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  International Herald Tribune 11 Sep 06
Singapore taps ocean for water and income
By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop

SINGAPORE For many decades, going back to long before its independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has depended on its northern neighbor for fresh water supplies piped in to supplement the modest resources of its island catchment area.

Now, diplomatic disputes over a range of issues, including the price of Malaysian water, is pushing Singapore to search for alternative sources, a development that may turn out to yield a useful new revenue stream for its economy.

In 2005, the Public Utilities Board, or PUB, Singapore's water authority, brought on stream the city state's first desalination waterworks, a $127-million reverse-osmosis plant that produces drinking water from the sea.

The plant, the largest in Asia and one of the largest in the world, produces 30 million gallons, or 136,380 cubic meters, a day, meeting 10 percent of Singapore's daily water needs at a selling price of 49 cents per cubic meter, compared with prices ranging up to 76 cents for other reverse-osmosis plants built around the world in the past 10 years.

Desalination has been around for a while but high costs until recently limited its use to small applications in special cases. Now, technical advances and growing water shortages are changing the picture.

In coastal areas of China, for example, where rapid industrial growth and urbanization have put a tremendous pressure on fresh-water resources, the authorities hope that desalinated seawater can represent from 16 to 24 percent of the water supply by 2010.

Searching for an environmentally friendly and cost-effective process, Chinese researchers have developed a solar-powered distillation device, the official China Daily newspaper reported in June.

Singapore meanwhile is experimenting with membrane distillation technology - a hybrid technique in which seawater is boiled and the vapor is passed through microfiltration membranes before condensation.

A pilot project, started in January, uses as its heat source a refuse-incineration plant. "This creates a win-win situation by creating value out of waste heat," said Harry Seah, the Public Utilities Board's director of technology and water quality. "It's also more environmentally friendly."

The technology, developed in Holland, uses three times less energy than reverse osmosis and could cut the salt content in seawater a thousandfold, Singaporean researchers said. If all goes well, a larger demonstration plant could be built next year.

"Desalination is fairly energy intensive. We need to move away from the conventional ways of desalination, and with the new technologies we're now testing we're hoping to lower significantly the cost of the process and the energy used," Seah said.

Industry analysts estimated that water-related equipment and services represented a $400 billion-a-year market, with annual market growth estimated at 5 percent in developed countries and 10 to 15 percent in developing countries.

With climate change threatening to exacerbate global water shortages, the water treatment and resource management market represents a significant business opportunity, Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said in July. Singapore's market share is now only one percent, but the government hopes to raise that to 5 percent by 2015.

Singapore is already exporting desalination know-how: Hyflux, a water treatment company which owns and operates the reverse osmosis plant under contract from the PUB, has won contracts to build desalination facilities in Tianjin and Ningxia in China, and also in Dubai.

The PUB, meanwhile, is testing a new technology that it hopes to be able to export, for treating water of variable salinity from the sea and tidal estuaries.

"Five percent is an ambitious goal," said Claus Weyrich, head of corporate technology at Siemens, the German conglomerate, and a research policy advisor to Singapore's government. "But if the industry has the right products, your cost competitiveness improves, then of course you will get market share. And a 5 percent market share in that multibillion business is not too bad."

Related articles on Singapore: water issues
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