17 years ago today, LKY said this about S’pore’s journey toward water independence


At the Marina Barrage Commencement Ceremony on Mar. 22, 2005, Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke about Singapore’s water story and how the PAP government delivered on the promise to clean up rivers.

Here is his speech in full.

The Singapore River was an open sewer that smelt worse year by year from my school days at RI in the 1930s to 1980s. So also were Geylang, Rochor and Kallang rivers that flow into the reclaimed marina. The stench in the City was dreadful at low tide. 

In 1977, a blind clerk in Lee & Lee told my wife that he knew when his bus was approaching the Singapore River on his way to work. He could smell the sulphur dioxide.

I challenged the Environment Ministry to make it possible to fish in these rivers in 10 years. I promised I would give each of the officers a gold medal.

Ten years later in 1987, I participated in the Clean Rivers Commemoration. I awarded gold medals to the officers who had done the job  Lee Ek Tieng (then Perm Secretary Ministry of Environment), Tan Gee Paw (then Director of Environmental Engineering) and their team of dedicated officers. They had done a remarkable job to clean up the Singapore, Geylang, Rochor and Kallang rivers. It was an inter-ministry’s success involving the Environment Ministry, National Development Ministry, the HDB, Land Office, PSA, JTC, Primary Production Department, PWD, URA, Parks and Recreation Department, and the Resettlement Department.

HDB helped more than 26,000 families, resettled from squalid squatter huts into flats. Every remaining brick or concrete building left in the catchment of these rivers was connected to sewers. People stopped throwing rubbish into the rivers. 5,000 street hawkers were relocated into purpose-built food centres. 2,800 riverine industries were moved into industrial estates. A multitude of pig farmers, vegetable wholesale and lighter operators were relocated. The most pollutive industries closed down. Anti-pollution measures were put into place and strictly enforced. Marine life revived in the rivers and the marina.

We now have an effective system of refuse collection and disposal. People must help to keep our drains and canals clean so that we can collect clean rainwater. Sullage water is connected separately by sewers on to reclamation plants. We are building a Deep Tunnel Sewerage System to free up land and make the treatment of waste water more effective lowering the cost of recycling.

Water supply

With this new Marina reservoir in the city, two-thirds of Singapore will become water catchment areas with one-sixth as the catchment of Marina Reservoir. The Marina Reservoirs storage capacity is not big enough. So excess water from the Marina Reservoir will be pumped to the Upper Peirce Reservoir for storage before treatment. We are linking up all the reservoirs for surplus water to be channelled to other reservoirs increasing the yield of water extracted by 14 per cent.

Flood alleviation

The barrage will alleviate floods that occur when heavy rain coincides with high tides. Low-lying areas in the city, Chinatown, Boat Quay, Jalan Besar and Geylang, will not have flooding, except for exceptional rain coinciding with very high tides. The flood-prone areas in Singapore will be cut from more than 3,000 hectares in the 1970s to 100 hectares by the end of 2007.

Lifestyle attraction

This marina lake can allow canoeing, skiing, water taxis and duck tours. We will need pollution control measures and navigational safety procedures. Facilities will be built for pleasure boaters. Vibrant and water-based events, and cultural performances, and international water sport can be staged on the Barrage itself.

Credit: PUB

A visitor centre built on this site will give the history of the challenges we faced and the opportunities we can grasp to ensure our future environment.

What next?

Any litter thrown carelessly into the canals in areas even as far as Ang Mo Kio and Alexandra will finally end up in the Marina. That very thought should make us want to protect its cleanliness and to prevent all drains, canals and rivers that flow into it from being polluted.

Today is World Water Day and its theme for the next decade is Water for Life. With the PUBs diversified water strategy of the four National Taps, there will be sustainable supply of water for all uses by 2061 when our Water Agreements with Malaysia ends, Singapore can be self-sufficient in water.

The government will provide the infrastructure. It is up to Singaporeans to maintain the clean and green environment we live in. They can make Singapore a unique city with a reservoir in the very centre of the CBD.


In 1987 I said it was possible, in another 20 years time breakthroughs in anti-pollution and filtration technologies can allow us to dam up the mouth of the Marina Channel, and create a freshwater lake in the Marina Bay.

Today, we mark the damming of the Marina Channel with this groundbreaking ceremony. The Marina Barrage will be completed in 2007. Marina Reservoir will store 10 per cent of our current water demand. The barrage will also control floods and that the water level can be held steady instead of exposing the dry rivers at low tide. Water level in the Marina Reservoir will not go down at low tides. This will enhance the aesthetics of the city and make our skyline scenic.

Cover photo credit: Allen Ng on Unsplash