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Desalination Two


THE WATERFALL              


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                                   Is Desalination a Solution to
                                    Growing Water Shortages?
                                                     Part Two

To see part one of this story, click on 
Desalination Part One.

                                                                                                                                          October 2007

                                  New Australian Desalination Plant

We have many subscribers to The Waterfall in Australia, and we recognize the severity of their water shortages.  They are already facing the extreme circumstances that much of the world will face in coming years.  If others were in their circumstances, would we agree to drink recycled waste water over desalted sea water?  Or would we be willing to move to another part of the country, which is one solution that has been proposed?

But such decisions should at least be made based on realistic consideration of the impacts and options.  Too often major decisions with multiple serious and long-term implications are made based on political or profit considerations above others.  Those developing the plants in Australia claim that there will be minimal environmental impact.  We don't have enough information to determine on what they base that claim.

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The new desalination plant planned in Australia is to be built on Kurnell Peninsula and would work in the waters of Botany Bay.  The intake and outlet valves are proposed to be on rocky reef areas of high biodiversity value.  We have to believe that the marine life on these reefs would be greatly affected, and certainly these are part of the larger food chain.  This could negatively impact fish, whales, dolphins and bird life.  Water intake can also alter natural currents in the area.

In the proposed plant, one of the many concerns is that seagrasses, valuable as nursery, feeding and shelter areas for many fish, molluscs and crustaceans will be several damaged or reduced.  Juvenile fish provide food in turn for internationally migrating wading birds.  Seagrasses are fragile plants that are slow to recover when destroyed.

It is proposed to dredge parts of Botany Bay, including seagrass beds, to construct pipelines to connect the desalination plant with existing infrastructure.  In addition to damaging the grasses, some believe dredging will impact water quality, potentially damage or destroy mangroves and other reparian vegetation as well as shallow reefs and snags.  Dredging can also create sediment blooms that can negatively impact animals including sponges, crabs and worms.  It also has the potential to spread an invasive algae, Caulerpa Taxifolia, in the bay.

High salinity and temperature fluctuations in the discharge water may kill organisms near the outlet.  Changes in salinity and/or temperature may affect migration patterns of fish along the coast.

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In the desalination process, metals and chemicals are used to treat the seawater and clean the plant.  These become concentrated in the discharge and can be toxic to fish eggs, which forces larval fish to feed on phytoplankton in deeper waters, where they are at much higher risk, and may not survive.  A plume of toxic material could be driven by wind or currents to become concentrated in the intertidal zones having a deleterious effect on additional ecological communities.

                              Serious Study & Thoughtful Decisions

It is important that communities where desalination plants are being considered insist on open, competent and thorough environmental analysis in the specific situations where plants are being proposed.  These should include the implications of a large increase in energy usage, since desalination is highly energy-intensive.

There may be places where desalination may be part of a reasonable solution to shortages of potable water.  However, there is great risk that this money-making opportunity will lead to plants being steam-rolled into existence.  There are of course environmental impacts in every case, and the public needs to understand both the direct and the longer-term consequences as pressure to move in this direction builds. 

Desalination is not a replacement for conservation and reuse.  A greater emphasis should be put on saving and managing current supplies.  It appears to us that the unintended consequences of desalination will lead to more and more environmental pressures on the seacoasts and the life in them.  Carbon emissions will increase just as we are more fully realizing the serious need to reduce them as they spike global warming.  Please see our stories
 Interconnectivity and It's All Connected.

As the World Wildlife Fund report says:  "Desalination plants.... should only be constructed where they are found to meet a genuine need to increase water supply and are the best and least damaging method." adds that all efforts need to be made to minimize ecological damage and track and report on those effects.

                                                  Don't Wait

For those of us in areas that don't yet have such challenges:  What can we do now to avert or mitigate such extreme conditions while we still have more options?  Please, do what you can to save and clean water.  Stop using dangerous chemicals in your home and garden that damage our fresh and salt water resources - and directly threaten your own health.  Minimize water use, including using products that reduce water usage in your garden and home.  For the health of your family, filter the water you drink and shower and bath in.  That also results in cleaner water coming out of your house and going into the greater environment.  Everything we do contributes to the health, or deterioration of health, of Mother Earth.

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Farmers in Victoria and New South Wales along the Murray river face the bleak reality of allocations of 10% or less than formerly.  $8 billion in crops are starting to die.  If there is not a lot of rain soon, agriculture faces an extraordinary disaster.

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Central Turkey

The huge Konya plain in the center of Turkey has long been the country's breadbasket.  But now the water table has dramatically dropped after the hottest summer in living memory.

Farmers can remember being able to pull water by hand out of a well 5 meters deep.  Now the water is 80 metres away in some places.  The drop in water table levels -- averaging 27 metres across the plateau in the last 25 years -- has had disastrous effects.  Dozens of lakes have disappeared, taking their wildfowl with them. 

things go on as they are now, the whole plain will be a desert within 30 years.

This area used to be known as Turkey's granary. But with subsidies on wheat down to nothing, local farmers have increasingly turned to crops needing more water. State-subsidized beet has replaced wheat, and beet needs five times more water. Combined with climate change, the effects are dramatic. 

Syrian Aqueducts

In Qara, Syria, fruit and pistachio trees are flourishing where recently aridity had stopped them.  More than 1,500 years earlier, residents had dug stone-lined aqueducts, known as qanats, deep under ground. The water-supply system had been developed in Persia centuries before. A Dutch antropologist turned development worker, together with the head of a local Syrian Orthodox convent, mobilized the largely Muslin local farmers association to clear and rebuild the tunnel system.  Technology from the 500s is working today to water the fruit and nut trees.

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Himalayan Glaciers Melting

A satellite-based study of 466 Himalayan glaciers by scientists with the Indian Space Research Organisation estimated that glaciers had shrunk by 21 percent since the 1960s. 
Himalayan glaciers are the headwaters for Asia's nine largest rivers, essential for the 1.3 billion people who live downstream.

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     Blue Himalaya Mountain

Measurements of one glacier in Ladakh, taken from 2001 to 2003, show an estimated annual retreat of 49 to 66 feet. One expert, who has been studying Indian glaciers for 20 years says "This rate is chaos. That should not happen. I never had a clue (of the) extent they are retreating." China last month reported a similar decrease over the same time span.

In Ladakh India, sandwiched between China and Pakistan, annual rainfall is around two inches. Glaciers provide 90 percent of the water. If the glaciers disappear, Ladakhis may be among the first to feel the effects of global warming. HIgher temperatures also mean annual snowfall has decreased from two or three feet in winter to barely one foot. 

Farmers are reporting plenty of water in glacier-fed streams. This is yet another indicator of snow melting in winter due to temperature increases, and dramatic glacial melting. This provides lots of water short-term in the rivers, but will lead to serious water shortages.

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        Karakoram, Pakistan

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