London Mayor slams desalination plans

Ken Livingstone dismissed plans to desalinate water from the Thames estuary as an energy-guzzling solution to London's water shortages that would contribute to climate change.

In his submission to the forthcoming public inquiry into Thames Water’s plans for a £200m desalination plant in East London, the Mayor said desalination is energy-intensive and contributes to fuels climate change.

He called on Thames Water to fix leaks instead, saying the company has already been warned by Ofwat to reduce the 915 million litres it loses through leaking pipes every day.

Desalination is an established practice in countries like Greece and Israel, and is fast spreading around the world with twenty new plants to be built in Spain and more planned for Tianjin, Houston and Cape Town.

But while the technique seems the obvious solution to water scarcity in coastal areas, the desalination boom has been causing alarm among environmentalists.

Reverse osmosis, the filtering technique to be employed by the plant in Beckton, uses as much as six kilowatt-hours of electricity to produce each cubic metre of water. With most electricity still coming from fossil fuels, this adds to the greenhouse warming that is worsening water shortages in the first place. The salty wastewater polluted with chemicals from the desalination process is another concern.

Ken Livingstone said: “We are already facing the effects of climate change which is putting a strain on our water resources.

We cannot fight climate change by building a desalination plant, which will worsen the problem by pumping 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. The proposals for a desalination plant are akin to pouring water into a sieve.

I want to send out a clear message that as Mayor of London, I will not back new developments which contribute further to the problem of climate change.”

Thames Water argues that the plant should be part of the answer to London’s water shortages, along with the £1bn the company says it has allocated to reducing leakage.

The company’s environment director, Richard Aylard, said that population pressure and climate change are forcing it to turn to radical solutions: “With London set to grow by 800,000 people over the next ten years we face some big challenges. It’s the equivalent to the city of Leeds moving to the capital.

“Climate change and rising individual demand for water add to the challenge in a city that already receives less rainfall than Rome, Dallas and Istanbul.”

The Beckton plant would source water from the Thames Estuary, reducing the costs of desalination as the mix of fresh and seawater contains less salt, and would provide water for 1m Londoners at times of drought.

But even if given the go-ahead, the plant will not help London deal with the current water crisis – it would not go into action until 2009/10.

The London Mayor’s full submission can be viewed at the Greater London Authority website.

Goska Romanowicz

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