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20 · Apr–Jun 2012 ·
A street restaurant along the river in Singapore in 1957.
Image: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
· Apr–Jun 2012 · 21
For more than a century after the British set-
tled in Singapore in 1819, Singapore River
and its banks were the focal point of all global
and regional trade passing the island. Trade was
actually the basic reason for the British colonisa-
tion of the island, and the river was the physical
centre of the town as great bulk of goods traded in
the settlement was handed in its banks, resulting
into a urry of economic but also social activities.
With time, ourishing trade brought not only
wealth but also problems with respect to water
pollution. As navigation increased, commercial
activities concentrated along the banks of the
river attracted more population, squatter colo-
nies, hawkers and backyard industries. Pollution
became a major problem very soon, as garbage,
sewage and industrial waste were dumped into
the river.
Starting in 1822 and for more than 100 years,
multiple committees had been established by the
different governments to study the state of the
river and propose alternatives on improving its
navigation and solving pollution. The last colo-
nial commission to clean up the river was set up
in 1950s and it estimated the cost to clean the
river at about S$30 million. However, the imple-
mentation on the commission's report failed to
achieve its targets due to nancial difculties and
complexity of the problem. It was only in 1969
that then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set the
machinery that would result into the clean-up of
the river as a part of an overall strategy of urban
development of the city-state.
The action plan to clean-up the rivers focused
on the removal or relocation of polluting sources
(domestic, trade-related or industrial); devel-
opment of infrastructure necessary for those
affected by relocation, including related serv-
ices such as water supply, sanitation, wastewa-
ter treatment, electricity, etc.; strict law enforce-
ment; cleaning and dredging of water ways; and
awareness programmes so that the population
became aware of the overall development pro-
grammes of the city. Since the Singapore River
joins with the ve rivers of the Kallang Basin
(Bukit Timah/ Rochor, Sungei Whampoa, Sungei
Kallang, Pelton and Geylang) before discharg-
ing into the sea in Marina Bay, the action plan
included not only the Singapore River but also
the Kallang Basin.
Institutional coordination to achieve progress
Structural, institutional and legal reforms were
essential for the development of Singapore and
also to reduce sources of pollution going into the
rivers. In March 1969, Prime Minister Lee called
on the drainage engineers in the Public Works
Department and water engineers in the Public
Utility Board to work together on a plan to solve
the environmental problems associated with the
rivers of Singapore, as we wrote in “Cleaning
of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin in
Singapore” for International Journal of Water
Resources Development.
Studies carried out identied that the main
sources of pollution were domestic, service-
related and industrial in nature. Most of the
domestic waste was from the people living along
the rivers or in the river catchments areas, with
old settlements such as Chinatown being a major
contributor. The government subsequently ruled
that hawkers, squatters, makeshift industries
(with the exception of the lighters), storehouses
and others who made their living alongside the
river, would have to be relocated in other areas
as early as possible.
In August 1969, the boat-builders were among
the rst to be informed that they would have to
be relocated away from the river, along with the
rewood and the charcoal dealers, other impor-
tant sources of pollution. Notices were served
to businesses and individual premises all along
the river. Provisions were also made through the
Housing Development Board (HDB) for affected
individuals and businesses to receive housing
and commercial premises on priority basis, as
noted by Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River: A
Social History 1819–2002 (Singapore University
Press, 2003).
By early 1977, much of the environmental
work and control activities of the river polluting
sources had already been planned or were under
consideration by the appropriate authorities. The
cleaning of the various rivers had progressed
close to the mouth of the basin, but the mouth
itself and the catchment areas still represented a
major challenge in ensuring signicant improve-
ment in water quality. An estimated 44,000 squat-
ters were still living in unsanitary conditions in
the vicinity of the rivers, and liquid and solid
wastes from the hawkers and vegetable vendors
(numbering 4,926) and markets and unsewered
premises, continued representing various sources
of pollution. In addition, 610 pig farms and 500
duck farms were still draining untreated wastes
by Yugal Kishore Joshi, Cecilia
Tortajada and Asit K. Biswas
22 · Apr–Jun 2012 ·
into the rivers, especially into the Kallang Basin,
Dobbs reported.
On 27 February 1977, during the opening
ceremony of the Upper Peirce Reservoir, Prime
Minister Lee gave a denite target to the Ministry
of the Environment to clean the Singapore River
and Kallang Basin, Joan Hon’s Tidal Fortunes A
Story of Change: The Singapore River and the
Kallang Basin (Landmark Books, 1990) noted.
This was the impetus to move the gears of the
institutional machinery.
Tangible achievements
The massive operations faced numerous dif-
culties and challenges but also innumerable
outcomes as well as achievements. More than
26,000 families were relocated from slums to
high-rise public housing and, in the process,
water supply, electricity and gas services were
improved. All 4,926 hawkers were relocated
into food centres built by the HDB, the Urban
Redevelopment Authority and the Ministry of the
Environment. By 1986, there were no unlicensed
hawkers in Singapore.
In January 1984, the vegetable wholesalers
were relocated in a new wholesale market built
by HDB at a cost of S$27.6 million, according
to Ministry of the Environment data. More than
2,800 industrial cases of backyard trades and
cottage industries were relocated, most of them
to the industrial estates built by the HDB and
Jurong Town Corporation. By March 1982, the
Primary Production Department had phased out
all pig and duck farms from the catchment areas.
By September 1983, activities involving an
estimated 800 lighters were relocated to a new
area where mooring and upgraded facilities were
provided by the Port of Singapore Authority at
a cost of S$25 million, a move that facilitated
the task of physical cleaning up the rivers. From
1982 to 1984, two thousand tonnes of refuse were
removed from the Singapore, Kallang, Geylang
and Rochor rivers, as documented by Poon, I.
H. in 1986, “PSA’s Role in the Cleaning Up
Programme”, for the Ministry of Environment
and United Nations Environment Programme,
referring to the Port of Singapore Authority. The
Drainage Department dredged approximately
40,000 cubic metres of sediments from the
stretch of the Singapore River and about 600,000
cubic metres from the Rochor and Kallang rivers,
Yap, K.G. said in an accompanying paper. In
December 1986, the charcoal trade was relocated
from Geylang River to a location where appropri-
ate facilities were constructed by HDB at a cost
of S$5.66 million.
The HDB programme had a very visible
impact on the provision of water supply. The
number of HDB units increased exponentially
from 19,879 in 1960 to 118,544 in 1970 since
each at was provided with direct piped water
supply which was metered. The number of
metered connections increased from 102,819 in
1960 to 264,314 in 1970. The length of water dis-
tribution and supply mains also increased from
about 1,200 kilometres and 80 km in 1960, to
1840 km and 104 km, respectively, in 1970. More
than 65 per cent of the increase in the length of
the distribution mains was to serve villages and
HDB estates outside the city area. During the
same period, the number of standpipes decreased
from 2,224 in 1960 to 528 in 1970.
Institutional coordination between HDB and
the Public Utilities Board, even before the 1971
Concept Plan and the 1972 Water Master Plan,
allowed the Public Utilities Board to develop
the necessary infrastructure for water supply.
This ensured that the new housing developments
were not only available on time but also had bet-
ter services compared to where the people lived
Calibrating costs
In terms of investments, Chou, L.M. said in his
1998 article, “The Cleaning of Singapore River
and the Kallang Basin: Approaches, Methods,
Investments and Benets”, in Ocean and Coastal
Management, that total costs incurred reached
S$200 million. He also cites some of the spe-
cic expenditures such as S$21 million to form
beaches in the Kallang Basin, S$13 million in
removing mud and other structures, expendi-
tures incurred by PSA, HDB and other gov-
ernment agencies as discussed earlier. Josef
Leitmann, in “Integrating the Environment in
Urban Development: Singapore as a Model of
Good Practice” (World Bank, 2000), also puts
the cleaning cost at S$200 million, excluding the
costs of public housing, food centres, industrial
workshops, and sewerage.
According to Tan Yong Soon et al., however, in
Clean, Green and Blue”, (Institute of Southeast
Asian Studies, 2009), the clean-up cost the gov-
ernment nearly S$300 million, excluding reset-
tlement compensations. It is not clear whether
this gure includes costs incurred directly and
indirectly in manpower, time and education pro-
grammes in schools and for the public, etc. This
last statistic is the most recent estimate. Therefore,
one can conclude that the Singapore government
had to pay roughly ten times the original esti-
mated price because of the delay in cleaning
its rivers. An important lesson for any govern-
ments trying to control pollution from their water
courses is that delays, or insufcient actions,
increase the total costs exponentially.
When the costs of the rivers cleaning pro-
gramme are compared with the benets, it is clear
that it was an excellent investment. The river
cleaning programme had numerous direct and
indirect benets, since it unleashed many devel-
opment-related activities which transformed the
face of Singapore and enhanced its image as a
model city in terms of urban planning and devel-
opment. Most important, however, was that the
population achieved better quality of life.
The prime lesson, however, is the exemplary
political will of the leadership in Singapore who
envisioned and encouraged a sustained process
of social and economic development consistent
with environmental considerations. The visionary
Prime Minister Lee realised in the 1960s that the
development of holistic long-term policies that
promote coordination among the different agen-
cies and different sectors in the city-state were
worth pursuing in spite of their complexity. This
is the only way to achieve economic, social and
environmental gains for the people of Singapore
not only at present but also in the future. This is
one notable lesson in the modern history of
Yugal Kishore Joshi is the Senior Divisional
Commissioner at Indian Railways, and formerly
a Research Associate at Institute of Water
Policy at Lee Kuan Yew School. Cecilia
Tortajada ( is
the President of the Third World Centre for
Water Management and past President of the
International Water Resources Association. Asit
K. Biswas ( is
Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee
Kuan Yew School.
This paper is part of a broader research project on urban water management in Singapore sponsored by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, Singapore, and the Third World Centre for
Water Management, Mexico. The authors co-wrote “Cleaning of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin in Singapore” in
International Journal of Water Resources Development
, iFirst article. Their
Singapore Water Story
, will be published by Routledge.
... The four phases of transformation of riverfrontemergence of riverfront cities, growth of riverfronts, deterioration of riverfronts, rediscovery of riverfrontsas defined by Wrenn et al., (1983as cited in Timur, 2013 cannot be traced to Asian riverfronts. Joshi et al., (2012) explain that the Singapore River before its development in the 1970s was the physical centre buzzed with a flurry of economic and social activities. The riverfront was home to hawkers, squatters, makeshift industries, storehouses who made their living alongside the river (Joshi et al., 2012). ...
... Joshi et al., (2012) explain that the Singapore River before its development in the 1970s was the physical centre buzzed with a flurry of economic and social activities. The riverfront was home to hawkers, squatters, makeshift industries, storehouses who made their living alongside the river (Joshi et al., 2012). They were largely affected by "inner effects from local forces" (Ducruet & Lee, 2006, p. 130) which created a certain activity, memory and identity. ...
Full-text available
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