Our country’s future: Existential challenges

as we are about to celebrate our 50 years of Independence, let us make water security our No.1 priority for the future. For once, let us be Singapore in the matter of our future water security

The English magazine The Economist’s Special Report in its January 27, 2018 issue is about ‘The future of war’. In its concluding section subtitled ‘Man and machine’ it warns that the revolution in military robotics empowered by AI (Artificial Intelligence) poses entirely new dangers, possibly ‘of an existential kind’.

The physicist Stephen Hawking has already sounded the alarm about the genuine possibility that AI will overtake humans, leading to the annihilation of the human race. That is because, as the Special Report points out, autonomous machines such as advanced military robots may well get out of human control and literally go on a rampage, destroying not only themselves but the human race too, as all systems on which we depend irrevocably shut down because of cyber warfare and other killer apps that the great powers unleash.

The human element in initiating the use of lethal force in war has so far been a widely agreed criterion between warring powers. If it is overrun, we are definitely doomed – that is, we may cease to exist. Hence the existential risk to the future of mankind. As a small island state, we will inevitably be caught up in any such scenario, and simply disappear.

The only consolation, if at all it is one, is that this not for tomorrow. However, we don’t even have to reach that stage to face doomsday, because not far from us, Cape Town in South Africa is already facing an existential crisis. With a three-year drought that is persisting and no rain in sight (despite the flash a few days ago), the taps in Cape Town will run out of water. As a video clip shows, ‘not in 2100, not in 2050, but in April’. Then, from the currently allowed 23 gallons a day, residents will be forced to wait at specified distribution points under the watch of armed guards to collect only 6.5 gallons per head, the bare minimum required to maintain health and hygiene.

I got to appreciate the ominous dimension of this problem some days back: a lady from Cape Town told me how she was already recycling water – and how, under cover of darkness, she was fetching water from her mother’s farm outside Cape Town in her 4×4 a couple of times per week, and if she were caught she would land up in prison!

Come April, gardens and flowers will be left to wilt, and there will be no question of using appliances which consume water such a washing machines, etc. In other words, water will only be available for survival needs. Climate scientists are calling this coming scenario in Cape Town the ‘new normal’.

Water is life

There is no life without water. Think of any severe post cyclone period that all of us have experienced. What is first thing that we miss the most? It’s water. At least for a while, we wouldn’t care if there is no electricity and all the usual electronic gadgets are shut down – or, for that matter, if all the rest of the manmade things we are attached to are not available. But water, no – water we will not be able to do without.

In my humble opinion, therefore, as we are about to celebrate our 50 years of Independence, let us make water security our No.1 priority for the future. At the turn of the last century, some farsighted thinkers had already foreseen that the 21st century will be the century of water wars, as the foreboding signs of climate change were indeed indicating. But many did not take heed, and still do not. When I was in Cape Town at the beginning of this year, I was reading about how the water crisis there was the result of a mixture of politics and mismanagement.

For heaven’s sake let us not play politics with nor mismanage our water situation. Let us not take comfort from the recent spell of rains crowned by the beneficence of cyclone Berguitta that has filled our reservoirs to capacity, as I witnessed at Mare-aux-Vacoas for example during my trek to Ganga Talao on Monday last. If readers remember, we had a similar bounty post the December 2014 elections, but it was not long before we faced drought and the alarm bells rang. Periods of prolonged dryness have regularly alternated with an abundance of rains, topping up reservoirs and underground water tables. But what happens afterwards? They deplete, there are water cuts and unrest in different localities.

The causes for this in-between rainfall shortage have been identified by studies and surveys done, and they include leaking pipes as a major factor. What we have to do therefore is to address this and all other issues that have been identified as a matter of not national urgency but emergency, and put in place not only the infrastructure but the appropriate, failproof systems and procedures that must underscore the smooth running of the whole network of the collection, storage and efficient distribution of water on a 24/7 basis.

Along with this, and starting in primary schools, and making use of all social media platforms, we must on a daily basis educate our population about how to use and not abuse water, and also encourage water saving and conservation measures at all levels of usage.

For once, let us be Singapore in the matter of our future water security. Remember: water is our primary requirement for health and hygiene, the basics of our very survival. Everything else is secondary – and let us not reach the critical stage of the ‘new normal’ alluded to above by surprise.

Power supply

To my mind, power supply comes next to water as far as our future survival is concerned. If without water there is no life, then without power there is no modern living as we know it, and electricity is foremost on this count. Besides, we will need electricity to run our public and domestic water pumps, filters, and machines of all kinds.

In the national interest there must be a bipartisan approach and consensus to the problem, beginning with resolving the issues between the IPPs and the CEB well into the future, and speeding up the share of renewable energy as a source of power.

From communications to telecommunications to transport, everything is facilitated and made faster by electricity. But we will not cease to be if, as in the olden days, things were to be made slower. We came through by adjusting and adapting, and we will surely do so in case of necessity. And that may not be necessarily a bad thing, the slowing down. However, we will not have to do so if we have power security, and that is why it is No. 2 priority.

Value education

Increasingly, as humans we are alienating ourselves from each other even as our means of personal communication become gadget-smarter. However, a more fundamental problem is captured in a refrain that we have heard over and over again: the quality of the persons who run our country and its institutions. This is what primarily determines the image of the country, its governance record, the soundness and trust content of its law and order and justice systems, the satisfaction level in the services that are delivered, and so on and so forth. For at every level, at every point of contact, it is the human factor that makes all the difference – even, I would daresay, to the point of our viability as a nation. Don’t the management experts repeat that management is about the ‘man’ part?

Cutting across cultures and all other considerations, our educational system must include from a young age the teaching of human values so that by the time they reach the age of reason children will understand and put into practice modes of behaviour that ensure self-care and care for others, and mutual respect and desire for peaceful living. In this way they will graduate into adulthood with a mindset of working effortlessly towards their common welfare and well-being, thus guaranteeing their safe and sound future lives, in a spirit of cooperation rather than killer competition.

It goes without saying that both the State and civil society must fully play their roles in this march towards the future, and the issue should not be about how much/how less state, but how both together can maximize and optimize the available resources to achieve the goal of sustainability into the future.

This may sound idealistic if not utopian, but if we reflect for a while, we will realize that we have really no other option if we want to survive our threatened predicament. The alternative is too dire to envisage.


* Published in print edition on 16 February 2018

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