New source of water supply for London

Last June, WWF published a report about desalination. Its position is that this technology has a place in water supply, but one that needs to be considered on a case by case basis, with integrated approaches to the management of water supply and demand. Among other considerations, it stresses that desalination plants should be climate-neutral, obtaining their energy from renewable sources.

In the aftermath of the debate that this report has sparked, the UK’s first desalination plant providing drinking water for Londoners and people in the south-east was granted government approval last week.

Thames Water will operate the plant, to be designed and built by Acciona Agua. The site, in the Thames Estuary (East London) will provide up to almost 37 million gallons of drinking water a day – enough for nearly one million people.

The plant will start producing water sometime in 2009, in times of drought or low rainfall.

In line with the recommendations cited from WWF and the conditions set forth by the planning authority, Thames Water has confirmed that it intends to run it entirely on renewable energy, specifically, bio-diesel.

Moreover, the idea of the company is to ensure that any disruptions to the environment are kept to a minimum; first of all, by actually enhancing the area, by siting the plant in a brownfield riverside location, recuperated for the project. Additionally, a thorough environmental impact assessment has been carried out and a team of ecologists will be employed throughout the project to ensure the protection of the local ecology.

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Richard Aylard, from Thames Water, said: “The desalination plant is a vital part of our plans to secure future water supplies to the capital. With pressures such as climate change and population growth, the plant is essential alongside our continuing progress in reducing leakage and proposals for a new reservoir in Oxfordshire.”

Per head of population, London is drier than Madrid and Istanbul.

Nevertheless, some environmental campaigners have condemned the government’s approval of the plant.

“The government should instead conduct a bigger, strategic review of people’s water usage and work to reduce demand and leakage, introduce metering in homes and encourage residents to install water-saving technology.” said Rob Oates from the World Wildlife Fund.

What seems clear to me is that the shortage of freshwater is going to demand comprehensive strategies involving a wide array of measures, with no single silver bullet. The wide range of options to consider and implement will have to come from the demand side (jacking up the price of water, fixing leaks, doing our best to save) and the supply side (reusing treated sewage, desalination plants, etc.)

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