Desalination plants: the excuse for suicidal growth

For months now, we have seen in the press, repeated articles on desalination plants. They are always presented as giving water to the population, but the information hides some points that should be kept in mind.

Desalination is much more expensive

Since the work on the desalination plant for Ciutadella was delivered, the Balearic Government promised to pay the equivalent of 8,000 euros per day for the 15 years of construction. More than 43 million euros. This is being paid by the citizens although blurred by other costs.

Some ten years after its construction, every cubic meter of the desalination plant costs the Ciutadella Municipal Council 1.1983 euros per cubic meter. Currently, it is being used to supply 30% of the municipality.

Taking into account that the current tariff for water consumption in Ciutadella, depending on which sections, ranges between 0.23 and 1.06 euros per cubic meter, shows a difference between taking water from the well or from the desalination plant where the price increases substantially. For the average consumer the price triples. For those who use little, it quintuples.

GOB believes that the tariffs should be revised, but not raised for everyone, only substantially increased for those who use more than is reasonable. The object should be to encourage responsible consumption and reduce current abuses. An economic policy becomes complicated when the basic price rises to the high levels we have seen.

The aim is not the recovery of the aquifer, but to unblock urban growth

The experience of Ciudadella shows that desalination plants do not serve to rationalise water use. When the installation was proposed for the west of Menorca, the aquifers were already damaged and it was clear that it was not possible to think about maintaining or recovering, little by little, the underground reserves without the use of technology.

However, none of this has happened. The message incorporated by the administrations is that the desalination plants would serve to unlock more urban growth on the island. In other words, well water could not be replaced by desalinated water, because the population both resident and tourist, is expected to increase even more. In practice, the desalinated water would not replace but would be in addition.

In the forecast growth of the current proposal by the General Plan of Ciutadella, it is expected that during the summer season of 2031 and with the desalination plant operating at 100%, it would only be enough for 44% of the required supply. The other 56% would have to come from aquifers.

Water is now a real limiting factor as well as an administrative one, for any urban growth. Ciutadella, Es Castell and Sant Lluis have halted major urban developments because they can no longer guarantee supplying drinking water.

A plot of land, in the urban centres or on the coast, is much more valuable if building is allowed on it. Now, some have had to be halted because they cannot get building permissions. As expected, there are strong pressures. Hence, there is talk about the urgency for new desalination plants. Not to improve water quality, but to be able to continue with a suicidal growth in building development, for the substantial financial benefit of a few.

Efforts should be put into rationalising consumption

Menorca’s aquifer is in part depleted while in another part it is highly contaminated by an excess of nitrates. The prospect of the climate crisis is of major worry for recharging the aquifers (because of too concentrated rainfall) and increased evaporation (because of the rise in temperature).

Europe’s long experience with the problem of water management indicates that it is a mistake to approach this issue by increasing the quantity of water such as with desalination plants. It is a mistake because the message it gives society is that water is unlimited and abuses increase even more.

As the European Directive on Water says, we can only move forward if we learn how to rationalise demand. In other words, if, as a modern cultured society, with a technological capacity, we incorporate the idea that resources are limited into our values.

Seeing the enormous expenditure of water into gardens and swimming pools along the coast of Sant Lluis (80% of water consumed by the municipality corresponds to coastal properties) or verifying how irrigation systems are kept going in full sunshine in Ciutadella, shows how much remains to be done in this regard, before talking about new desalination plants.

The European Directive sets out a path that is being ignored

The European Water Framework Directive is from 2000. It is 23 years ago since it was enacted. Yet, in some technical and political quarters, the old idea persists of managing water in response to the full demand generated.

With reference to the current climate change, the planning cannot be based on the same parameters that were used in past decades. We have to opt for an effective demand management (especially of the abuses) and not on supply policies such as the desalination plants that are expensive, requiring a large energy consumption and generating brine that is difficult to manage without altering marine values.

The European Directive marked 2015 as the ultimate date for putting the aquifers into a good state. Here we have made hardly any advance because decisive actions are not taken on demands. Watering of lawns in the summer is not effectively discouraged. Regulations, which have been in force for many years, on the use of large irrigation systems, are not enforced and irrigation continues in full sun.

Perhaps, what is most worrying is that large urban growths planned by the municipalities are not being revised. If they do not do their researches first, the desalination plants will end up being an expensive and problematic investment giving the excuse for continuing with a model of infinite growth, and not to improve the quality of life, nor to restore the aquifers into a good state.

We cannot continue along this route. To think that the desalination plants are the solution for the future of water is the same as believing that by buying larger trousers obesity disappears.