‘The salt they pump back in kills everything’: is the cost of Chile’s fresh water too high?

Antofagasta, situated on the edge of the Atacama Desert, relies on a vast desalination plant which provides the city with drinking water – but the waste brine is killing wildlife, say fishermen

As Eduardo Muñoz drifts his ageing skiff into Antofagasta’s harbour, flecks of paint peeling from its prow, he looks disconsolate.

“I used to get twice as many clams from every dive,” he mutters bitterly, hauling two large sacks of shellfish on to the dock and ruffling the salt from his hair.

“Since desalination began a few years back I’ve hardly had any luck,” he says. “The salt they pump back into the sea kills everything, and there’s just a thick layer of sludge on the sea bed now.”

The salt they pump back into the sea kills everything
Muñoz lives and dives in La Chimba, a dilapidated seaside suburb of Antofagasta, a city of 360,000 people on Chile’s arid northern plains and the largest settlement in the Atacama Desert – the driest place on Earth.

Desalination is a common solution to water scarcity around the world, and is used extensively in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The UK’s first plant was opened in London in 2010.

Antofagasta viewed from La Chimba beachfront.
Antofagasta viewed from La Chimba beachfront. Photograph: Danita Delimont/Alamy
In 2003, Chile’s first desalination plant began operating in Muñoz’s neighbourhood, pumping 150 litres of drinking water a second towards Antofagasta to relieve the city of its dire need for fresh water.

The facility has steadily increased its output, and is now the largest drinking water desalination plant in Latin America, operating at 1,056 litres per second. It provides 82.5% of Antofagasta’s potable water, with the remainder fed by the city’s scarce surface water reserves.

Across the region of Antofagasta, accounting for 600,000 people, 56.3% of the drinking water consumed is now desalinised sea water.

The constant struggle for water
Finding water in the desert has never been easy.

“Across Antofagasta’s history, the struggle for access to water is the one constant,” says 92-year-old historian Floreal Recabarren at a city centre café, rapping his cane impatiently on the cobbles… Seguir lectura en The Guardian



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