July 19–SWAKOPMUND, Namibia — Under an African canopy of sparkling stars, a desalination plant that could become a salvation for many hums in the darkness pumping millions of gallons of precious water through a vast overland pipeline.
For a Southern California interloper like me, the sight is wondrous — and in an age of climate change and some experts predicting future wars won’t be about oil but about water, the plant shines like a beacon in the night.
This is a parched country not unlike California where water is becoming more precious than gold, and just the thought of turning seawater into drinking water feels like something of a miracle.
But just as the long-delayed desalination plant on Orange County’s coast has been hit with endless controversy, the dream of transforming Namibia with desalinated seawater remains as elusive as discovering well water with a divining rod.
Like the late-stage Huntington Beach plant that promises to be ready for operation next year, desal plants are especially complicated because who benefits depends on where you live, who you are and, of course, money.
Like the environmentalists and water officials squaring off this week in Southern California, some Namibians view Southern Africa’s largest desalination plant as an overpriced scourge while others hail it as a gift.
“It’s changed everything,” long-time Namibia resident Siegmund Mengerssen assures me. “It’s allowed us to do things we could never do.”
But in villages where children run barefoot over bone-dry ground embedded with sharp stones and thorns that’s a tough statement to swallow.
In this oddly German-flavored town of Swakopmund, for example, water is plentiful. Tourists are reminded to conserve, yet the liquid of life flows liberally and without any of the constraints inserted into California shower heads.
Rather than transforming Namibia’s deserts into oases of agriculture, much of the water from the Erongo Desalination Plant north of Wlotzkasbaken nurtures an open pit mine that offers up the largest uranium reserves in Namibia.
And in a nation with the second lowest number of residents per square mile in the world because of little water, uranium can be as meaningless as empty promises.
Taste of water
During a mountain biking expedition earlier this month, I turn the tap in Swakopmund assured that drinking the water is perfectly safe.
Crystal clear water spills into my hydration bladder. With a guide, my wife, a couple from England and three women from Australia we pedal out of town and into barren, steeply rolling terrain.
For a while, a forever beach of sand — and nothing but sand — lines a quiet turquoise sea. Later, a pipeline too big to straddle stretches into the desert until it disappears.
Water from a desalination plant in Namibia surges through an overland pipe that offers drinking water and water for a uranium mine. Mountain bikers follow the pipe for a bit before heading into the desert. (Photo by David Whiting, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A fierce wind rips, nearly pushing us backward and exfoliating bare skin with blasting sand. Next to us, the gray python snakes to the horizon, water surging inside.
At first, sucking down the desalinated ocean water from my hydration bladder is fine. My mouth is dust dry and anything wet helps to spit out the sand that constantly finds its way between our teeth.
But after a few hours, the converted seawater stops tasting like, well, water. It doesn’t stink. But it carries an acrid, metallic taste.
To put it in Southern California terms, the desal water isn’t nearly as tasty as the treated wastewater you and I drink.
I wonder what California’s water will taste like in years to come, and discover that Namibia officials have a different take on taste than mine.
Sandra Müller, manager of health, safety and environment for the Trekkopjie uranium mine, describes the desal plant’s water this way: “The desalinated water contains all the minerals necessary for humans to drink and is not as salty as the water from Omdel.”
Now, I admit that I didn’t try the water in Namibia’sOmdel Reservoir so I will take Müller at her word. I also will allow that Namibia’s desal water is probably better than the stuff Americans drink in, say, Flint, Michigan.
But if Southern California is going to pay for desal water, the taste should match the price and that means by Namibian costs the Huntington Beach plant should rival Evian.
Comparing the projected price of desal water in Namibia to desal Huntington Beach water is more than difficult. Costs simply don’t match.
The land alone on California’s gold coast is astronomical compared to the value of Namibian desert.
In Namibia, plans were made to start building in 1998 at a cost of $100 million. In Huntington Beach, plant costs and distribution infrastructure is estimated to reach toward $1 billion.
Water prices from the Southern California plant are expected to jump from the current $1,200 per acre foot to $1,700 to $1,800 per acre foot.
Yet there are similarities between the two plants as well.
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Like the still dormant Huntington Beach desalination plant, Namibia’s plant took a circuitous route before being put into operation in 2010 and continues to have a bumpy path.
The project bounced around between companies and finally a French outfit called Areva paid to build the plant.
It’s no coincidence that Areva is the same company that operates the Areva Resources Uranium Mine. Mineral extraction requires massive amounts of water.
But take a moment to consider what happened next, especially if you are a climate change believer or a passionate environmentalist.
As building progressed, water consumption in Swakopmund and elsewhere dropped thanks to an aggressive campaign to conserve water. At the same time, Namibia had a few halfway decent years of rain and underground aquifers filled.
Quickly — perhaps too quickly — officials decided they no longer needed desalination.
But, predictably, the rains subsided. Within a few years, severe drought conditions returned.
A few years ago, Erongo Desalination Plant Managing Director Hilifa Mbako warned, “Namibia will soon have a hydrological drought, and many sectors will suffer.
“Desalination is the only sustainable solution, and it is expensive and may come with a price.”
Currently, the plant can produce 20 million cubic meters of water a year. Reports state that Namibia, with a population of 2.6 million — far less than Orange County — currently uses 70 million cubic meters a year.
A few years ago, Areva offered to sell the desalination plant to Namibia for a reported $200 million, or about twice the estimated cost of construction. The government is reportedly still considering the offer.
As our mountain biking group heads back toward Swakopmund, my water bladder runs dry.
At this point, I’ll drink almost anything.
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