UK's First Desalination Plant Opens on Thames to Quench Londoners' Thirst

thames river photo

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

The Thames has come a long way from the polluted mess it once was just a few years ago. Clean-up efforts have been so successful, even fragile and fickle seahorses have returned. Now, the citizens of London can even drink the river water, thanks to a new desalination plant that has just opened up. It is the United Kingdom's first desal plant, and while it will provide the city with much needed drinking water, desalination is not without problems. Edie reports that the Thames Gateway Water Treatment Works has been built in East London's Beckton, helping to alleviate water demands after a long process of approval. The desal plant was originally opposed by London's previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, who pointed out the primary problem with all desalination plants - it'd be too energy hungry and the benefits of more drinking water would be negated by the problems associated with more carbon dioxide from powering it. But after the operators agreed the plant would be run entirely from renewable energy sources, the construction moved forward. Though, the "renewable energy" is coming mainly from sustainably produced biofuel, which is a controversy all by itself.

Still, for a city - and country - facing the impacts of increased drought, the drinking water is welcome. Using a world's-first four-step reverse osmosis process (most plants use just two steps), the plant will be able to produce enough fresh water from the Thames to support up to one million Londoners with an 85% efficiency rate.

Martin Baggs, Thames Water's chief executive, said: "People may wonder why we're equipping 'rainy' London with a desalination plant, something more often associated with the Middle East, southern Europe or ocean-going liners... [But] our existing resources - from non-tidal rivers and groundwater - simply aren't enough to match predicted demand in London. That's why we're tapping into the new and limitless resource of the tidal Thames, fed by the rolling oceans beyond, so we can ensure our 8.5 million customers have enough water in future in the event of a drought."

WATCH VIDEO: Water Desalination - Discover how a process mimicked from nature purifies industrial waste water in the American West.

Of course, better rainwater catchment measures - a big issue for big cities - as well as a more intelligent use of what water sources exist could also go a long way towards keeping a city like London well within its water means, without requiring the use of fuels, even biofuels, to create fresh water from salty water. Of course, most cities are looking for ways to add on, not cut back. In that vein, desalination technology has been an area of study for many researchers and investors who are looking to improve efficiency and output levels. Australia already relies heavily on desalination plants in several areas, and even California (again, a place with poor existing water use habits) has been eying installing more desalination plants to alleviate the strain on rivers and deltas. In a place like England, where water has become an issue on the tip of everyone's tongue, it is not surprising that it is the home of the UK's first - and likely not last - desal plant.

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