Spaceship Singapore

When I landed in Singapore this morning, two stories were high in the headlines. First, Singapore is having to dig into its strategic sand reserves because Indonesia, Singapore’s primary source of construction sand, has cut off the supply. And second, the Singapore government announced that it’s successful, but expensive NEWater initiative to convert waste water into ultra-pure drinking water will be expanded to provide 30% of Singapore’s fresh water demand within a decade.

As a frequent visitor here, I am accustomed to stories like these. They underscore how Singapore’s success has unfolded in the face of overwhelming odds. The NEWater project, for example, was begun because Singapore has no water other than what falls from the sky, and thus has long depended on supplemental water piped in from a volatile and politically unreliable Malaysia on the mainland. This dependence became more acute as Singapore grew, and so it embarked on an ambitious rain-capture and reservoir program – and earlier this decade, it also launched a pilot NEWater plant, which converts effluent into water so pure it is sold in bottles at convenience stores.

Though NEWater is expensive to produce –-as expensive a some mineral waters– the plant’s output is poured directly into the Island’s reservoirs and mixed with the rainwater stock. When I first toured the NEWater plant years ago, this only reinforced my sense of Singapore’s uniqueness; now I realize Singapore is unique only in the sense that the issues it is facing today will visit us all in the decades ahead. Water conflicts are already commonplace, and rising sea levels will force coastal states to engage in Singapore-scale terraforming or move cities inland.

Singapore is first because it is a wealthy, wildly successful flyspeck of an island located in a very bad neighborhood beset by myriad environmental, economic and political problems. Singapore’s up-by-the-bootstraps story should be an inspiration for its troubled neighbors, but it is also the object of envy and resentment, which neighboring politicians happily exploit for domestic political ends. The Indonesians are unlikely to run out of sand anytime soon, but talk of Indonesian islands “disappearing” to build Singaporean skyscrapers plays well with their constituents.

Singapore is responding in the only way it can, by relentlessly pursuing a self-sufficiency marked by aggressively recycling what it has, importing what it lacks and exporting its knowledge to become a Global leader in issues like water reclamation. In the process, Singapore is becoming no longer just an island – it a floating spaceship.

Decades ago, Buckminster Fuller reminded us that we all live on “Spaceship Earth.” His observation is borne out by the planetary crises we face today, but ironically, those very same crises have caused many (like Singapore’s dysfunctional neighbors) to ignore the big picture and squabble when they should be seeking regional and global solutions. The lesson for the rest of us is obvious: we either apply the lessons being learned today in Singapore to the challenge of rescuing Spaceship Earth, or the best we can hope is to be lucky enough to live on a Spaceship Island surrounded by a sea of trouble.