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Every day Lee Kok Onn takes a ferry to Pulau Bukom, a small island to the south of Singapore. His job includes making sure that the Shell refinery located there has enough water to generate steam that drives operations. The refinery pipes in some water from the main Singapore island – but this has often proved insufficient.

“As the site grew, there just wasn’t enough fresh water,” says Kok Onn, Shell Utilities Manager at the Pulau Bukom Manufacturing Site in Singapore. “It made sense to generate it ourselves.”  

Desalination plants at Pulau Bukom refinery

Desalination plants at Pulau Bukom refinery process 10,000m³ of sea water each day

A saline solution

Shell built its first desalination plant on Pulau Bukom in the 1970s. It added two more in the following decades as the refinery expanded. In each plant, water is drawn from the sea surrounding the island through pipes and heated. Most of this sea water evaporates into low-pressure steam, leaving behind brine – concentrated salty water – which is safely returned to the sea. The steam is condensed into water and used in the refinery’s boilers to generate high-pressure steam that powers the plant.  

In total the three plants process about 10,000 cubic metres of sea water a day – enough to fill four Olympic-size swimming pools. This saves piping in the equivalent quantity of fresh water, which can instead be used to supply around 66,000 Singapore households.

The Singapore government has built its own desalination plants on the main island, the most recent in 2013. Desalinated water now meets 25% of the country’s current demand. The plants support the government’s aim to continue delivering a secure, affordable supply of water.

 “Water is important to everyone in Singapore,” says Kok Onn. “We are pleased to be playing our part in helping to ensure there is enough.”


The theme of UN World Water Day on March 22, 2014, is “Water and Energy”. These two vital systems are interlinked: most forms of energy production need water, and energy is needed to transport and treat water. Both must be carefully managed.

Shell is working to find out more about the energy-water relationship and how to better manage these resources through its scenario planning and by holding public dialogue events. In early 2014, Shell brought together leaders from business, government and NGOs at a Powering Progress Together forum in Manila, the Philippines. Participants discussed future challenges around the growing stress on water, energy and food, and the need to build resilience in companies and across society. Further events will be held in Europe, South America and the Middle East during 2014.

water jug