Urban Waters I – of canals, culverts, and underground networked flows

Water and its circulation through the city is a complex and interesting element, surfacing its politics, metabolism and flow through the urban environment. This post marks the first-of-three-series as I explore the flows of urban waters in Singapore. The first two posts surfaces the networked flows of urban waters in Singapore, focusing on the relationship between governmentality and infrastructural change through the urban histories of such flows and its evolution in recent years; while the third post explores the emerging sector of reclaimed water. Through these posts, I surface the oft hidden flows –  out of sight, yet very essential for the functioning of everyday life, and explore how socio-political and technological advances may allow for sustainable development in water-scarce Singapore.

There has been a long-standing prominence on the agency of urban technological networks in shaping and developing urban spaces (Gandy, 2004) and how the state taps on such networks to centralize its administrative control over territory (Swyngedouw, 2015) – that of urban water infrastructure is no different. To fully grasp the topic in context, let us appreciate the urban history of such flow in context (explore other blogs).

Post-independence, keen interest was paid on environmental initiatives through a ‘clean and green’ model, deemed important in creating an environment attractive to inward investments and a highly mobile professional workforce (Neo, 2007). Above greening initiatives, water flows were also identified as key to improving the sanitation of the city. Through the urban history of such flows and Foucault’s analytics of governance and the ‘milieu’, I provide an entry point into the wider interactions between everyday practices, technologies and politics (Taylor, 2011).


Fig 1: Networked flows of water in Singapore (source: PUB, 2017)

Like many developed cities, Singapore turned to the use of concrete canals as a medium for hydrological flows to efficiently get the water off the land and into the sea/ reservoir. Consequently, to decrease its reliance on Malaysia for imported water, Singapore sought to increase its local catchment areas and anti-pollution measures (inexplicitly linked to water quality). Trapezoidal canals and culverts were built across the city, giving rise to a network of flows that efficiently conveyed the flows to the reservoirs and the sea (Fig 1) – a seemingly normal sight of our everyday life, but viewed through the UPE lens, exemplifies a disciplinary system of containment and control, through which the state regularizes the flows and rhythm of water through design considerations (PUB, 2017) and separation from contaminated circulations (Scott, 1998).

Further, with the provision of water by the state, and through the provision of water to domestic and non-domestic customers, the reach of the government extends into our everyday lives. This blurs the private-public sphere boundary, allowing for the ‘monitoring’ of our water usage through water meters and the subsequent introduction of pricing mechanisms, intervention measures and even app games!

Other education materials:

The underground nature of such flows and its segregation from the public distances our understanding of how governance has been exercised in respect to the material environment (Foucault, 2007). But is the state always right and is this disciplinary governance all encompassing? Stay tuned!

[500 words]


Foucault, M. (2007) Security, territory, population, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gandy, M. (2004) ‘Rethinking urban metabolism: water, space and the modern city’, City, 8:3, 363-379.

Neo, H. (2007) ‘Challenging the developmental state: nature conservation in Singapore’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 48.2, 186-199.

PUB (2017) ‘Planning & Design’ (WWW) Singapore: PUB (https://www.pub.gov.sg; 27 October 2017).

Swyngedouw, E. (2015) Liquid power: contested hydro-modernities in twentieth-century Spain, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Taylor, V. and F. Trentmann (2011) ‘Liquid politics: water and the politics of everyday life in the modern city’, Past and Present, 211, 199-241.


Published by

Yi Ming Ang

University College London Undergraduate Year 3 GEOG 3076 Urban Political Ecology Module

One thought on “Urban Waters I – of canals, culverts, and underground networked flows”

  1. Hi Yi Ming,

    I really enjoyed reading your post, especially since I have never really paid much attention to these networks. I guess I won’t be able to look at the canal behind my house the same way as before – now knowing its importance to our everyday lives. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s