Why should Singapore amp up water conservation efforts to green 80% of its buildings?

Ravinder Sajwan, CEO of Renew Group, talks about why greening 80% of Singapore’s buildings by 2030 should start with water conservation

On May 13, 2022, Singapore recorded the highest ever temperature for May—36.7 deg C. This followed the intense heat wave that gripped South Asia, especially India and Pakistan, in March and April. According to reports, this «once-a-century event» was made 30 times more likely by human-induced climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, events like this are only going to persist. 

Today, as the climate crisis worsens, it is now more than ever that there is the urge  to cut down greenhouse gas emissions. A key to this is green buildings.

Building sustainable cities through green buildings

According to UNEP, the building sector is responsible for 37% of all energy-related global carbon emissions. In Singapore alone, the sector accounts for over one-third of the country’s total electricity consumption. Furthermore, to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the International Energy Agency suggests that direct CO2 emissions from buildings need to halve by 2030. To add to this, the building stock in Asia and Africa is expected to double in the next three years.

The problem is evident—there is an urgent need to tackle emissions from buildings. Recognizing this, more countries are emphasizing the need for green buildings, among other measures. Singapore, notably, is one of the early adopters of sustainable building initiatives.

For instance, in February 2021, the Government of Singapore launched the Singapore Green Plan 2030, or the Green Plan, a nationwide movement to further its sustainable development goals. Under the five key pillars of the plan, one important target is to green 80% of the city’s buildings by 2030. 

As per The World Green Building Council, a green building is one that «in its design, construction or operation, reduces or eliminates negative impacts, and can create positive impacts, on our climate and natural environment…preserve precious natural resources and improve our quality of life».

Efficient use and management of natural resources, like water, is a key aspect of what makes a building green. Not to mention water’s instrumental role in human survival. 

Understanding water sustainability 

According to Ravinder Sajwan, CEO of Renew Group, climate change is already here. What we can do now is to take care of the resources that are being affected by the climate crisis. «The problem we’re going to face going forward is not what the climate has done, it is the fact that we don’t know how to manage the resources».

At its simplest level, Sajwan said, humans need water to live and grow food. Not only is water a finite resource, but it also needs processing to be fit for consumption and other uses. 

While a natural solution is to store rainwater, there are not enough rainwater storage facilities to feed the world’s population. «Accordingly, we need to figure out a way to either clean existing water or create new drinking water».

Along with a soaring global population, water consumption is also increasing at an alarming rate. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), for example, has warned that over five billion people are likely to face a water shortage by 2050. Additionally, the report stressed the need for urgent action to improve water management. 

HANS™ Premium Water Production Plant in Wixom, Michigan, U.S. Credits Renew Group

How to approach water sustainability

Sajwan explained that there are three important factors to consider when it comes to water sustainability. «Sustainability starts with a simple fact. If you have a resource that is limited, you first figure out how to reduce its use. Then, you reclaim what you have sent down the drain, and then, you recycle that. And that’s what I call renewing the water cycle».

Secondly, as the population grows, the focus usually shifts to drinking water. However, what we forget is, every consumer product, including a plastic bottle of water, requires more water to create. «If you have one car, it probably costs 100 gallons of water to make. The second car was also 100 gallons. But if you’re not using the second car, you just wasted 100 gallons down the road».

«The third piece of sustainability is that electricity is required to pump water from where it’s created to your home. So the more water you reuse and waste, the more energy you require. On the other hand, a lot of water is required to make energy. So it’s a vicious cycle».

Put simply, fossil fuels, one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions, are burnt for powering buildings. To facilitate this—from extraction to cooling, cleaning, and transportation—large volumes of water are used up. Thus, ultimately, there is a vicious cycle between energy and water. 

Singapore and its water conservation challenges

When it comes to water sustainability, every city and country is battling its own issues. Take Las Vegas for example, where Lake Mead is facing its lowest water level due to drought and climate change. So much so that the parched lake has exposed multiple dead bodies from as early as the mid-1970s or early 1980s.

Singapore, however, Sajwan said, has had one significant advantage. «When they started, they planned the city so that you could collect rainwater. It’s a small city, so the pumping is easier and they created a redundant infrastructure, so they have multiple places where they make water. So, if one plant fails, there’s enough supply still remaining».

Even so, here’s the problem—due to Singapore’s limited land, there’s not enough space to store water. «So, the city has to figure out how to constantly create new water without actually having to store it». So, what exactly can Singapore do?

Technology: A key driver in water sustainability

For Singapore, like many of its counterparts, having a green plan alone won’t suffice. To meet its green building goals, the country first needs to educate its consumers. «Unless you train and retrain and educate the consumer, it’s very tough to say that the government can do it».

Secondly, it has to create water resources within the local economy. Typically, in housing development buildings in Singapore, water goes in and then drains out. The solution, Sajwan explained, is to focus on each apartment to «reduce the water’s usage, reclaim, and recycle locally».

One way to do this is by using technology to ensure that every liter of water that goes into a building is used at least twice, he added. Capturing and recycling water used in air conditioners and chillers and then reusing it is one example. Along with this, buildings can implement technologies to convert «dirty» water into irrigation or drinking water. 

Then, there are motion sensors that consumers can use to regulate water usage, Sajwan said. Some hotels in Singapore, for instance, are using sensors in showerheads to save up to 24% water, he claimed. This works in a simple way—when the user is under the shower, it offers full water flow, and when the user is away, the flow automatically halves. «Those are the ideas which are easy to implement and should be done», Sajwan stressed. 

Using smart water treatment solutions

Ultimately, Sajwan believes that the focus should be on locally creating water. According to him, desalination plants in Singapore cost about $2 to $3 billion and can take five to seven years to build. Moreover, desalination plants require high-pressure energy. And «for every liter you pump in, half a liter comes out—the other half is lost». 

Therefore, he insists that rather than building a $2 billion desalination plant, they should focus on making one hundred $2 million plants. This, he added, «creates redundancy, creates infrastructure which is much more manageable, and if something fails, 99% is still working».

To facilitate this, Renew Group developed the HANS premium water RO system, a result of the company’s philanthropic efforts in India. When tasked with building a water filtration system for a village at 8000 feet above sea level near Tehri Dam, it took the company nine months. Even then, Sajwan recalled, the product was far from perfect. After returning to the US, the team brainstormed how they could create a modular system that they could manage remotely. After three long years of research and development, the result was the HANS RO system.

About the HANS water RO system

A modular and smart water treatment system, the RO system works alongside other HANS products such as water treatment modules and redundancy pumps. Firstly, Sajwan claimed that the system can recover about 80% of water, with only 20% lost. Secondly, the product focuses on localization.

«With our machine, we can clean 40,000 liters of water a day,« he claimed. What’s more, while a desalination plant needs up to half an acre of land, HANS can give the same output using 2,000 square meters of space.

«If you need more, you can just keep adding machines. So, you don’t have to wait for a $2 billion plant—you make what we call small micro plants. We believe the easier way to solve the water crisis is to not go to central plants, but come down to what we call microgrids».

Furthermore, the RO system has in-built Internet of Things(IoT), cloud storage, and WiFi. As a result, users can remotely manage the system, and automatically know when to change the filters. 

«With those things, you can create a new system where infrastructure cost is lower, operational cost is lower, and you’re getting more water and better water for a much, much lower cost. Because we redesigned the pump and the filters, it also has a ridiculously low power cost. This allows us to run it directly off solar».

About the cost of RO system

In terms of the cost, he explained that the RO system in itself accounts for a one-time cost, which is certainly more expensive than a regular RO system in the market. Typically, Renew Group leases the product to customers at a flat fee of $150 a month, where they automatically take care of its maintenance. 

«For a regular RO system in the market, while the cost is cheaper, the output will be really bad after three months and you have to keep changing the filters», he alleged. «There’s no intelligence in it to tell when you should change the filter. In fact, a lot of times, people get bad water after three months because they don’t change their filters».

That said, the HANS RO system is not without limitations. To explain, it cannot directly filter seawater as salt water can «choke» the filters.

In Singapore, the Rene Group’s customers include the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which uses the HANS RO system in its banquet halls. «They use it for sustainability because they no longer buy bottled water. They just fill glass jars and give that as water supply to people in the banquet hall». 

Need a collective effort from governments, businesses, and individuals 

At the end of the day, to achieve water sustainability and green buildings, governments, businesses, and individuals have to work in tandem. However, more often than not, even when consumers strive to be eco-friendly, they lack access to affordable sustainable choices. Experts believe that businesses can help bridge this «aspiration-action gap».

As per Professor Edward Walker, a social scientist at UCLA and Stanford University, «initial catalysts» that impact public consciousness can bring forth wide-reaching social changes. In other words, Walker’s research suggests that when businesses take action, it can initiate catalytic systemic changes. 

That said, businesses too are struggling to implement green technologies due to cost concerns and lack of technical know-how. Sajwan explained that for businesses in Singapore, with growing water demand, water cost is also rising. «If you are not smart about how to reduce the usage and recycle the water, your net on the bottom line is going to go down. Because water can become a very large cost for many businesses which are in the consumer products space».

Once businesses focus on recycling water, they can not only save costs but more importantly, save water. This is where they can incorporate smart water treatment solutions within buildings, facilitating the continuous recycling of wastewater. These systems, like HANS RO System, reclaim wastewater, recover up to 80% of the water, and integrate it back into the circular economy.

Conversely, Sajwan added that the government should empower businesses to make sustainable choices. To illustrate, they can give water at a discounted rate to businesses that reduce their water usage. Ultimately, it all leads back to individual consumers, he noted.

«Everybody has to look at water as not a climate change issue anymore—it’s a personal issue. Most people don’t know that more than 50% of world health care costs are because of waterborne diseases. Clean water is essential to your health. So whatever you can do, make sure you don’t waste water, and keep it clean…You have to get the consumers to understand how important it is. People are getting that now. But there still needs to be a lot more work done».

Renew Group

Renew Group manufactures and distributes multi-industrial products such as medical devices, water processing systems, and other utility systems. Based in Singapore, the company has offices in the USA and Europe. It offers products in the medical, energy, and water sectors in Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, India, and the Middle East.

Reethu Ravi

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.