Singapore’s legacy in sanitation provides lessons for developing world, WaterAid research finds

14 Apr 2015

WaterAid Press Release
For immediate release – 14 April 2015

Developing world cities can learn lessons from the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore when it comes to modernising slums with safe water and proper sanitation, new WaterAid analysis has found.

Strong political leadership, public infrastructure, planning and monitoring, as demonstrated in South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, can transform cities with universal or near-universal access to safe water and sewerage systems in just a few decades, contributing to dramatically improved public health and levels of wealth.

These findings are all the more significant as the United Nations works toward a new set of Sustainable Development Goals this year. WaterAid is campaigning for an ambitious goal on water and sanitation as well as inclusion of water and sanitation in targets for health, education and gender rights, as part of a campaign to deliver safe water and basic sanitation to everyone, everywhere by 2030.

In all four country case studies, fundamentals included the role of leaders in breaking down technocratic barriers to include sanitation in health, education and housing planning, and in forging a new national identity though campaigns like “Keep Singapore Clean”.  Sanitation was seen as a foundation for national development.

A whole-government approach and high-level responsibility for planning, implementation, monitoring and promotion can help overcome the great challenges posed by poverty.

The findings suggest there is no threshold for national income to begin work on universal access to sanitation. For instance, in the 1960s, South Korea’s per-capita GDP was lower than that of many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

By 1990, when UNICEF and the World Health Organization began their international water supply and sanitation monitoring programme, all four nations had achieved near-universal access and become wealthier societies with strong economies.

Tim Brewer, co-author of the report and WaterAid policy analyst on monitoring and accountability, said: 

"East Asia’s successes in delivering sanitation and water challenge current approaches in other parts of the developing world. Providing access to these basic services requires them to be included in housing, education and community health at every stage of development. They are essential to workforce productivity and general well-being, and they cannot and should not be left as afterthoughts.

"If we are to eradicate poverty in the next 15 years, as the United Nations finalises the new Sustainable Development Goals, access to safe water and basic sanitation must remain a priority for developing and donor nations. They are key to modernisation and the basic foundation for all development.”

At least 748 million people in the world do not have access to clean drinking water and 2.5 billion do not have access to basic sanitation; of these, 1 billion still practise open defecation. It is estimated that nearly half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s hospital beds at any one time are taken up by people with preventable illnesses linked to a lack of safe water, basic sanitation and good hygiene.

Under the current UN Millennium Development Goals, which expire later this year, a goal to halve the proportion of people without sanitation is among the most off-track.

To read the report, please follow this link.

For more information or to arrange an interview please contact Carolynne Wheeler, News Manager, on [email protected] or +44 (0) 207 793 4485, or Fiona Callister, Media Relations Lead, on [email protected] or +44 (0) 207 793 5022 or [email protected] or after-hours line +44 (0) 7887 521 552.

Notes to Editors

  • WaterAid’s Tim Brewer will chair a lunchtime panel, ‘What does it take to reach universal access to sanitation,’ at the World Water Forum in Korea on Thursday 16 April. For more details, please contact the press office above.
  • The report, funded by the HSBC Water Programme, is introduced by Naina Lal Kidwai, Chairman India & Director HSBC Asia Pacific. Launched in 2012 and backed by an investment of US$ 100m over five years, the HSBC Water Programme is a partnership with three NGOs – Earthwatch, WaterAid and WWF. The programme also funds local projects proposed by HSBC employees.
  • WaterAid’s vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water and sanitation.  The international organisation works in 26 countries across Africa, Asia, Central America and the Pacific Region to transform lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in some of the world’s poorest communities.  Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 19.2 million people with safe water and, since 2004, 15.1 million people with sanitation.  For more information, visit, follow @WaterAidUK on Twitter or visit us on Facebook at
  • Nearly 1,400 children die every day from diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation.
  • 748 million people are without safe water, or one in 10 in the world.
  • 2.5 billion people are without adequate sanitation, or 39% of the world's population.