Do you want desalination or water security?

Published September 13th, 2018

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

Our two big annual research projects are nearing completion: both our water tariff survey and our inventory of desalination plants will be published within the next month. The two issues that they address – the price of water and the response to scarcity – have gradually been coming together over the years. This year, they smashed into each other in Cape Town to such an extent that we have had to completely rethink our desalination publication.

The South African city faced a drought which matched Australia’s Millennium Drought in terms of severity, but the city’s response was very different. It did not rush out to buy large desalination plants as an insurance policy against future shortages. It largely faced down the crisis through demand management. The city introduced punitive drought tariffs which escalated the price of water from $2.00/m3 (for those consuming less than 6m3/month) to $61.00/m3 for those using more than 35m3/month. Overall, demand for water in the city fell from 180 l/c/d to 110 l/c/d, and the dams are refilling. The small-scale temporary desalination plants that the city had ordered just in case have started to look irrelevant.

Desalination still has an important place in the future of Cape Town’s water supply. Not least because the population is growing, and as it becomes more wealthy, more people will have access to thirsty domestic appliances such as showers, washing machines, and eventually swimming pools. The city needs to develop new long-term water resources, but these include water reuse and other measures to improve water efficiency – as well as desalination.

It is a different proposition to the 24/7 scarcity markets of the Middle East. In that region, governments are happy to buy as much desalination capacity as they think they need. They know what it is all about, and the risk of building something they don’t need is pretty low.

Outside the Middle East, it has undoubtedly become more difficult to sell desalination as a solution to drought since the Australian experience. Cape Town’s successes with demand management will magnify that trend, but that should not mean less long-term demand for desalination. The real market for desalination is not in droughts, nor even in scarcity – it is in water security.

Water security is a larger market than just desalination: it includes water reuse and leakage reduction, as well as conservation and demand management. It is about giving the population of a city the confidence that water is never going to limit their future aspirations. Desalination has something unique to offer this market: it is often the lowest cost drought-proof directly potable additional water resource available. However, outside the 24/7 desalination markets it is important that the industry adapts its mindset from selling desal plants to selling water security, and lets desal take its place alongside other potential solutions.

We are doing our bit by refocusing and rebranding the IDA Desalination Yearbook. For the past 11 years we have published this on the basis of an annual update of our desalination plant inventory, co-branded with the International Desalination Association. This year we are expanding it to include a listing of all the new water reuse plants built around the world, as well as a record of “smart” water efficiency projects. It is being renamed the IDA Water Security Handbook. We hope that it will become a resource for any public authority or industrial water user looking for technological solutions to guarantee their water security. We will be launching a companion website later this year.