It was with interest that I read the latest decision by our National Department of Water Affairs regarding a recently agreed partnership between the Governments of Iran and South Africa that will see the former fund development of massive desalination plants in many of our coastal cities. While the news itself should be welcomed - as a means to reduce our dependence on dwindling water supplies, it also poses some reason for concern.
In the first instance, we need to understand what the actual cost of these plants will be - both in terms of money and the quid-pro-quo arrangements that often get hidden from view. Remember the arms deal - oh, sorry, I forgot there were no problems! But seriously, desalination plants can - for all their potential good, also play a significant part in the impacts we have on our environment.
Globally, desalination plants are a way of life and there are at the latest count, over 15 000 of these sites with the majority being in the Gulf States and Africa. The largest plant is operated in Saudi Arabia and in Dubai for example, desalination accounts for almost 98% of all its water needs. But are desalination plants that safe? Well, no they aren't. In the first place, unless they are thoroughly researched before construction, they have been found to considerably increase the salinity of seawater at their outflow points - affecting marine life and the quality of life for local inhabitants.
They are also incredibly energy dependent, with one estimate showing that in order to supply water to 300,000 people, the Carlsbad desalination plant in California requires the equivalent of a 31.3 megawatt power plant operating around the clock — enough electricity to power nearly 40,000 average California households for a year.
Desalination plants around the world consume more than 200 million kilowatt-hours each day, and the cost of this is roughly half the cost of delivering one glass of water. They also take around two litres of seawater to produce one litre of drinking water - hardly an efficient process, and this adds to the overall cost of water itself. A thousand gallons of freshwater from a desalination plant costs the average US consumer $2.50 to $5, compared to $2 for conventional freshwater, and what this will ultimately mean is that the price of water will increase in this country - perhaps even to the point of becoming irrelevant to the needs of the country
So, while we applaud the initiative by government, let's all be aware of the impacts that this will have on our lives. Often, the most obvious solution to a problem poses even greater medium- to long-term problems that require even more money and solutions to correct. By appreciating the true value of water - and conserving and protecting what we currently have, the little we have can go a long-way to fixing the problem.