From Trucks to Bags of Water: Singapore’s Contingency for Water Shortage Then vs Now

Fong Cheng Wah/Facebook
Fong Cheng Wah/Facebook

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The unexpected has happened. An arterial pipe in your HDB flat has burst, impairing your water supply. So when Public Utilities Board (PUB) officers show up at your home to apologise and give you bags of drinkable water, which end of Singapore’s netizens do you side with? Do you think of those bags of water as your right as a citizen and resident of the block, or do you think of those PUB officers as the heroes we don’t deserve? 

Well, whichever side you’re on, one thing’s for sure. There weren’t many people who know that these transparent bags of crystal-clear water have been a PUB measure for a while now.


On 8 October, a Singaporean resident took to Facebook to share how he received bags of drinking water from PUB personnel when the water supply to his block was disrupted. He voiced that this was a privilege that Singaporeans didn’t deserve, garnering varied responses from netizens. 

Many deemed the original poster to be conceited, while some were quick to propose another probable reason why citizens received bags of water — to prevent people, especially seniors, from gathering to collect water because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And while that does sound like a probable cause for action, it looks like PUB has been using water bags as means of temporary water supply since (at least) 2019. In fact, all you need to do if you’re caught in a waterless situation is to call the PUB hotline. 

It’s no surprise that this has been a measure even before COVID-19 struck the world, especially given Singapore’s drinking water quality being something our government and nation prides itself on. Being able to drink water from the tap is definitely a privilege that many others don’t have. Not to mention, a definite plus is that tap water tastes better than boiled water, unless you like how kettles taste.

It’s Kind of a Novel Throwback

When the aforementioned Facebook post broke Singapore’s subreddit, Reddit user r/Christiary responded in recognition of how certain luxuries can be afforded by our country simply because we’ve come a long way. 


Wells were once a reality for our water supply, and for a long time, Singapore’s throat was parched, even though the British had chosen Singapore as their location for a trading post because of its access to freshwater. In 1819, the British spawned our first reservoir, near the foot of Fort Canning Hill. And even as far as 80 years down the road in the 1890s, the demand for water was far from being met, with water supply being curtailed to as little as two hours daily. It was only after almost a literal century of water shortages that the Johor water scheme was enacted in 1923. 

I’ll skim past the history lesson, but Singapore’s water supply almost always had a spotlight cast on it, up until a certain point of water security — which we’ve arguably, not even achieved completely. Demand continued to increase, and supply couldn’t scale nearly as fast. 

Then a Necessity, Now a Luxury… and That’s Okay

Water bags are but pristine indicators of all the baby steps and giant leaps we’ve made. If anything, they’re true markers of how we’re able to afford add-ons for some peace of mind. This also goes to show just how much the tables have turned for us. What we now treat as contingencies may once have been measures of necessity and reliance. 

Much like water bags were distributed in this instance, water was once distributed in Singapore through means of water trucks. When water networks and infrastructure wasn’t developed enough in the old days, water trucks and manual distribution were what kept the residents of Singapore hydrated. Even as recent as 50 years ago, Singapore still had to collect water in buckets from water trucks, needing to ration them across the day or week. One such incident happened in 1963, when Singapore did not heed appeals to use less water, running taps dry for an astonishing ten months

PUB Poster from 1996

And so as Reddit user r/Christiary said, having the infrastructure and developmental progress to be able to receive water in plastic bags at your doorstep doesn’t mean that we need to go back to the “good old days” just to remind ourselves what it’s like to feel the toils of life. 

As a population, we now face different struggles. While Singapore doesn’t have to worry about rationing its water for now, we worry about other things for future generations, the same way that our ancestors worked to build wells and complex piping that we have today to receive water. Now we work towards things like reversing climate change, and bringing balance to human rights issues so the world takes more baby steps forward. 

IH Digital for PUB

And as long as we look at these water bags as opportunities to count our blessings, we won’t get too far ahead of ourselves. After all, it’s in all of our best interests to make sure that we build a new water narrative, ensuring that these occasional contingencies never, ever become our “normal”. Water Wally would be proud.


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