Bottling Wastewater Expands Island’s Oasis—Singapore’s NEWater Path to Independence

Singapore is first to bottle wastewater for drinking.

Singapore Water Independence © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Singapore, a Southeastern Asian city-state of 5 million residents, has been recycling treated municipal wastewater to increase its freshwater supply for seven years. The process works so well that the city is now branding the same water as bottled NEWater for drinking, and supplying beautiful fountains like this one at the NEWater recycling plant. More NEWater Solution Images Below.

By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue

Recycled treated wastewater, which Singapore has branded “NEWater”, is providing 30 percent of the Southeast Asian island city-state’s total demand for fresh water.

Bottled Wastewater to Drink
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
NEWater is Singapore’s brand of purified wastewater.

The small, densely populated island enjoys heavy rainfall, but lacks sufficient watersheds and natural rivers from which to draw water. Because space to store water is so tight, the city of five million residents has always relied for its drinking water on unconventional sources—including imports—and has transformed two-thirds of its landmass into storm and water catchments.

Until this year, imports from neighboring Malaysia accounted for 40 percent of the nation’s 300-million gallon daily demand for fresh water. For political and economic reasons, however, the government decided not to renew the import contracts, which were signed in 1961 and expire in 2011 and 2061.

When imports end, Singapore’s three freshwater sources will be local—rainfall in catchments, desalination, and NEWater.

NEWater is Singapore’s own brand of reclaimed water and is essentially wastewater purified by two rounds of treatment. Initially used for industrial purposes only, a small portion of NEWater is now returned to reservoirs, where it blends with rainwater before entering the standard drinking water treatment and distribution system.

To make potable water out of what goes down the drain and toilet, Singapore’s NEWater recycling plants take water from standard treatment facilities and then use an additional three-step purification process: micro-filtration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet treatment. The end product meets drinking water standards set by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Singapore’s own national agency.

In May 2010, Singapore opened its fifth and largest NEWater plant, which has the capacity to recycle up to 176 million gallons per day.

NEWater is distributed by Singapore’s water utility through the tap, and it is also distributed in bottles at the NEWater visitor center and at community promotional events.

Note: This article has been corrected since first publication to reflect that NEWater is not sold in stores.

Towers of micro-filtration units remove partcles and pollutants as water passes through the expansive complex on the city's outskirts.
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Towers of micro-filtration units remove partcles and pollutants as water passes through the expansive complex on the city’s outskirts.
A mass of plumbing, pumps, scaffolding, and remote sensors move water from brown to blue at the Changi plant.
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
In May 2010, Singapore opened its fifth and largest NEWater plant, which has the capacity to recycle up to 176 million gallons per day. A mass of plumbing, pumps, scaffolding, and remote sensors move water from brown to blue at the Changi plant.
Stacks of microfiber filters contain holes so small that only water molecules can pass through under high pressure, while the tiniest particles and chemicals are captured.
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Stacks of microfiber filters contain holes so small that only water molecules can pass through under high pressure, while the tiniest particles and chemicals are captured.
Giant chambers capture the largest impurities from incoming wastewater after basic sewage treatment.
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
To make potable water out of what goes down the drain and toilet, Singapore’s recycling plants use a three-step purification process: micro-filtration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet treatment. Giant chambers capture the largest impurities from incoming wastewater after basic sewage treatment.
Industrial treatment equipment dwarfs an engineer at the plant. © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Industrial treatment equipment dwarfs an engineer at the plant.
Mission Control: Engineers manage vast systems of pipes, pumps and valves with mouse clicks and keystrokes to turn sewage into clean, safe drinking water.  © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Mission Control: Engineers manage vast systems of pipes, pumps and valves with mouse clicks and keystrokes to turn sewage into clean, safe drinking water.
A status panel at Singapore's Changi NEWater plant operated by Sembcorp. © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Until this year, imports from neighboring Malaysia accounted for 40 percent of Singapore’s 300-million gallon daily demand for fresh water. A status panel at Singapore’s Changi NEWater plant operated by Sembcorp.

Brett Walton is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. Reach him at brett@circleofblue.org. Last month, Circle of Blue director J. Carl Ganter toured the NEWater facility and brought back images of the daily operations at one of the world’s largest water recycling systems. Reach him at jcarl@circleofblue.org.

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8 Comments
  1. Your article leaves out a new source of water. Singapore recently signed an agreement with Indonesia to provide this island with water from
    Bintan, Batam and one other place. It is to deal with Singapore’s shortage of water expected by 2015.

  2. [...] imported drinking water for its now 5 million citizens from Malaysia.  One of the contracts expired this year, and for political and economic reasons  Singapore’s government did not renew either [...]

  3. [...] imported drinking water for its now 5 million citizens from Malaysia.  One of the contracts expired this year, and for political and economic reasons  Singapore’s government did not renew either [...]

  4. An interesting and impressive article which raised the following thoughts and questions for me. In Singapore the technology now enables wastewater to be converted in to bottled drinking water to ensure self-sufficency and less-dependence on neighbouring nation-states. Where does responsibility lie for quality control and health and safety for those most likely to imbibe the bottled water and for the “safe” disposal of plastic used to store the transformed wastewater? Who are those most likely to be drinking the transformed wastewater since it supposedly will not be for sale?

  5. nice work
    Water is basic to life. It is a precious resource and has become precious commodity now. On going Industrialization, population & urbanization pose pressure on water availability. Utility value of world’s freshwater resources like lakes and rivers are diminishing rapidly due to over exploitation & pollution.

  6. What about Prion contamination of the water? Prions are rogue proteins that cause incurable brain infections such as Mad Cow disease and its human equivalent, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, altzheimers, etc. They are difficult to inactivate, resisting extreme heat, chemical disinfectants, and irradiation. Infectious prions have been found in human and animal muscle tissue including heart, saliva, blood, urine, faeces and many other organs. I remember the days when feeding animal by-products to cattle was sworn by the experts to be competely safe – that was before the onset of Mad Cow Disease and CJD.

  7. Maybe Singapore would like to try doing business with Iligan City, Philippines..we have the supply of water they need…

  8. [...] covering two-thirds of the island’s landmass. Then there is NEWater which is essentially purified wastewater. There are currently five NEWater plants in operation and they provide 30 per cent of Singapore’s [...]

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