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More water for Brits, but at what cost?

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Kai Ryssdal: You can put aside those images you may have of the weather in London being all rain and fog and dreariness. This is actually a hot, dry summer in the British capital — where, as it happens, they have just opened their first version of a facility more common in traditionally parched places: Britain’s first large-scale desalination plant. But the chosen method of turning salty sea water into drinking water isn’t going down well with the environmental crowd.

From London, Christopher Werth reports.

Christopher Werth: Getting salt out of seawater is a complicated process. Luckily, project foreman Graham Baker is here to guide me through it. He beams as he shows me around London’s new $370 million desalination plant. He hands me a hard hat and a bright yellow safety vest, and then begins climbing a flight of stairs to the top of a set of giant concrete tanks.

Graham Baker: Oh, they’re running! Basically filling the tanks up now.

At the top, we’re met by the roaring sound of water, and the wide expanse of the River Thames as it stretches towards the North Sea.

Baker: I think the tide is on the way in at the moment. There’s only certain times they’re allowed to draw the water, and that is on the incoming tide.

From here, the water passes through a series of filters before it can be pumped on to thirsty customers all over the British capital. Barry Clarke of the industry association Water U.K., says the desalination plant has come just in time. He says while London has a reputation as a rainy place, its large population outweighs the rainfall it gets. And according to some projections, the city could add upwards of a million more people in the next two decades.

Barry Clarke Really by comparison with some Mediterranean countries, even like Israel, we have less water per person than even those countries.

And Britain’s water woes are being aggravated by climate change. The U.K.’s Environment Agency projects that by 2050 global warming could reduce water resources by as much as 15 percent. That’s helped classify London as an area of “serious water stress,” and made it, and many other parts of the U.K., a surprising new market for the desalination industry. Other plants have been proposed, although Clarke expects the industry’s growth to be limited.

Clarke: Do I think that desalination plants are going to spring up everywhere over the United Kingdom and England? No, I don’t. But it’s an important technology, and we will never turn our backs on it.

But that technology is also energy intensive, which is why environmental groups have opposed desalination. Darren Johnson is a member of the London Assembly for the Green Party. He says much more should be done to address a more pressing problem: The fact that the city loses over 100 million gallons a day from its leaky, Victorian-era pipes.

Darren Johnson: The problem is we are wasting away the water that we have coming into the city, and we should be making that a priority rather than using this desalination plant, which has a huge impact in terms of energy use.

Thames Water, the company operating the plant, says it plans to use renewable energy to run the facility, and will only turn it on during dry periods. But even then, Johnson says not enough people are aware of just how much water they use. Only about 30 percent of London households pay for their water through metering, compared to roughly 94 percent in a city such as New York. Increasing the number of meters could help to cut water consumption, but with the public often resistant, that could be tougher than a little task like removing salt from the sea.

In London, I’m Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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