2021, Senior, Creative Writing
The colour of water was red—its similarly coloured pails formed an assemblage not atypical of most Singaporean household toilets. Laundry in one hand and detergent in another, its alchemic combination turned the red water a frothy white. The chemical pungency of detergent metamorphosing into the sweet fragrance of lavender. In the era before Spotify, the only music available was the grand orchestra of laundry—rhythmic lapses of overflowing water, the bellowing of wet clothes being dunked in and out of the pails, crackling jets of water that churned as pails were filled.
In Chinese culture, red is the colour of good fortune. So, it was definitely quite the contrary when my mother, face as red as the water, began berating my reckless misuse of it. Any humanity visible in her eyes quickly dissipated, and in their place the aura of a Tiger—a Tiger Mum. Her shrill voice—a switchboard in constant motion between English and Mandarin—overshadowed the melodic aquatic symphony just moments prior. Red pails in tow, I accepted my punishment with a festering bitterness. A waterfall of rain at the base of my HDB block was my target, and my mission—to collect it. For what felt like an eternity, I stared at the trail of red raindrops sliding down the sides of the pail—a Formula One race as droplets gained speed with each one they subsumed before finally seeping into the ground below.
I, mind drifting like the grey rain clouds above me, pondered on the events that just occurred. I knew my mother grew up in a different time, where a glass of clean water meant a two-kilometre trek to the community tap, and the amount used determined not by the magnitude of the bill, but by the rationing officer stationed there. But that doesn’t matter now does it? Water now flows cheaply and freely out of our taps, argued a mini-me in a grand debate that only occurred in my head. But not wanting to face my mother’s wrath once again, I conceded, and the day’s events were forever etched in my memory. The colour of water was red.
The colour of water, or lack thereof, was yellow. 202 mm is the average monthly rainfall in Singapore—this 202 mm is what keeps our island’s rainforests lush and green under the scorching equatorial sun, replenishes our scarce supplies of freshwater, and allows us to stay cool in the tropics (Climate, Singapore, n.d). In February, only 0.2 mm fell upon a parched island—a taste of the increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions that would plague Singapore in the coming decades (BBC, 2014). Climate Change—it was the first time hearing the term thrown around on the news; images of fires and floods in foreign lands were plastered on screens while men in suits reassured us that nothing would change. For an 11-year-old, it was all too unfamiliar and abstract—all I knew was that the lush greenery that we as a nation took pride in had turned a crisp yellow in a matter of weeks. Without the rejuvenating effects of rain, leaves that crunched with every brisk step accumulated along streets, and trees that still had them were plagued with patches of yellow in their canopy. The allure of a cloud-free, azure blue sky pulled only the bravest, and perhaps most foolhardy among us, out of the safety of the indoors and into hell on earth. Once flowing with green-brown water and lined with lush vegetation, the canal I often frequented was now dry and yellow. Years of accumulated sediments left baking and cracking in the blistering heat. Gone were the avian cacophony of Kingfishers and Eagles, now replaced by the brushing of dried branches against the wind. The lack of water—the lack of life—will forever be remembered as the colour yellow.
Black was the colour of water that day—on Instagram, on the news, and on our beaches. A crisis, the collision of two container ships north of Singapore in Malaysia, sent 300 tonnes of oil riding south on the waves, smothering our Northeastern shoreline in a blanket of black gold. (Tan, 2017). The ensuing panic surfaced various concerns, from how our water supply would be affected to more trivial ones like whether beaches would still be accessible to the public. Even with a hasty clean-up of oil-contaminated sand and water, the damage had already been done. It also didn’t help that the majority of Singapore’s aquaculture industry—located on floating fish farms called kelongs—were also heavily impacted. Fear, panic—the atmosphere was thick with it after mass fish deaths and fears of contamination prompted a temporary ban on local seafood. The industry fell hard, and our seafood-dominated culinary landscape even harder. The ebb and flow of the tides deposited waves of dead and rotting marine life on our shores—poisoned, suffocated, intoxicated. I still remember their faces, the beady eyes, gaping mouths and oil-slicked bodies of Moray Eels and Pufferfishes who didn’t deserve to die. Even though I was accustomed to the sight of dead fish—in no part thanks to my mother who always brought me along to the market—the sight of these poisoned fish hit differently. As if it was a failure on our part, the failure to protect the non-human residents of Singapore and the failure to keep our waters clean. January 6th would have a new meaning, as the day that the water turned black—the colour of death and fear.
The colour of rising water is orange. The start of a new year signals the arrival of the Winter Monsoon—its torrential rainfall, cloudy skies, and sub-30° C weather delivers us from the torment of the sweltering summer heat. The rains have been increasing in intensity in recent years, but with cooler weather, no one is complaining, not even me. Out from the gloom, a high-pitched, repetitive siren—reminiscent of airport metal detectors—cuts through the sombre atmosphere and grey curtains of rain like a hot knife through butter. Bright orange warning lights up and down the river of Bishan—Ang Mo Kio Park illuminates the gloom, reduced to a faint orange warning people to stay away from the river. It was coming.
The silent sirens and halted rain brought many people out of their homes to enjoy the post-rain coolness. From the edge of the park the effects of the rain are obvious; what was once a clear meandering stream had swelled into an orange-brown torrent that had effectively turned the park into a giant storm drain. Lush thickets of weeds had now been submerged, and the stepping stones I often frequented were now the latest addition to the river bottom. As I walked along the water’s edge, the orange glow of the warning lights shimmered in the many puddles around the path; the floodwaters never failed to daunt me. But now more well-versed, a flurry of terms—controlled flooding, water catchment, nutrient renewal—swarmed my head and tried their best to explain the natural in the seemingly unnatural. But the park was not the only place with orange warning lights going off; the assurance of scientific jargon could only sadly go so far. Look closer—taking note of the higher-than-average flood waters. Look longer—the floods have been becoming increasingly frequent. Look harder—the waterline markers have been relocated to higher ground; when will the waters finally breach the park? But it’s not just the rivers that are rising, it’s the seas, too—will our coastal defences be enough? Will our beaches need orange warning lights as well? Rising water levels around the world threaten our land, our environments, our homes—and orange is its colour.
I never knew the colour of water could be so blue. Green-brown waters that always smelled faintly of waste, chemicals, and decay—these were the waters that I grew up knowing. If not for the images on screen or in books, it would have been all I ever knew. On holidays around Southeast Asia, from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, no matter how different the food or culture was, the same green-brown waters always brought a sense of home and familiarity. When I was nine, I was instantly mesmerised by New Zealand’s Lake Taupo—never-before-seen shades of blue, and snow-capped mountains that towered over even the tallest buildings in Singapore. “I can see through the water!” A new memory was formed, the gravel bottom slowly descending into the depths as a cloak of sapphire blue embraced it. The concrete walls and drains that lined the canals of Singapore were absent, replaced by natural gravel beaches and streams of groundwater flowing eagerly back to the lake. No longer was I holding my breath to avoid the cesspool of rainwater, plastic, waste, and decay; I was breathing fine—the water smelt clean. Was clean. Externally, I was the calmest I had been in a long time—one with nature, but internally, a flurry of different emotions was churning. Admiration of this natural beauty, jealousy towards the Kiwis for possessing such stunning landscapes, frustration at why Singapore—for all its self-proclaimed eco-friendliness and infrastructural capabilities—couldn’t do the same. Blue was no longer a colour of peace and pacifism to me, but one of hope and determination that we as individuals, as a nation, as a region, can do better than this. After all, if New Zealand can, why can’t we?
Water is the common denominator in all our lives—who we are, where we came from, what we will become are all inevitably shaped by its flow through our lives, no matter where or when we are. And it is when the light of each of our individual experiences passes through it that they produce a kaleidoscope of different colours—the rainbow of our lives. Red, blue, yellow, black, orange—my rainbow is one of sadness and concern, but also of determination and hope. Just as water refracts, it also reflects—too many people across the world and in our neighbourhoods have rainbows of black and yellow. We each have to do our part, together, to be the change that brings blue into our rainbows, the hope for a balanced blue world. What does your rainbow look like?
BBC. (2014, March 6). February was Singapore’s driest month since 1869. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-26445373.
Climate – Singapore. Singapore climate: average weather, temperature, precipitation, when to go. (n.d.). https://www.climatestotravel.com/climate/singapore.
Tan, A. (2017, January 5). Big cleanup of Singapore’s north-eastern coast after oil spill. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/big-cleanup-of-n-e-coast-after-oil-spill.
Often when we talk about the impacts of climate change and water conservation, the use of scientific terms and abstract concepts creates a disconnect between the individual and the issue at large. I sought to bridge this divide by grounding the hydrological issues we face as a planet in my lived experiences and personal life—to show how over the years, it has influenced me as a person and hopefully encourage readers to reflect on the role of water in their own lives. I hope that this intersection of science and experience, brought to life through the power of language, can get people to not just think about such issues, but to also emotionally feel them in their own lives. Through my research and personal reflections, water and climate change affects each of us differently, but it is also what binds us together. It is only by reaching out to others on a personal level that we can capture their hearts and minds, and work towards a better world.