Water Security in Southeast Asia

It is surprising to think that among two of the most developed nations in Southeast Asia, water stands as one of the most contested issues. Yet, between Singapore and Malaysia, water security and control over water resources are more than a question of providing for a population. It is the grounds upon which many of these two nation’s long-lasting disagreements are aggravated.

            The story of water conflict between both nations began the day Singapore was forced into independence and reflects many of these nation’s historical grievances. Leaders of the then-young Malaysia, citing stark racial differences from the majority-Chinese region of Singapore, expelled Singapore from the federation. The decision, while largely a product of heightening racial tensions between the Chinese and Malays (including race riots in 1964), was also made in fear of Singapore’s burgeoning economy. As an island situated on many important trade routes, Singapore enjoyed early economic success , which the ruling party in Malaysia, United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), feared would shift power in the country away from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. In 1965, Singapore became an independent country.

Image courtesy of McConnell Franklin ©2008. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of McConnell Franklin ©2008. Some rights reserved.


During that same decade, Malaysia made an agreement with Singapore to provide the city-state with 250 million gallons of water a day. While Singapore boasts an enviable port, the island has no freshwater supplies of its own. Malaysia, Singapore’s closest neighbor, became the country’s only option. This agreement stipulated that the Malaysian state of Johor would provide Singapore with water through 2011, after which the contract would be reviewed and potentially renewed up until 2061.

In 2011, the Malaysian government called for the price of water provided to Singapore to be increased 100 times the price settled in the 1960s. In the face of Singapore’s growing economy, Malaysia’s control over water became a “thorn in the flesh” for Singapore-Malaysia negotiations, providing Malaysia leverage in all disputes between the two countries.

With their ability to threaten water security, Malaysia has generated many hostilities over an array of political situations. When Israeli President Chaim Herzog visited Singapore in 1986, the displeased Islamic nation of Malaysia put Singapore’s water security on the line. When Singaporean forces used Malaysian airspace for military exercises, Malaysia put Singapore’s water security on the line. When Malaysia wanted to develop old land that they owned in Singapore, Singapore’s water security was put on line.

Not only does the issue of water security in Singapore pose a threat to the sustenance of many vital functions in the country, but it additionally provides Malaysia with linkage power and strong hand to play in negotiations between the two countries. Economically, Malaysia and Singapore have still been unable to come to an agreement on the price of water. While both governments realize the need to revise the price of water so that it reflects modern price increases, the level at which Malaysia wants to set the price far exceeds the market price for water.

However, turning to other countries in the region has not proved fruitful for Singapore, either. Like Malaysia, Indonesia has pressured Singapore into paying exorbitant prices for water and will also likely use their leverage on Singapore as a political tactic.

In response, Singapore has attempted to gain greater water independence, adopting a “four tap” strategy, aiming to develop one of the best urban water management systems in the world. This strategy includes the use of desalinated, recycled, rain and imported water. The most notable of these attempts, “NEWater”, uses a microfiltration to reclaim recycled and sewage water. So far, the program makes up 30% of the country’s needs, winning the country international praise. In 2011, the NEWater program produced around 50,000 cubic meters of water a day for Singapore. In 2005, Singapore “turned on the fourth tap” of its four tap strategy by opening a desalination plant. Though the project imposes great initial costs on the country — so much so that buying water from Malaysia would be the more affordable option in the short-term — desalination will likely supply the country with 25% of its water needs by 2060. Although this lack of freshwater supplies has prompted the country into pursuing water independence, Singapore will always likely have a water dependency.

Nearly 50 years since Singapore’s independence, the island nation may no longer see the same uncompromising negotiator in Malaysia, as the fate of both of these countries is intertwined. Singapore’s increasing water independence, if anything, indicates a future for both countries in which bilateral progress can be made without the threat of water security on the table. For this to happen, however, the leadership in both countries must focus on developing a framework and negotiation mechanism through which they can resolve deadlock in order to determine a pricing structure that would provide benefits for both countries. Just as these two nations’ futures are interconnected, so too are their economies. Enhanced cooperation between these two states will only result in an overall enhanced welfare.

Leave a Reply