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When it didn't rain, you just queued up

DRAWN TO WATER: People collecting water from a Public Utilities Board wagon. The 1960s was marked by bouts of water shortage, and the longest water-rationing lasted about a year.


    Mar 05, 2014

    When it didn't rain, you just queued up

    FEBRUARY has been the driest month on record since 1869 - and we can talk about it while taking a dip in the pool.

    But in the days before Singapore had shored up its defences against dry spells, the lack of rain sometimes meant going without a shower. Water supply would be cut off for up to 12 hours a day.

    When water was being rationed in the 1960s, Mr Benedict Henry Nathan, then 11, remembers hitting the jackpot. While others fumed, he and his family spotted a construction site, awash with water, near their home in Little India.

    Along with his two older brothers and his father, he would sneak in to take a bath. Their joy was short-lived. They were spotted and, after two days, the place was locked up.

    The family settled for a thorough wipe with a wet towel, recalls Mr Nathan, now 63.

    The rationing lasted almost a year, ending in February 1964, when heavy rains led to floods.

    Clean water on tap, 24 hours a day, may have dimmed the memory, but Singapore's early days were marked by bouts of water shortage caused by a lack of rain. Even now, as the country works towards becoming self-sufficient, dry spells can spell unease.

    Back then, families used to monitor the radio to find out when water would be available on tap. Then they would use every container available to store it - including the bathtub. If you didn't store enough, you had to queue up at public taps or wait for water wagons.

    Those splashing water were spied upon by neighbours. One reader wrote to The Straits Times in May 1963, asking "why the gentleman living opposite me still finds it necessary to water his lawn non-stop for 14 minutes a day".

    Former Cabinet minister Othman Wok said: "We didn't have rain, the water level came down, it had to be done."

    Then a journalist with Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu, he remembers following then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to Johor, to visit a reservoir which was a large source of water for Singapore. The water level had plunged.

    The situation was even more dire if you came from a large family, as Madam Dass Josephine, one of 10 children, learnt first-hand.

    "We didn't waste water on gardening and other things. Drinking water was the most important," said the 63-year-old office attendant.

    Subsequent water-saving campaigns allowed Singaporeans to experience water rationing even when there was no water shortage. The last one was in 2011.

    Back then, Mr N. Narayana, 86, recalls that Mr Lee appeared on their black-and-white TV to show people how to brush their teeth using a cup of water, so that not a drop was wasted.

    In 1970, Mr Lee stressed the the importance of observing the Singapore-Malaysia water agreements, saying: "It is a matter of life and death... it can lead to war," he told Singapore officials.

    These days, Singaporeans may cope differently with a water shortage. "There's so much bottled mineral water now. I think people will just buy them and shower using that," said Madam Josephine.