Water shortages and rationing in Singapore

Singapore Infopedia


Singapore is considered to be one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. It is heavily dependent on rainfall due to the lack of natural water resources, and limited land is available for water storage facilities.1 Prolonged dry spells cause or threaten to cause water shortages, the most recent being in 1990.2 Under severe conditions, water rationing was implemented; the last occasion was in 1963–64 though there have been mock water rationing exercises since then.3

Water shortages in pre-independence Singapore
Providing an adequate supply of water was a challenge during much of Singapore’s pre-independence history. Despite the completion of the Impounding Reservoir (later renamed MacRitchie Reservoir) in 1867 and its subsequent expansion, there was not enough supply to meet the increasing demand.4 The droughts of 1885, 1895 and 1902 put such severe pressure on water stocks that the municipal authorities restricted the water supply to as little as two hours a day.5

To meet growing demand, two more impounding reservoirs were built in Singapore and water schemes were developed in Johor to provide an additional source of supply.6 Still, there continued to be anxiety over water shortages during dry spells.7 The government began looking into developing new water sources in Johor in the 1940s, but their plans were interrupted by the Second World War. After the Japanese Occupation, Singapore faced another water crisis as consumption rose beyond the capacity of existing resources by 1946. To alleviate the situation, the government expanded the capacity of existing facilities and restarted efforts to import more water.8

Despite the progressive completion of these projects, Singapore’s water supply remained barely sufficient to meet consumption needs.9 Recognising the urgent need to develop new water sources, the government began developing major water schemes in Johor in the late 1950s.10 However, before these projects could be completed, severe droughts hit Singapore and Johor, forcing the government to impose water rationing in 1961 and 1963.11 Through radio broadcasts and newspapers, the public was also constantly reminded to save water and reduce wastage.12

Water rationing in 1961 and 1963
For the purpose of water rationing, Singapore was divided into seven zones. When water rationing was imposed on 1 September 1961, the water supply was cut off at fixed times every day, with each zone receiving no supply for six hours four times a week based on a predetermined schedule.13 With rainfall in January 1962, water rationing was lifted on 26 January.14 However, daily water rationing was imposed again on 23 April 1963, with the supply in each zone cut off for six hours four times a week.15 Seven days later, more severe restrictions were introduced, with the water supply cut off for 12 hours three times a week.16 This lasted almost nine months until the Public Utilities Board (PUB), which had been formed in May 1963, eased the restrictions in January 1964 after sustained heavy rainfall. Water rationing was finally lifted on 28 February 1964.17

Water situation in post-independence Singapore
The water supply from Johor was significantly increased with the completion of two new waterworks in 1965 and 1968.18 However, another dry spell in early 1971 led to warnings of water rationing again.19 The PUB appealed to the public to conserve water and promoted water-saving ideas such as bathing no more than once a day, putting a brick in the toilet cistern, and using buckets instead of hoses when washing vehicles. Posters were also put up in public places. Appeals were sent directly to consumers with high water usage, while all PUB bills incorporated the reminder, “Water is precious. Don’t waste it.”20 In addition, the PUB took legal action against those caught wasting water, an offence that carried a maximum fine of S$500.21 The campaign, now known as Singapore’s first “Water is Precious” campaign, succeeded in reducing water consumption, thus staving off water rationing.22 Since then, public education programmes have been a key component of Singapore’s water demand strategy.23

Centre for Liveable Cities

1. Public Utilities Board, Singapore, Our Water, Our Future (Singapore: Public Utilities Board, 2016), 11 (Call no. RSING 333.910095957 OUR); Cecilia Tortajada, Yugal Joshi and Asit K. Biswas, The Singapore Water Story: Sustainable Development in an Urban City-State (New York: Routledge, 2013), 1. (Call no. RSING 363.61095957 TOR)
2. Tortajada, Joshi and Biswas, Singapore Water Story, 117.  
3. Tan Yong Soon, Lee Tung Jean and Karen Tan, Clean, Green and Blue: Singapore’s Journey Towards Environmental and Water Sustainability (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2009), 125–26. (Call no. RSING 363.70095957 TAN)
4. Tortajada, Joshi and Biswas, Singapore Water Story, 9–10; Brenda, S. A. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 207 (Call no. RSING 307.76095957 YEO); “Shorthand Report of the Legislative Council,” Straits Times, 6 August 1870, 2, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
5. D. G. Presgrave, “Municipal Notice,” Straits Times, 28 April 1885, 4; “Untitled,” Straits Maritime Journal and General News, 22 May 1895, 3; “A Water Famine,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser Weekly Mail Edition, 4 September 1902, 145. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Singapore Water Supply,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 20 March 1912, 12 (From NewspaperSG); Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 181; Tortajada, Joshi and Biswas, Singapore Water Story, 10, 13–15, 18; Public Utilities Board, Singapore, Singapore’s Water Supply (Singapore: Public Utilities Board, 1988). (Call no. RSING 628.1095957 SIN)
7. “Singapore Water Supply,” Straits Times, 29 June 1911, 6; “The Water Shortage,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 28 November 1923, 5; “Water Shortage,” Straits Times, 17 April 1926, 9; “The Water Supply,” Malaya Tribune, 20 September 1927, 8; “Our Water Supply,” Malaya Tribune, 2 April 1929, 8; “Prolonged Drought,” Straits Times, 25 September 1929, 11; “No Water Shortage in Singapore,” Malaya Tribune, 12 February 1935, 12; “Singapore’s $5,670,000 Water Supply Project,” Straits Times, 21 May 1940, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Public Utilities Board, Singapore, Singapore’s Water Supply, 4; Big Efforts to Build Up City’s Water Supply,” Straits Times, 30 May 1946, 3; “Water Rationing Likely in Singapore,” Straits Times, 19 June 1946, 5; “Public Urged: ‘Save More Water’,” Straits Times, 29 June 1946, 3; “$40,000,000 Waterworks Extension,” Straits Times, 20 November 1946, 5; “Water May Be Rationed in S’pore,” Straits Times, 10 January 1947, 3; “Water Economy Needed in S’pore,” Straits Times, 23 March 1947, 3; “Water Plan: Start Made,” Straits Times, 23 May 1948, 3; “$3 Million Water Scheme Is Approved,” Malaya Tribune, 28 June 1948, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Singapore Must Still Save Water,” Straits Times, 28 September 1947, 3; “Use of Water ‘Still Rising’,” Singapore Free Press, 10 April 1948, 5; “Water Ration Warning,” Straits Times, 29 April 1949, 1; “Water Rationing Likely,” Singapore Free Press, 27 June 1949, 5; “‘Save Water’ Call to S’pore,” Singapore Free Press, 14 February 1950, 6; “Rationed Water in April?” Straits Times, 2 November 1950, 5; “Singapore’s Stocks of Water Are Running Dry,” Straits Times, 19 June 1951, 5; “Singapore Has 40 Days’ Water,” Straits Times, 15 November 1951, 7; “Singapore’s Water,” Straits Times, 10 September 1953, 6; “Daily Use of Water in S’pore Rose 4M. Gals in Year,” Singapore Free Press, 25 November 1954, 7; “The Big Thirst,” Straits Times, 24 October 1956, 6; “Water Shortage,” Straits Times, 26 May 1958, 6; “S’pore Water Consumption,” Singapore Free Press, 26 November 1959, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Water Shortage”; “Sizeable Drop in Reservoir Water Levels,” Singapore Free Press, 15 October 1958, 5; “Singapore Water from the Johore River – Big Scheme,” Singapore Free Press, 7 November 1959, 1; Jackie Sam, “$70M. Water Plan,” Straits Times, 3 September 1961, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Water Rationing for Singapore,” Straits Times, 30 Auugst 1961, 1; “Rationing Today – And an Urgent Appeal to ‘Save Water’,” Straits Times, 23 April 1963, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Jalelah Abu Baker, “When It Didn’t Rain, You Just Queued Up,” AsiaOne, 5 March 2014.
12. “New ‘Save Water’ Plea: The Forecast Is ‘No Rain’,” Singapore Free Press, 26 June 1961, 1; “Water Rationing for Singapore”; “4-Hour Downpour for Singapore,” Straits Times, 14 September 1961, 4; “Water Crisis,” Straits Times, 19 March 1963, 1; “Rationing Today”; “No Water Rationing for Today,” Straits Times, 13 July 1963, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Restrictions for 6-Hour Periods 4 Times a Week,” Straits Times, 31 August 1961, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Ration: Cut to Twice a Week,” Straits Times, 6 January 1962, 1; “Singapore Ends Water Rationing,” Straits Times, 26 January 1962, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “S’pore Rations Water,” Straits Times, 23 April 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Water: 12 Hours Off from Today,” Straits Times, 30 April 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Hours of Water Rationing Are Cut to Six,” Straits Times, 3 January 1964, 5; “Water Cuts Now Only Three Days a Week,” Straits Times, 28 January 1964, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore. Water Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1964 (Singapore: Govt. Printers Off., 1965), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 628.1 SIN)
18. “Fading Fast – That Fear of Water Rationing in S’pore,” Straits Times, 4 April 1965, 10; Gabriel Lee, “Sultan Opens $30M. Waterworks,” Straits Times, 20 April 1968, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “S’pore May Introduce Water Rationing,” Straits Times, 4 May 1971, 7; “These Are the Seven Zones for the PUB Water Rationing Scheme,” Straits Times, 9 May 1971, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Water Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1971 (Singapore: Govt. Printers Off., 1972), 1. (Call no. RCLOS 628.1 SIN)
20. “Now PUB Acts to Cut Garage Water Waste,” New Nation, 13 May 1971, 1; Poteik Chia, “‘Don’t Waste water’ Plea Gets Good Public Response,” Straits Times, 13 May 1971, 1; Poteik Chia, “Thank You and Keep It Up!” Straits Times, 14 May 1971, 1; Poteik Chia, “Keep It Up…,” Straits Times, 15 May 1971,  1; “Water Use Up again after Three-Day Drop,” Straits Times, 3 June 1971, 4; Poteik Chia, “Use of Water Stays below 100 Million,” Straits Times, 9 June 1971, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Poteik Chia, “PUB Warns of Action against Water Waste,” Straits Times, 28 May 1971, 8; “Wasting Water: PUB Officers Act,” Straits Times, 30 May 1971, 1; “First ‘Waste Water’ Fine,” Straits Times, 5 June 1971, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Tan, Lee and Tan, Clean, Green and Blue, 260–61.
23. Tan, Lee and Tan, Clean, Green and Blue, 257–58.

Further resources
51 Schools Have Water All Day at Exams Time,” Straits Times, 29 October 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore and Public Utilities Board, Singapore, Water: From scarce Resource to National Asset (Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia, 2012). (Call no. RSING 333.91095957 WAT)

Cholera – So Water Rationing Eased in City,” Straits Times, 4 December 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at February 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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