Friday, October 16, 2009

Water Rationing (by Freddy Neo)

In 1962, Singapore and Southern Johore suffered a severe drought. Rain did not fall for months. At that time, Singapore had only three open reservoirs. MacRitchie was the biggest and Seletar (now upper Seletar) was the smallest. Peirce Reservoir (now Lower Peirce) was the third reservoir.

I grew up in a house near to the Peirce Reservoir. I often went to the reservoir with my father and siblings during weekends to walk or fish and we could see the dwindling water stock. The shoreline was receding. With each passing day, the shoreline was further and further away. All around, the dry bed was baked solid dry and cracking.

Peirce Reservoir was created from the damming of the Kallang River. It was completed in 1909. My maternal grandfather had a hand in its construction. He was a bullock cart driver who was engaged to transport granite blocks to the construction site. I suppose he would be today's equivalent of a lorry driver. Before it was built, there were villages on the banks of the river. The 1962 drought revealed some house sites. They were easily identifiable from the house foundations and relics of human habitation. In one of our walks we picked up a clay water pitcher that was in fairly good condition. Unfortunately, my little brother who was then about 6 years old, dropped it while carrying it home and it broke into many pieces.

When the situation became critical, water rationing was introduced. There was water from the tap only for a few hours a day. If I remember correctly, water supply was turned off from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm. Before the tap ran dry, we collected as much water as we could. Every pail, basin, pot and earthen jar was used as a receptacle to store water for the day. We would use the water in these containers for cooking or washing utensils only. For our daily showers, we have to wait until the water supply was restored in the evening. For some of us boys who did not want to wait until evening, we proceeded to a natural spring outside the Peirce Reservoir for our bath. I remember that there was water flowing even at the height of the drought. As the drought continued, I remember that there was talk of cloud seeding. I don't know if this was eventually carried out. To store even more water, my father went to buy an enormous oil drum. At the end of the day, my family used more water in spite of the rationing. If my family was typical, then water rationing did not really work.

Perhaps it didn't rain that year from about March or April and lasted to September or October. Water rationing only ceased when the year end monsoon came and filled up our reservoirs and the Tebrau River in Southern Johore.

20 comments:

Brian and Tess said...

A fascinating tale Freddy. I left Singapore in late August 1962 and cannot remember the drought at all, mind you it was not the sort of thing a teenager would worry about I suppose and maybe the Changi area where I lived was not badly affected until later, it would be interesting to know.

peter said...

Desperate times called for desperate measures. I still can remember when the Spore Government hired an Australian rainmaker called "Dr. Smith". Dr. Smith went up on a hired Cessna aircraft (from Paya Lebar Airport's Royal Flying School) to seed the clouds so that rain could fall. The project cost S$1m, a big sum in those days. Clouds formed but little rain fell. Nature tooks its course when several months later, the monsson rain came.

Even spiritual help was invoked with templs, churches and mosques praying for the rain.

The water supply from the Tebrau River dried up and Johore State went through water rationing as well. As a lt we could not draw on more water supply. This explained in later years the reason for the Singapore Government to further invest in the water project in Johore to dam more rivers in order to prevent a short supply in the future.


As my house was just behind the Lower Pierce Reservoir (near Rifle Range Road), you could see the mud flakes at the reservoir edges. Driving pass Mandai Road, you could also see the Seletar Reservoir also dried up with lallang vegetation far deep into the original reservoir area.

peter said...

The Straits Times did carry an article which blamed the strong winds for pushing the seeded dark cloudes towards Batam. It was reported that rain fell on Batam raterh than on Singapore after all the hard work and money spent.

Edward said...

Oh Freddy, your memory is very good on the water rationing in Singapore in 1962. This was also the year we had the referendum on the merger with Malaya which was "carried through" and Singapore formally merged the following year to form Malaysia.

Zen said...

Whenever I watch TV programmes on countries like Britain and Japan, I gather this impression that these two countries have a perennial supply of water. During my school days, my geography teacher (Mr Burnett, a Londoner), never mentioned UK ever suffered droughts. In Japan, we see water everywhere - in lakes, rivers, hot springs, waterfalls and temples receiving ever-flowing water from nearby mountains. The water sources of these two lucky countries seem limitless.

Edward said...

Zen,
Canada has more lakes than the rest of the world combined. My cousin lives about 10 minutes walk from Lake Ontario, one of the five great lakes. She told me that they have droughts too. Last summer they had water restriction but it wasn’t regulated by the authorities, just “voluntary restriction”. Everybody's gardens were brown. Even the water level at Niagara Falls (that's 2 hours drive away) were way down. I thought that was such an irony – droughts and water restrictions in Canada.

Lam Chun See said...

I only have vague recollection of the water rationing exercise. I am surprised that Freddy says the year was 1962 becos he, being the same age as me, would be only in Pr 4 then. I always thought it was later; maybe during our Sec school years.

I checked the Spore Infopedia website, and there was no mention. Neither could I find anything in my Sin Ming Daily commemorative complilation and the Ministry of Culture's Pictorial History (I was looking for pictures).

Brian and Tess said...

Singapore is vulnerable to drought for one simple reason - its small size and high density of population - hence the need for very good water storage given. I live in a relatively dry part of the UK - we have just gone over four weeks without any rain and have had very little in all since the first couple of days in September. But other parts of the UK to the north and west have had lots of rain - and that is where we have lakes and large water storage facilities. The place not to live is Australia, already experiencing rationing from time to time - too many people and too little rain despite the huge size of the continent. Don't move there!

peter said...

I believe not too long ago (in terms of the last 10 years), it was an offence to use a water-hose/garden hose to wash a car even within one's own property. Is that law still prevailing?

Lam Chun See said...

I think a few years back, when Spore was going thru a dry spell, the papers published daily figures of the water stocks. The intetion was to encourage people to conserve. But they stopped that later for strategic reasons; probably told by the govt to stop.

Zen said...

Edward - You are right, it seems that some countries with plenty of water do not know how blessed they are. Apparently they take the gift from nature for granted. A small country like Singapore is making a giant effort since the sixties to have sufficient water for its people. China is also diverting water from the yangtze to supply additional water to the fast drying-out yellow river so as to ease out the drought prone land of the north.

Edward said...

Chun See, this website gives some information on water rationing in Singapore:

http://itclub.vs.moe.edu.sg/competition04/entries/kcps1/Water%20Rationing%20in%20singapore.htm

Like you I was also surprised at the extent of the restrictions.

Zen said...

City dwellers do not care too much about water conservation. If they need it, just turn on the tap. We only sit up and complain only when the water levy goes up. Just give a thought to those farmers facing a severe drought or people stranded in the middle of a desert with a depeted supply of water. How would we react facing such a situation?

Edward said...

Many country towns in Victoria, Australia have had no water supply for a long time. Water is delivered there by tankers every day. As for the farmers, they rely on government subsidies and drought relief to keep them going. Some have already sold out or faced bankruptcies as the prolonged decade old drought takes its toll. It is not uncommon to hear the younger generations of well established farming families moving out of the rural districts. They witness their families struggling for years, facing financial ruin. For them there is no future in farming. Sadly this means an end to the long tradition of farming along “generational lines”. Of course the recent spate of rainfall has provided some relief but this is not expected to last. Occasionally you get floods in other parts of the continent while the drought is generally well entrenched.

You are right Zen – urban residents are relatively well off in this crisis. The water crisis has been much politicised over the past years and will undoubtedly continue to be a critical issue as the focus on climate change remains on the agenda.

We can learn from Singapore’s solution to her water problems, her goals of achieving self-sufficiency in water supply. The desalination plant in one point in mind, still highly controversial and not favoured by conservationists in general.

Zen said...

The Singapore govt must have sleepless nights over the water issue since independence, especially frequently being threatened by external source to cut off the water supply to us. One day my late uncle who was then working in EDB(during the sixties) told me that a certain country was helping Singapore to turn sewage water into drinking water. He added that particular scientist even displayed a test tube of sparkling water and drank it on the spot, saying: "Look this water is purified from sewage water!" I listened with much apprehension and wondered whether my uncle was telling a tall tale, probably from the Arabian Nights, but now after seeing the advent of newater, I know my uncle was telling the truth.

Tom said...

Tom said...
I remember the drought, and the water rationing in Singapore, I think Freddy was right, saying it was the year 1962,why I remember because I was coming back home to Selarang Barracks, after two weeks hunting for pirates of the shores north Borneo, and when we got back to the British Naval Base, and we were not allowed to go on shore, because we heard Typhoid had broken out in some parts of Singapore, after a few more days on the Ship, we were allowed back into Singapore.Zen I agree with you ,some people do waste alot of water,and take it for granted, where I live we have 9 reservoirs ,in and around Edinburgh we in Scotland are very very lucky to have plenty of water and some poor countries have none.

Victor said...

I remember "Old Master Q" (老夫子) at one time published a series of water-rationing comics but they were probably reflecting Hongkong's situation rather than Singapore's.

SL said...

Hi Freddy,
Thanks for the insightful sharing of Singapore's past.
I wonder does the picture on water rationing belong to you?
I would like to use ...

Thanks
Sweelian

Lam Chun See said...

SL. this photo was inserted by me. It does not belong to me. I think it was from another blogger or one of the Ministry of Culture's books. Too long ago to remember.

SL said...

Hi Freddy,
I wonder if I could do a audio interview with you on your water rationing experience?