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Joe Williams

This chapter argues that the development of large-scale seawater desalination over the last two decades has been intimately linked to the privatisation, commercialisation and commodification of water services in general, and urban water in particular. It contends that a desalination “plant” should be more accurately understood as a desalination “factory”, which creates a manufactured product (potable water) in a pre-arranged quantity and with a pre-specified quality. The chapter provides a detailed analysis of the convoluted development of desalination as a decentralised and local water supply for San Diego, California. It focuses on two plants on the North American Pacific coast: the 189 ML/day Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County, which opened in 2015; and a larger facility currently under construction south of the US-Mexico border at Rosarito Beach, Baja California, which is heralded as the first ever “binational” seawater desalination project. My core contention here is that desalination is emerging as an important technology in political and ideological shift towards the neoliberalisation of municipal water supply.

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Suraya Scheba and Andreas Scheba

Desalination is being adopted in South Africa as an emergency ‘quick fix’ to drought crisis. Despite public opposition over potential social and ecological negative effects, small- and large-scale desalination plants are growing in numbers across the country. In this chapter we use a relational Marxist ontology and draw on the case of desalination adoption in the Knysna Local Municipality, Western Cape, South Africa, to argue that proponents’ representation of the drought as nature-induced, urgent and devoid of history created the political space for desalination technology to emerge as the best solution. Powerful actors used a range of communication and legal tools to discursively produce the drought–desalination assemblage, which resulted in the material manifestation of the technology. We then trace the historical materiality of the drought–desalination assemblage to counter the dominant narrative, providing instead an alternative explanation of how human and non-human actors produced the crisis materially.

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Maria Christina Fragkou

Desalinated water production has been celebrated by some as a solution to water scarcity and the barriers this means for social and economic development, as it produces water from an infinite source, the sea. Political ecology studies on the other hand, have now long been concerned by the possible social implications of this technique, but without any tangible evidence so far. In this chapter I critically analyse how the production of desalinated water for human consumption has permitted the growth of the mining sector in the world’s main copper supplier, the Chilean region of Antofagasta, while undermining the quality of life for the urban residents who consume it. The results are based on a survey which examined the perception of potable water quality and the uses of tap water in households, over 10 years after the plant´s functioning. Drawing on these, I demonstrate that the gradual introduction of desalinated water in the city’s metabolism has deepened existing socio-ecological inequalities within an already heavily segregated city, and has failed in overcoming tap water quality concerns for the residents of Antofagasta, maintaining perceptual and economic water scarcities, especially for lower-class households. These analyses do not only advance findings on desalination’s social impacts on the urban scale, but also disclose the importance of examining urban water inequalities at the household level, as the formation of daily practices and uses of tap water generate unequal conditions for urban dwellers, which cannot be grasped by city-wide analyses, usual in the urban political ecology tradition.

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Alex Loftus and Hug March

In this chapter we explore the encounter between finance and desalination using the case of Britain's first experiment in desalination technologies, the Thames Water Desalination Plant (TWDP), inaugurated in 2011. On the surface, the plant appears to be a classic example of the successes of normative industrial ecology, in which sustainability challenges have been met with forward-thinking green innovations. However, the TWDP is utterly dependent on a byzantine financial model, which has shaped Thames Water's investment strategy over the last decade. Understanding the development of the TWDP requires a focus on the scalar interactions between flows of finance and water that are woven through the hydrosocial cycle of London.

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Joe Williams and Erik Swyngedouw

The opening chapter of this book makes the intellectual and political argument for a more critical understanding of seawater desalination as an emerging phenomenon of water governance. Its purpose, in this sense, is to politicise seawater. The chapter provides an overview of the historic and contemporary development of desalting technologies and the global desalination industry. We argue that, rather than seeing desalination as a water management ‘solution’, it should instead be understood as a socio-technical and political ecological ‘fix’, which allows cities, regions and countries to overcome some of the hydrological barriers to growth and accumulation, while creating or intensifying other social and ecological contradictions. These contradictions, we demonstrate, revolve around the governance of water, privatisation and commercialisation, the water-energy nexus, and marine ecology. Finally, we summarise the substantive chapters included in the book.

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Eran Feitelson

With declining costs and rising water stress desalination may seem a panacea. However, desalination is imbued with contradictions. This chapter identifies these contradictions on the basis of the Israeli experience. To this end, the direct and indirect implications of desalination are outlined as they have been played out in Israel. The first contradiction is between supply augmentation and water conservation – desalination reduces perceptions of scarcity and hence readiness to conserve water. A second contradiction is environmental – desalination increases greenhouse gas emissions and affects marine life, while allowing more freshwater to be retained in nature and reducing vulnerability to climate change. A third contradiction regards control. While desalination has the potential to change zero-sum into positive-sum games, it alters power relations thereby generating opposition from parties that lose advantageous positions. Finally, while desalination is intended to alleviate shortages to households, it may preclude access by the weakest strata due to its price effects, thereby aggravating inequities.

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Erik Swyngedouw and Joe Williams

This concluding chapter returns to the overarching purpose of the book, which is to move beyond the reductionist and techno-managerial framings which have hitherto dominated debates on seawater desalination, and to make a concerted appeal for greater attention to be paid to the implications of desalination for the wider politics of water. Furthermore, we identify five areas for further political and intellectual engagement, particularly around the social and ecological contradictions of desalination, its implications for relative resource scarcities, the politics of supply-side water management, and unequal access to water services.

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Tapping the Oceans

Seawater Desalination and the Political Ecology of Water

Edited by Joe Williams and Erik Swyngedouw

Increasingly, water-stressed cities are looking to the oceans to fix unreliable, contested and over-burdened water supply systems. Desalination technologies are, however, also becoming the focus of intense political disagreements about the sustainable and just provision of urban water. Through a series of cutting-edge case studies and multi-subject approaches, this book explores the political and ecological debates facing water desalination on a broad geographical scale.
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Jamie McEvoy

In the last 40 years, environmental governance broadly, and water governance more specifically, has been influenced by a set of policy principles emphasizing decentralization, private sector involvement, and public participation. Simultaneously, growing water demands and uncertainty about climate change and the future quality and quantity of water supplies have led to an increased interest in desalination technology to augment water supplies in many regions. In coastal northwestern Mexico, desalination technology has been identified as a solution to address regional water scarcity. Using two large-scale desalination projects in the state of Baja California Sur (BCS) as case studies, this chapter examines how desalination fits within the contemporary water governance framework. The chapter concludes that the adoption of desalination technology in BCS facilitates some policy principles (e.g., semi-decentralized and semi-privatized), but also deviates in important ways (e.g., lacks genuine stakeholder participation).

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David Saurí, Santiago Gorostiza and David Pavón

This chapter traces the origins of desalination in Spain in the 1960s which we relate to the parallel emergence of nuclear power. Contrary to the latter, however, desalination did not take off because of its high costs, and, more importantly, because of the preference of Spanish water planners for conventional hydraulic works such as dams, reservoirs and aqueducts. After decades of obscurity, desalination resurfaced in the 1990s, when a series of droughts hit the country, and especially after 2004, when social opposition to conventional hydraulic solutions (the Ebro water transfer) made this alternative the selected option for Eastern and Southeastern Spain through the so-called AGUA Programme. The crisis of 2007 and its devastating effects on the urbanization of the Mediterranean coast showed the limits of the ambitious AGUA Programme with many desalination plants canceled or working at very low capacities amidst accusations of overspending and corruption.