The thirst for the sea: lack of water and new extractivist markets

Shuaibah IWPP Saudi Arabia

El Pilpilén Negro N°04 – Mayo 2016

Several decades ago the idea came along through state institutions that we would soon be submerged into a water crisis, arguing that the growing population and climate change were solely responsible for the lack of water. Through this official diagnosis by the State and means of communication, certain fundamental questions arise in which it is necessary to stop and understand the reality of the situation, starting from the ingrained notion: is there a lack of water? Unfortunately, we manifest that we are on a crucial stage of humanity that is facing severe difficulties to obtain this vital element- access to water is already impossible for some people. Farmers, indigenous communities and citizens of all over the world have already witnessed the lack of water in wells, rivers or sources of pure water, and have been forced to leave their crops, homes and  lifestyles. In many cities of the planet restrictions have already been imposed by the authorities that entail the decrease of domestic consumption of water, in many cases even punishing those who disobey these regulations, arguing that “we”, the masses, are responsible for this “lack” of water and we will also be the ones that will suffer the consequences.

It is also true that no type of strict water restrictions have been imposed on large productive transnational industries, which consume a huge quantity of water for their constant production, particularly those in livestock and mining industries (among many others). Despite this hypocrisy these industries haven’t had to reduce a single drop of water during this drought context, as a matter of fact it is quite the opposite: Everyday they demand and waste more water. According to the statistics from the own General Water Association, “For the year 2012, it was estimated that the consumption of water was 142 Mm3. In the short term this consumption would increase to 154 Mm3 in 2017 and at an even larger stage in the long term”.

Therefore, it is contradictory to assume that we find ourselves in a water crisis when industrial activity intends to continue functioning at the same pace by increasing its millions of Mm3 annual water consumption. Didn’t the means of communication constantly blame us for this problem and force us to reduce our own water consumption? Wasn’t it recently in 2015 when the government launched their campaign “Take care of water”? This was a campaign which restricted our domestic water consumption (60 litres for showering, 12litres to wash our hands…). These contradictions can only be exposed by understanding the context of economic extractivism in which were are submerged: the processes of extraction of raw materials demand a constant supply of water determined by the necessities and demand of the global market– where the only goal is to achieve infinite growth without considering the consequences that it entails on the planet or local territories where these “resources” are currently being extracted. This is highlighted by University professor Luís Enrique Granados, who stated that “In our capitalistic world there is not enough water for infinite growth”

This growing demand for water by the global industry, despite the consequences that it entails for the common population, has led to a new political and transnational class to promote “new markets for water”, along with the privatisation of water infrastructure, inciting major financial institutions to invest in “these initiatives”.  In this context many countries have installed seawater desalination plants, arguing that they are “a strategic solution for the lack of water”. Currently 17.000 desalination plants exist in the world, mainly in Saudi Arabia, USA and Spain, where it has been promoted as an efficient technique, including “ecological”, creating the dangerous idea that “the sea is an endless source of material, capable of limitless supply, regardless of it rains or not”.

The desalination of seawater consists in the extraction of “sweet water”. Through tubes placed on the beaches and rivers, seawater is pumped into the plants. Once there, the water is then submitted to a treatment where all solid remains are separated and chemicals are added to “clean it”. In the particular case of Chile, which nowadays hosts the largest mega-projects of mining extraction, they are contemplating the installation of desalination plants, which would supposedly help construction and operation processes, along with “giving water to the population”. A particular example of this can be observed in La Higuera and the mining project of Dominga that they intend to install here. Through the information released by their promotional videos (youtube.com Conoce Dominga: Agua de Mar) the desalination plant “will allow the mines to operate 100% with seawater in all its processes and gives a part of the water to the people living in La Higuera”. He then continues: “this way Dominga pretends to double the availability of water for human consumption”.

The attached video mentions protection measures for the safeguarding of the sea, “the temperature of the sea won’t change thanks to our technology”, what technology are they referring to? This is not explained. Several pieces of evidence point out the devastating impact registered in the coasts provoked by desalination plants. The residual water from the desalinization process have a much higher quantity of salt than any original seawater, different temperatures and contain toxic chemical elements used in the process of purification.

Through these studies it has been established that the fauna, especially sessiles like oysters, corals and several types of seaweed suffer the biggest impact from this industrial process because as opposed to fish, these creatures can’t swim or move. Similarly, many other species are forced to “adapt” to these changes and salt increases. However these processes of adaption require major efforts of their energy to stay alive, as they suffer from a reduction of metabolic processes like photosynthesis, reproduction, etc. Other than the factors mentioned beforehand, desalination plants can also damage their tissues, causing their death. Therefore, there are overwhelming consequences for the fauna of all the coasts of the planet.

Similarly, the discharges of brine from the desalination plants produce and contribute to the modification and structure of the community and a decrease in fauna diversity. They also weaken and decrease the quantity of molluscs and crustaceans, which are replaced by certain species of annelids (worms).

It is also important to expose the impact and consequences of the use of desalinated water in human consumption, especially in crop irrigations. According to the studies, the ground and crops are eventually damaged after a few years due to the high sodium content in the water. Vegetables and many types of fruits are especially sensitive to sodium, thus decreasing the quantity and quality of food products for human consumption.

The impact of desalination plants can’t be reduced to the effects that they have only upon the living creatures of the sea. An installation of this type has already created a wide array of problems that many people have decided to turn a blind eye on. In certain countries like Israel, where desalination plants were installed a decade ago, the effects have been particularly noticeable: one of the most horrifying ones being the necessity to start decontaminating seawater other than just desalinating it, as the brine discharge has contaminated the same coasts were the water is collected in the first place. Essentially, they are removing the salt and consuming the same dirty water that they have leaked.

It should be noted that in this global economy, the production of water during the desalinization process transforms a natural resource which we consider a public good into a commercial product that requires investment and profits from investors…other than producing water for private companies these transnational groups are formed by actionists or bosses that do not belong to the locality and who are capable of bribing and corrupting local governments if their profits aren’t satisfactory.

One of the most alarming effects is that these desalinating plants are connected to other industrial initiatives –in the Chilean case mining projects-, thus motivating transnationals to finance even more projects. It this sense, it is fundamental to understand that desalination plants are merely another tool inside the large extractivist machinery.

Translated by Pietro Casati

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