PUB to take on role as national coastal protection agency

Breakwater structures along the coastline at East Coast Park. PUB will work with other agencies and parties to coordinate policies to help ensure better decisions on land use, development and activities to protect the coastline.
Breakwater structures along the coastline at East Coast Park. PUB will work with other agencies and parties to coordinate policies to help ensure better decisions on land use, development and activities to protect the coastline.LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE PHOTO

National water agency PUB will take on an additional role as Singapore's national coastal protection agency to defend the country against climate change and rising sea levels.

It will work with other agencies and parties to coordinate policies to help ensure better decisions on land use, development and activities to protect the coastline.

This was among several changes to the Public Utilities (Amendment) Bill passed yesterday.

Said Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli: "Planning and investing long-term for coastal defences and national flood protection will be critical to ensure that Singapore has adequate resources to meet this challenge."

To this end, the Bill also formalises the setting up of the Coastal and Flood Protection Fund, first announced in Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's Budget speech.

The fund will be used to pay for physical barriers such as sea walls and dykes to keep seawater out, outlet pumps to pump out floodwaters into the sea, and the expansion of the inland drains network, said Mr Masagos.

The Government will inject $5 billion into the fund from Budget 2020, representing "our generation's contribution", he added.

Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) and Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) had asked about the sustainability of the fund.

Mr Masagos said the Government will be able to save up across successive terms and will top it up "whenever our fiscal situation allows".

It will also tap other sources to fund these measures, such as through borrowing, he added, saying it would "distribute the share of funding more equitably across current and future generations".

Another change to the law will give PUB greater oversight over desalination and Newater plants that PUB has worked with private sector companies to build and operate.

Six out of the current 10 such plants are under this design-build-own-operate (DBOO) model.

While there are already contractual safeguards to ensure the security of Singapore's water supply, said Mr Masagos, the new legislative safeguards will bring the regulatory regime of these plants in line with those of other critical infrastructure such as telecommunications.

The fund will be used to pay for physical barriers such as sea walls and dykes to keep seawater out, outlet pumps to pump out floodwaters into the sea, and the expansion of the inland drains network, said Mr Masagos.

With the changes, the PUB will have to give approval for anyone to become a substantial controller of the companies that run these plants. The minister will also be able to issue Special Administration Orders directing such companies be taken over by another party, to ensure the continued operations of the DBOO plant.

Ms Lee had asked if these legislative levers were triggered by the woes of water treatment firm Hyflux, which applied in 2018 for court-supervised restructuring and defaulted on its debt payments.

The home-grown company operated the Tuaspring DBOO desalination plant.

Mr Masagos said the review on oversight over DBOO plants had started before the Hyflux saga, adding: "That said, the Hyflux situation was a reminder that we need to exercise proper oversight over our DBOO plants which are a key part of our water supply infrastructure, and have effective levers to intervene when necessary to ensure Singapore's water security."

He added that in the case of Tuaspring, the robust contractual safeguards had allowed PUB to "successfully execute the contractual remedies" and take over the plant.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2020, with the headline 'PUB to take on role as national coastal protection agency'. Print Edition | Subscribe