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Leading a Path Toward Sustainable Cities in Singapore

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View of Singapore (Photograph courtesy World Cities Summit)

Over 15,000 government leaders, industry experts and civil society delegates converge in Singapore from July 1-5 to attend the World Cities Summit, Singapore International Water Week and the inaugural Clean Enviro Summit to exchange ideas and emerging solutions to develop sustainable cities.

Driven by emerging economies, close to half a billion people in India and 341 million in China are expected to move to cities by 2050, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in his keynote speech at the three conferences’ joint opening ceremony on July 1 at Marina Bay Sands.

“It’s a tremendous time of change and a tremendous opportunity for development and progress, because cities can be a better habitat for the world’s population. They’re economically dynamic, culturally diverse and they can also be environmentally friendly,” said Lee, who has led the island state since 2004.

With an area of 7oo square kilometers (270 square miles), Singapore has limited natural resources compared to its neighbors in Southeast Asia, so it has to import half of its water and almost all of its energy to fulfill its 5.2 million population’s consumption demand.

“[We] price water fully so that people would have incentives to save water and use it prudently. We also [began in 1991 an] imposed water conservation tax. We invented new water technology to reuse water so that every drop can be circulated more than once.

“For energy too, we took a hardening approach. We decided that we couldn’t afford fuel subsidies. We price energy fully, whether it is electricity, gas or petrol. For low-income families, we provide them rebates,” said Lee.

The Singapore government is also adding more train lines and buses, upgrading its public housing estates and creating more green spaces in the city to improve the quality of life of its dwellers.

In contrast, cities in India are struggling to develop its urban infrastructure due to inadequate funds, corruption and poor planning.

“The biggest challenge we face in India is the growth of our urbanization. Though today only 31 percent of India is urbanized, we have the second-largest urban population in the world. As India grows, growth has preceded infrastructure. We’ve a huge infrastructure deficit,” said Kamal Nath, India’s urban development minister, at the joint opening plenary on July 2.

He said India currently has 55 cities with a population of more than one million, and  in the next decade, the number is expected to rise to between 65 to 75 cities with populations of over a million. In addition, it has 13 cities with over four million inhabitants and six mega cities (10 million or more). Many municipalities face problems in managing water, sewage and transportation.

Similarly, Indonesian Public Works Minister Djoko Kirmanto told the delegates in the hall that his ministry lacks the budget to distribute resources to around 400 districts and municipalities spreading across 17,000 islands.

Djoko highlighted that over half (52 percent) of Indonesia’s population already resides in the cities, including 16 metropolitan areas, and the number is expected to rise to 60 perent by 2025.

“Our ministry looks after more than 7.2 million hectares of irrigation areas, about 78,000 kilometers (48,467 miles) of roads, 340 local companies for treating water and 378 solid waste companies,” he said at the joint plenary titled “Sustainable Development: Our cities, water and environment.”

China’s Huai River Water Commissioner, Qian Min, also shared that his country is water-stressed due to the unequal distribution of rainfall.

“Sixty-seven percent of our population resides in the northern areas, which only receive 19 percent of the rainfall,” said the commissioner from the Water Resources Ministry (translated from Mandarin).

He added that the majority of the population are oblivious to the fact that underground water level in China has been receding and water conservation is one of the top priorities in the Chinese government’s development agenda.

In attending these three biennial summits, mayors, ministers and other concerned parties are hoping not only to raise the profile of these challenges in water and energy infrastructure, but to collect new innovations and insights as well.