CLEAN AND CLEAR

Mr Chiang Kok Meng has been involved
in two game-changing environmental
engineering projects in his life – the
Singapore River clean-up, which has
borne fruits that are visible to all; and
the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS),
a little-known underground marvel that is
revolutionising Singapore’s water story.

The day we achieve that [clean river], whoever has been in charge for the last ten years or for the next ten years, if I am still around, I will give each one of them – both the Minister, the Permanent Secretary and the head of department – a real solid gold medal, one troy ounce. "I don’t care what the price of it will be… But if it isn’t done… If I am still around and in charge in 1986, I will find out where it went wrong and whoever, whichever group of people made it go wrong and failed… Well, I have got special pieces of lead – not for striking medals – I think I’ll add it to their water supply."
- Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of Upper Peirce Reservoir, 27 February 1977, announcing the Government’s plan to clean up the Singapore River

"I still remember that speech,” says Mr Chiang. “I was very excited about the clean-up, yet worried about its scale.” The Singapore River clean-up was, after all, Mr Chiang’s first major project after returning in 1978 from his postgraduate studies in environmental engineering. Then 33, he was Chief Engineer, Pollution Control, at the Sewerage Department of the Ministry of the Environment. Apart from the Singapore River, he also managed the Kallang Basin clean-up.

Mr Chiang and his fellow engineers had good reason to be concerned. Before this massive operation, both waterways had been much-abused, with waste flowing into them from countless sources along their banks. “Another thing that surprised us when we did our surveys was that we found people living under some of the bridges on the river,” recalls Mr Chiang. “It may be hard to imagine now, but the water in those days was foul.”

Besides PUB, the decade-long effort would also involve agencies such as the Housing and Development Board, JTC Corporation, the Ministry of the Environment, the Port of Singapore Authority, the Primary Production Department, the Public Works Department and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Hundreds of bumboats along the Singapore River were moved to an anchorage at Pasir Panjang. Squatters, hawkers and vegetable sellers were also relocated, while countless sources of pollution were systematically tracked and eliminated. As for the waterways themselves, fetid mud was dredged from their banks and bottoms, with tonnes of rubbish cleared.

By 1987, the Singapore River had been completely transformed. And working on the clean-up prepared Mr Chiang and his team to take on what would be Singapore’s largest environmental engineering project and the first of its kind in the region – DTSS, a cutting-edge sewerage super-highway for used water.

Inspired by a similar project in Chicago, Mr Chiang conceived of DTSS in 1995 when he was Director of the Environmental Engineering Division. When it is fully operational, DTSS will have two major tunnels that collect used water from homes and industries around the island and convey it to water reclamation plants in the east and west. “The project requires extensive tunnelling work, the construction of two water reclamation plants and long sea outfalls,” says Mr Chiang. “When completed, it will allow every drop of used water to be recycled.”

DTSS promises to reap other benefits by eliminating the need for pumping stations and freeing up land for other uses. On National Day in 1998, DTSS received the green light. The hard work began in 2000. Not only does DTSS run under major roads, expressways and MRT lines, its undersea sections are close to telecommunication structures. “We can do all the planning and extensive soil investigation work in advance, but things can go wrong in the execution if we aren’t careful,” says Mr Chiang. “One needs to be very patient and thorough to see such a long-haul project through.”

Following the completion of DTSS’ Phase 1 in 2005, Mr Chiang decided it was time to retire. Having spent close to 30 years as an engineer, he felt his younger colleagues were ready to see through the remaining phases of the project (with final completion of the entire system due in 2024). DTSS has also received global accolades; in 2009, it received the Water Project of the Year honours at the Global Water Awards.

One evening in 2011, Mr Chiang sat down with a book he’d bought. It was Mr Lee’s Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. It came with a DVD of interviews. In one audio clip, Mr Lee reiterated Singapore’s single-minded commitment to water:

By 1987, the Singapore River had been completely transformed. And working on the clean-up prepared Mr Chiang and his team to take on what would be Singapore’s largest environmental engineering project and the first of its kind in the region – DTSS, a cutting-edge sewerage super-highway for used water.

Inspired by a similar project in Chicago, Mr Chiang conceived of DTSS in 1995 when he was Director of the Environmental Engineering Division. When it is fully operational, DTSS will have two major tunnels that collect used water from homes and industries around the island and convey it to water reclamation plants in the east and west. “The project requires extensive tunnelling work, the construction of two water reclamation plants and long sea outfalls,” says Mr Chiang. “When completed, it will allow every drop of used water to be recycled.”

DTSS promises to reap other benefits by eliminating the need for pumping stations and freeing up land for other uses. On National Day in 1998, DTSS received the green light. The hard work began in 2000. Not only does DTSS run under major roads, expressways and MRT lines, its undersea sections are close to telecommunication structures. “We can do all the planning and extensive soil investigation work in advance, but things can go wrong in the execution if we aren’t careful,” says Mr Chiang. “One needs to be very patient and thorough to see such a long-haul project through.”

Following the completion of DTSS’ Phase 1 in 2005, Mr Chiang decided it was time to retire. Having spent close to 30 years as an engineer, he felt his younger colleagues were ready to see through the remaining phases of the project (with final completion of the entire system due in 2024). DTSS has also received global accolades; in 2009, it received the Water Project of the Year honours at the Global Water Awards.

One evening in 2011, Mr Chiang sat down with a book he’d bought. It was Mr Lee’s Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. It came with a DVD of interviews. In one audio clip, Mr Lee reiterated Singapore’s single-minded commitment to water:

Are we not vulnerable? This is a frugal government, you know. We dug a deep tunnel for the sewers at a cost of $2 billion in order to use our sewage water for NEWater – to be independent.

“Hearing those words of Mr Lee, I felt a great sense of pride,” recalls Mr Chiang.