(September 9, 2010) Specialists say a ton of desalinated water currently costs between 5 and 7 yuan in China, without including the costs of fixed investments, while water from the South-North project may end up costing more than 10 yuan per ton, writes Luo Jieqi in Caixin Online.
A desalinization plant in Tianjin may point the way to water shortage solutions, but the path’s followers are few
(Beijing) – Clean, drinkable water rushes through a network of steel pipes into a Tianjin waterworks reservoir. At the other end is a seaside desalination plant at the Beijiang Power Plant, 50 kilometers away.
This recently opened pipeline is the first in China to carry desalinated water to a municipal water system on a large scale. The goal is to slake the thirst of the city’s growing, commercial-industrial-residential Binhai New Area.
Like many cities in northern China, Tianjin has long struggled with a water shortage. Traditional sources including groundwater and the Luan River have failed to keep up with the coastal city’s rising demand. Desalinated water offers a way out.
Yet the Beijiang desalination plant, which removes salt from seawater to produce 100 million liters of drinkable fluid per day, enough for hundreds of thousands of people, has mouths watering far beyond Tianjin.
Other water-deficient cities including the nation’s capital Beijing, 100 kilometers away, may one day draw desalinated water from the coast near Tianjin, or even tap the Beijiang plant. Indeed, the Beijing Water Authority put desalinized water on its 2010 project list.
By the end of next year, after the Beijiang project’s second phase is completed, the plant is expected to provide about 200 million liters of water every day, supplying one-third of the Binhai area’s needs.
So far, there’s been a lot of talk but little action among proponents of channeling desalinated water to Beijing and other dry parts of the country. A major obstacle is cost, but government control of waterworks projects also plays a role in limiting the desalination option.
Liu Zhenghong, general manager of the China Water Industry Investment Co., noted that 100 million liters daily is a relative drop in the bucket for Tianjin, a city of 10 million, and would mean even less to a much larger city such as Beijing.
Yet advocates such as Guo Youzhi keep coming. As vice chairman of the Membrane Industry Association of China, which represents makers of water filter products, Guo has for years called for piping desalinated water to Beijing.
One of the leading arguments is that desalination should be preferred over huge canal-digging projects aimed at diverting water thousands of kilometers from southern China to Beijing and other northern locales.
Desalinated water could flow through existing pipe networks, advocates say, so there would be no need for new canals that upset ecosystems or force relocations among people living along the route, as in the case of the ongoing South-North Water Diversion Project.
South-North will eventually force more than 300,000 people in Hubei and Henan provinces to move to new homes. When completed, the canals will channel badly needed water northward from the Yangtze River and its tributaries.
But since South-North’s funds have already been earmarked, Guo told Caixin, a desalination project could provide a supplementary water source without stopping the canals.
Nie Yuzao, party secretary of the Beijing Water Authority, agrees that tapping multiple sources, including desalination, can help control costs, which are largely determined by the price of transporting water.
Another supporter of desalinated water for Beijing is Wang Rongjian, vice president of Singapore Hyflux Group, which owns desalination plants in China and worldwide. Wang says the South-North project need not conflict with a separate effort to bring desalinated water to Beijing.
“Desalinated water is very important for northern and northeastern China, with its severe water shortage,” said Wang.
Paying the Price
Nevertheless, desalinization can carry a steep price that, according to Liu, may affect water suppliers, local economies and consumers.
Australia uses more desalinated water than ever. Its first large-scale desalination plant opened in 2006 in Perth, and today it supplies 17 percent of the city’s water. The country’s largest plant is in Victoria, which someday should provide one-third of all water consumed by Melbourne.
Wang said a ton of desalinated water currently costs between 5 and 7 yuan in China, without including the costs of fixed investments. Guo estimated that water from the South-North project will end up costing more than 10 yuan per ton, although official cost estimates have not been released.
Many industry experts think political support and government subsidies are needed to rationalize desalination costs.
Professor Wang Shichang of Tianjin University’s School of Chemical Engineering and Technology suggested Beijing use water from Tianjin’s Luan River, and that the smaller city use these funds to cover the extra costs of desalination.
A Beijiang plant engineer surnamed Yang told Caixin the desalination plant is operating at a loss, and that its financial pressures are quite high. Water prices in Tianjin have been set at 4 yuan per ton, but that covers only half the cost of the desalination process.
Whoever invests in desalinization – whether it’s the private sector, a government or foreign investors – should be entitled to a profit, said Ruan Guoling, a researcher at the Institute of Tianjin Seawater Desalination and Utilization, which is part of the State Oceanic Administration.
Yet large-scale desalination will be impossible without rational price and incentive mechanisms, Ruan said. For this reason, he argues that water prices in China, which have always been relatively low, fail to reflect the real value.
Ruan said the government should do more to balance water prices and costs, otherwise “it’s a deadlock” that limits options for desalinization projects.
South-North and similar “water diversion projects are all managed by the government” which sets prices without considering “environmental damage, environmental costs, land usage and equipment investment,” Ruan said. “So the price isn’t determined by the market.”
“But desalinated water price is completely marketized because it’s operated by companies,” he said. “So the price of desalinated water is always more expensive than diverted water.”
Many experts say China should accelerate desalination development since the “vulnerabilities with northern China’s groundwater are already very big,” Ruan said. And excessive exploitation of water resources “will impact our children and grandchildren.”
Luo Jieqi, Caixin Online, September 9, 2010