Tapping the Oceans
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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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Chapter 9: Commodifying the Pacific Ocean: desalination and the neoliberalisation of water in Southern California

Joe Williams

Abstract

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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