A water expert is cautioning developing countries over the establishment of water desalination plants as a means of providing potable water to the populace.

Jeremy Crutchfield of the San Diego County Water Authority in the USA says desalination (the treatment of seawater through the removal of salt) is a very expensive process because of the high cost of operation including the vast amount of electricity needed to operate such plants.

Water companies would usually establish treatment plants along rivers and streams which are not salty so the processing requires fewer inputs.

Mr. Crutchfield says the treatment of saltwater should only be done when extremely necessary and no other options are available.  

“You need to understand water from desalination plants is expensive water, it’s an expensive project…. There are a lot of risks…,” he told journalists who visited his office for a discussion on ‘creating a water-secure future’ at the invitation of the Foreign Press Centers.

In Ghana, the Ghana Water Company Limited (GWCL) is struggling to keep the $126 million Teshie Water Desalination Plant running because of the high cost of operations since it was commissioned in 2015.

The Teshi Desalination plant

Last year, GWCL announced it was closing down the facility which treats seawater for supply to residents in Teshie and its environs because the cost of its operation was taking a tow on its finances.

Whilst Public Utilities Regulation Commission (PURC) had approved that GWCL sells water to consumers at a maximum cost of 1.5 Ghana cedis per cubic meter, Befesa Desalination Developments Ghana which operates the facility was selling water to GWCL at a cost of 6.5 Ghana cedis per cubic meter, resulting in huge losses.

Mr Crutchfield’s organisation supervises the operations of the Claude Bud Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, located in California, USA.

The plant which cost about $1 billion to construct is the most advanced desalination facility in the whole of North America.

But the water it produces and distributes to homes costs almost twice the price of other alternative sources. Over the last three years, it has delivered more than 48 billion gallons of high-quality water to residents in the enclave.

When Mr Crutchfield was asked whether the technology can be scaled up for use in Africa and other developing countries, he said even manpower to man such facilities are difficult to come by.

“It’s a very high technical process… and so you need to have the operators and people capable of operating the plant,” observed.

Jeremy Crutchfield of the San Diego County Water Authority

“If something goes wrong here, it’s very expensive to fix. So you need to have the personnel to operate it,” the engineer noted.

“So you need to understand all of these things and make sure those resources are in place and available before you even venture into plans to operate one,” the engineer added.

Mr Crutchfield explained the facility has become necessary there because they have limited choices. There aren’t many rivers and lakes running through there but the city sits beside the seashore. In the 1990s, the city imported more than 95% of the water it consumes. Then a drought in the 2000s which caused authorities to re-think water supply resulting in the construction of the expensive facility. He says such facilities also require a lot of planning.

“It doesn’t happen overnight. The plant here was first envisioned in the 1990s. And then it came online in 2015… It took 9 years to get through the permit challenges….” he explained.

Asked whether desalination is an effective solution to the water supply across the world, he said “desalination is part of the solution but not a complete stop-gap and saviour for water supply. You need to look at all of your options. Its expensive water and so you need to take that into consideration.”

He, however, indicated desalination comes with a lot of advantages including it being a drought-proof supply source.