservation campaigns over the years have become a regular fixture since the first one in 1962 but are the messages just old water in new bottles?

The Big Read: To build a strong water-saving culture, S'pore needs more than recycled messages

Marina Barrage was officially opened in October 2008. (Photo: PUB)

SINGAPORE: Five families roughed it out at Marina Reservoir by surviving on only five litres of water for 12 hours on a cold night on Mar 1. They were participating in a water-rationing camp run by outdoor recreations company Better Trails.

The camp, which was supported by PUB, was one of several initiatives for the agency's latest water-saving campaign, “Make Every Drop Count”.

Launched on Mar 2 as part of Singapore World Water Day, it will run for an entire year, making it one of its biggest and longest to date. Previous editions in recent years had lasted a month at most.

The last time PUB embarked on a campaign of such a scale as this year’s was likely in the 1990s, which involved household water-rationing exercises across Singapore.

The recent launch event was graced by President Halimah Yacob and included over 2,000 representatives from schools, corporations and grassroots organisation.

The latest campaign will also feature 60 roadshows and events across Singapore for this month alone.

To mark World Water Day, 23 landmarks and buildings around Singapore will be lit in blue on Mar 22.

In a departure from previous campaigns that focused mostly on water conservation, this year’s drive will cast the spotlight on the making of water.

“We know water comes from the skies as rain, but we seldom think about the complex process of where every drop of it goes to be cleaned, filtered and purified before it reaches our taps,” said Mrs Cindy Keng, the director of PUB’s 3P Network Department, in an email interview. The department oversees PUB’s engagements with stakeholders in the public and private sectors.

This year’s high-profile campaign comes on the heels of a survey jointly conducted by the national water agency and REACH feedback unit which found that younger Singaporeans did not view water conservation as important as older residents.

File photo of a cup filling up water from a tap. (Photo: AFP/Anne-Christine Poujoulat) (AFP/Anne-Christine Poujoulat)

Singaporeans’ water usage has declined steadily over the last few years. From 2003 to 2009, Singapore’s daily household water consumption per person dropped from 165 litres to 155 litres. Following the rise in water tariffs over the last two years, the figure dropped from 148 litres in 2016 to 143 litres in 2017 — the sharpest drop in a decade.

Given the findings, Mrs Keng added that it was timely for PUB to “refresh” its water-conservation campaign to build “a more pervasive water-saving culture”.


PUB’s water campaigns have become a regular fixture since the first one was held in 1972. At that time, the “Water is Precious” campaign was launched in the wake of a prolonged drought in Singapore.

In the 1980s, the campaign was renamed “Let’s Not Waste Precious Water”. A Water Conservation Unit was formed to visit large industrial water users and suggest how they could reduce water consumption. A water-conservation course was also introduced in secondary schools to help students understand Singapore’s water challenges.

In the 1990s, Singapore’s water consumption growth rate was at 6 per cent a year. This raised concerns that Singapore would run out of water by 2001.

As such, the PUB launched the now annual “Save Water” campaign in 1995 to encourage Singaporeans to reduce their water consumption.

That year saw the PUB conduct a water-rationing exercise with 30,000 households. Water supply to houses was disrupted for up to 14 hours a day as part of its six-day campaign.

Recounting her experience, 48-year-old Anna Gloria Anandhi Pawai said:

I remember we did water rationing a long time ago when I was in secondary school.

“The authorities would inform us that the water supply would be shut off and my mum used to tell me to fill up bottles before then. We literally experienced conserving water in big tanks for a few hours.”

The millennium marked the debut of NEWater, which was wastewater purified into drinkable water by PUB.

At the 2002 National Day Parade, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, ministers and participants toasted with NEWater to show that it was safe to drink.

The water-saving campaign during that period also centred around Singapore’s four “National Taps” to highlight its strategy to achieve self-sufficiency in water.

The taps refer to Singapore’s four sources of water, namely imported water, water from local catchments, NEWater and desalinated water.

(Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria) QUALITY REPEAT Running tap water is seen in Flint, a city struggling with the effects of lead-poisoned drinking water, Michigan May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The four taps marked a turning point in Singapore’s water security strategy as they would allow the island to become completely self-sufficient if necessary after the expiration of the 1962 Water Agreement with Malaysia in 2061.

In 2005, Water Wally, a blue water droplet, made its first appearance as PUB’s mascot and has been a mainstay in campaigns since. Although Water Wally had received some negative publicity, several people highlighted the mascot when recalling past PUB campaigns.

“My memory of water campaigns was of the Water Wally mascot from primary school,” recounted 20-year-old university student Kirstin Yip.

“The teachers would occasionally give out booklets to teach us things like cyber bullying, being kind, and saving water. I remember posters and videos of Water Wally telling students to shower for less than 10 minutes.”

READ: Singapore’s water story underscores the value of preparedness, a commentary

In 2008, the PUB launched its annual Singapore World Water Day celebrations in March to coincide with the United Nations’ World Water Day.

“Since 2008, the annual Singapore World Water Day celebrations in March have been a key platform for us to rally the community and corporate partners to conserve water,” said Mrs Keng.

“The event has garnered good traction over the years, with partners coming on board to run activities such as roadshows and exhibitions, door-to-door engagements and water-saving competitions.”

The following decade saw the PUB target new audiences in its campaigns. It increased its presence online by posting regular updates to engage netizens on water conservation.

Foreign workers were also brought into the fold. Water-conservation roadshows were held at their haunts while brochures printed in Tamil, Chinese, Thai and Burmese were distributed to them.


Each iteration of PUB’s campaign has sought to keep up with the population’s changing attitudes.

Dr Yugal Joshi, a director at the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission in India’s Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, said that in the beginning, campaigns had mostly been controlled and targeted.

“After independence, when water scarcity was stark and Singapore was dependent on foreign water, people were asked to stay away from water sources and reservoirs so as to avoid polluting them,” he noted.

“The water conservation and cleanliness campaigns were then focused on information, public relations and awareness.”

At that time, there were only three reservoirs and a catchment area in Singapore which covered 11 per cent of the land. Today, it has 17 reservoirs.

Generic photo of Lower Seletar Reservoir. (Photo: PUB)

However, with rapid socio-economic development, PUB’s campaign began to incorporate greater public participation, said Dr Joshi, who is also the co-author of The Singapore Water Story, a book which chronicles Singapore’s journey to achieve water sufficiency.

“From the last decade of the previous century, a first-world, confident and self-reliant Singapore successfully experimented with giving partnership to the public in its water-conservation campaigns,” he said.

“Water resources like reservoirs became proud playgrounds. The campaigns became bolder, high-tech and innovative.”

With the emergence of a new generation that had never suffered hardship, campaigns also became more “celebratory” in their approach over the last two decades.

Concepts such as “bonding with water”, “valuing water” and “enjoying water” were introduced to emphasise a personal citizen-water relationship, added Dr Joshi.

The recent campaign, which focuses on the processes involved in making Singapore’s water clean, is yet another effort by PUB to keep up with the changing attitudes of the new generation.

Unlike their older counterparts who insist on saving water and avoiding wastage, the current generation has grown used to water coming out at the turn of the taps.

Given the younger generation’s inability to relate to water scarcity, Dr Joshi said that it made sense for PUB to centre its latest campaign around the water-treatment process.

“We often say, we drink the same water that dinosaurs used to drink …This explains the (difficulty) of natural water treatment and recycle process. Therefore, the residents must be told that any misuse of water would indeed lead to a series of catastrophes.”

He added: “The visualisation, experience and imbibing the complexity, effort and money that go into treating every drop of used water will go a long way to make people value this scarce resource.”

A NEWater plant in Singapore. (File photo: TODAY)

While the approach of campaigns has evolved over the years, Dr Joshi said that successful campaign techniques such as the Meter Reading Contest in 1978 could be brought back, albeit catered to a younger audience. The contest was to encourage consumers to read meters set up at PUB’s exhibition. Those with correct readings were rewarded with vouchers.

However, Dr Cecilia Tortajada, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s (LKYSPP) Institute of Water Policy, cautioned that some “scare tactics” such as water rationing are unlikely to work in this day and age.

Switching off the taps as part of a campaign exercise would only affect vulnerable people such as children and the elderly, and would detract from the message that the PUB intends to send, she said.

“You want to deliver a message which is accurate. But if any message makes people feel unsafe, the negativity of the message will become exaggerated. This results in the proper information not getting through to the people.”

She added that the PUB should stick to its “straightforward” messaging without being alarming.

“The PUB has a very clear message in the sense that it tells people how they can participate (in water conservation),” she noted.

“What the PUB has been doing so far is to explain the situation, explain the pluses and minuses of water conservation and invite people to contribute to the campaigns. This will help people understand more about water conservation.”

READ: Beyond price hikes and conservation campaigns, saving water through smart showers, a commentary


The changing attitudes towards water by the younger generation were confirmed by a survey conducted by PUB and REACH last October.

The qualitative survey involved 48 Singaporeans and permanent residents who paid their own household utility bills. Participants were segmented into three groups – families with children below 12 years old, families with teenage children and seniors aged 55 and above.

It found that younger participants such as those with young or teenage children, viewed water scarcity as “a distant concept” compared to their older counterparts.

Younger Singaporeans felt little urgency to conserve water as it is readily available in taps, while some participants felt that water scarcity may not be an issue given new technologies like NEWater and desalination which allowed Singapore to diversify its water sources.

People may be ingesting between 3,000 and 4,000 microparticles of plastic from tap water every year, said a study. (AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE)

Mrs Keng said that the decision to step up the campaign this year was prompted by the survey findings.

“Singaporeans are generally aware that water is a precious resource. However, the readily available clean water at the turn of the tap may have inadvertently led to a perception that water shortage is a prospect that is far from reality,” she added.

“Among the younger participants, the water-saving culture seemed to have been watered down and the sense of importance attached to water sustainability appeared to be less salient.”

As such, it was timely for the PUB to refresh its water-saving campaign.

Mrs Keng said that the latest campaign would seek to create greater buzz and awareness on the ground, which will be supplemented with targeted outreach efforts to specific groups.

One such group has been Muslim worshippers, who received a sermon in their mosques on Mar 8 to mark Singapore World Water Day.

Another group has been the local art community, whose artistic expressions of water will be displayed along Orchard Road this month.

Beyond campaigns, Mrs Keng added that PUB would also create channels to engage the public on water-related issues with a strong environmental message, such as the “Friends of Water Programme” and “Watermark Award”.

The former encourages community participation in positive water-related causes, while the latter is awarded to individuals or organisations that achieve water efficiency.


Despite a “refreshed” campaign with a new focus on water treatment, it retains similar messages from previous ones.

For instance, the latest campaign continues to publicise household water-saving tips featured in previous editions.

However, the tips have been “rebranded” under a memorable mnemonic — W-A-T-E-R — to represent washing clothes on full load, always using half-flush, and turning off the shower when soaping, among other pointers.

Engagement with schools are not a new approach either. The PUB has been conducting water-rationing exercises with schools since 2016.

It remains to be seen if programmes and activities planned for students by PUB in the latter half of the year will depart from the usual campaign activities.

Several people interviewed were also unaware that PUB had launched a water campaign this year. Others who have young children said that there limitations on what they can do to conserve water.

Ms Anandhi whose household has eight members, said that her family consumes water at about 10 per cent above the average Singaporean household each month.

While she tries to conserve water at home, she admits that her four children, aged two to 16, do not share the same attitude.

File photo of laundry. (Photo: Pixabay/stevepb)

“During my time, we had water-rationing exercises to help us understand the importance of water shortage. Children nowadays don’t have similar experiences,” the home-maker said.

“They are used to the convenience of taps and washing machines. They don’t understand how much water is being consumed.”

Similarly, registered nurse Majidah Mahamood, 32, said that her utilities bills are consistently high, averaging about S$300 each month.

Mdm Majidah said that although she feels the need to save water, her hands are tied since she has three school-going children aged four to six, and an ailing mother.

“Sometimes (the high bills) cannot be helped. My mother who has dementia tends to forget to turn off the tap.”

Although her children had taken part in activities held in conjunction with PUB’s water campaign, Mdm Majidah said that the effect of the campaign activities was temporary.

“My son went for a NEWater excursion recently. He knows he should save water, but after a while he forgets to do so,” she said.

“It’s the same with my other children. Sometimes they have projects on saving water, but if I were to ask them three weeks later if they remember the messages they had learnt, they couldn’t recall.”

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Director of public relations firm AsiaPRWerkz, Ms Ginny-Ann Oh, said that even though the latest PUB campaign is not well known among people in some quarters, its effectiveness ultimately has to be judged by the change in people’s behaviour.

“The success of a campaign is based on a change in behaviour. For those who may not know the tagline for PUB’s water campaign, how many of them have actually adopted water-saving behaviour?” she said.

“If they are already using thimbles on their taps, which regulate water flow rate, then that is a change in behaviour. Gone are the days where we judge the success of a campaign based on their knowledge of taglines.”

Ms Oh said that in PUB’s case, the gradual reduction in household water consumption among Singaporeans over the last few years suggested a degree of success in its campaigns.

On whether the PUB is re-using old tactics in its latest campaign, Ms Oh said that good practices to save water hardly change over time, which may explain why PUB continues to incorporate them in its campaigns. These practices also need to be conveyed to the younger generation.

She acknowledged that the effects of any campaign would be temporary, especially on young children. However, constant reinforcement would help a campaign message to be transmitted successfully.

Water Wally formation at the Singapore World Water Day 2016 Opening Ceremony. (Photo: PUB)

“Children need repetition, reinforcement and reminder for something to become a behaviour or habit. For example, after a school water-rationing exercise, are there posters put up in the toilets to remind them to use less water?,” said Ms Oh, whose firm does not work for PUB.

“Do their parents remind them that their shower is running when they get home from school? It’s a concerted effort that needs to be done at a consistent level for a child’s behaviour to change.”

In this regard, Ms Oh said that mounting a year-long campaign would likely be more effective than previous campaigns given that there are more opportunities for students and the public to be reminded on ways to save water.


Water experts also suggested that the PUB tweak its message to resonate with the younger generation and to keep up with changing global events.

Given that the younger generation has not experienced water scarcity, Dr Tortajada said that a message has to be crafted to make them think about their individual responsibility towards saving water. To this end, water campaigns should place greater emphasis on the effects of climate change on water sustainability in Singapore.

“People read about climate change all the time. Now if you talk to a taxi driver, or a student or a teacher, they know about the potential implications of climate change.”

For LKYSPP Visiting Professor Asit Biswas, the message put forth by PUB needs to be more stark as Singaporeans’ water consumption is not going down as much as it could.

“We have to tell all Singaporeans that 50 per cent of the water is not coming in from Johor, and climate change is making water availability and extreme drought a very serious problem,” he said.

In October 2016, water in Johor’s Linggiu Reservoir, which supplies water to Singapore, reached a historic low of 20 per cent.

File photo of Linggiu Reservoir. (Photo: Monica Kotwani)

“With the uncertainties of climate change, droughts could last for a longer period, such as in California or Australia. We must make clear to the people that reducing water demand would not affect their quality of life,” said Dr Biswas.

“Other cities have successfully reduced their water demand and they lead a very good life. When the next drought hits, Singaporeans are the ones who will suffer because water will not be available when you want it.”

Echoing their views, Ms Yip, the university student, said that the PUB could also play up the message of climate change.

“The knowledge that our planet is dying faster than we might like it to, and (the fact that) there are a few ways to make an impact at an individual level would spur me to conserve more water.”

Associate Professor Md Saidul Islam, who specialises in environmental sociology at the Nanyang Technological University, said that in societies such as Singapore where people are disconnected from nature, their behaviour is driven by rational economic calculations and gains.

READ: Singapore and Malaysia: The Water Issue

As such, Singaporeans are unlikely to change their behaviour if they do not see any incentives.

Agreeing with Assoc Prof Islam, 28-year-old civil servant Joanne Loh said that the biggest factor for her to cut down her water usage would be a rise in water prices.

To encourage Singaporeans to save water, she suggested that incentives or disincentives be introduced to appeal to Singaporeans’ practical nature.

With the recent change in its campaign message, it remains to be seen if this year’s longer PUB campaign will bear fruit.

“It’s still early days for the latest campaign, so let’s wait and see what else is being done,” said Ms Oh.

Source: Today/sl


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