Desalination dream not dead, Samuda

DESPITE a deafening silence in recent time from the Andrew Holness Administration on its plan to introduce a desalination plant to help solve the country’s annual drought woes, Cabinet member with responsibility for water Matthew Samuda says that plan remains a work in progress.

“Desalination is a part of Jamaica’s water future. There is no way to avoid that because of our population and the way we have developed largely lives in the south-eastern end of the island and our water sources are largely in the west,” Samuda said in response to a question during a post-Cabinet media briefing at Jamaica House on Wednesday.

“So the Government is pursuing major projects that will implement desalination technology that will offset reductions in rainfall,” added Samuda, who had earlier noted that for the six-month period from October 2022 to March 2023, the island saw its lowest rainfall in recorded history.

Samuda, who is the minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation with responsibility for water, environment and climate change, noted that in March 2022 the prime minister had announced a desalination project, which is still on the table.

“The ministry is pursuing this project and negotiations continue. An update will be provided in short order. What I think is important to note [is that] the ministry is continuing work even ahead of this project being brought to fruition.

“We are investing $7 billion this year in new storage, new pumping and processing capacity and indeed new lines,” said Samuda after he had announced that Cabinet has approved a further $150 million in emergency funding to deal with the current drought which has already impacted more than 800 communities.

The Holness Administration had first touted the introduction of desalination in 2019 when the then minister with responsibility for water, Pearnel Charles Jr, told the Jamaica Observer that talks were under way to use this technology to tackle Jamaica’s water woes.

Desalination is a process to remove salt from seawater to make it potable. The technology has been utilised in many countries around the world, but cost considerations by Jamaican technocrats and policymakers have reduced any such plan to a mere wish.

In his Observer interview Charles Jr said the issue of cost was one which the Government was moving to address.

“I have met with one of our international partners looking at the possibility of a pilot programme which will see a particular type of desalination equipment which, they have assured me, relies on much less electricity, because when I did the research on why The Bahamas can use it and why we don’t, it’s because they have to.

“So most places that use desalination is not because they choose to, but because they have to, because the electricity cost is so high. So the Government ends up providing a subsidy, otherwise, if you do it here the consumers would see their bills skyrocket by almost 10 times. We can’t afford that. So if we are going to use desalination, we are going to have to know how we are doing it, mixing it with renewable energy and ensure that the cost is still affordable,” Charles Jr added.

In his presentation in the 2022-2023 Budget Debate, Prime Minister Holness announced that that his Government had received an unsolicited proposal from a consortium of local and international companies to implement a desalination project.

“The proposal is currently undergoing technical and due diligence reviews. Subject to the satisfactory completion of those reviews, it is the intention of the Government to…enter into direct negotiations with the consortium, in order to fast-track its implementation,” Holness said at the time.

“I am not saying that this project is a definitive yes, but we must explore it; we must see if it can be done. If it can be done, then we will pursue it,” added Holness.

He noted that he had highlighted signalled the possibility of Jamaica introducing desalination in his budget presentation in 2020,.

According to Holness, that would involve deep-sea desalination and pumping the fresh water into reservoirs at high elevations using solar.

“The fresh water will then be gravity fed downhill through hydropower turbines generating electricity. The water will then be channelled to reservoirs downstream to be used for household purposes and irrigation,” Holness further explained.

He noted at the time that the project has the potential to solve the water scarcity problem of the Kingston Metropolitan Area by providing a third source of stored water supply to complement the Mona Reservoir and Hermitage Dam. At the same time, it would generate a significant amount of hydroelectric power.

On Wednesday, Samuda told the media briefing that the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation has a team working on the desalination plan and updates will soon be provided.