Navigating a desalination project through Chile's turbulent political waters

Bnamericas Published: Thursday, March 03, 2022
Navigating a desalination project through Chile's turbulent political waters

Chilean firm Cramsa submitted the US$5bn Agua Marítimas desalination project in Antofagasta region to the environmental assessment service (SEA). According to the environmental impact study (EIS), the Aguas Marítimas plant will provide 175,000m3/d for human and industrial consumption.

But criticism is growing regarding brine discharges, while proposals for norms advance in the constitutional convention that would eliminate private water rights and determine that only public institutions may provide potable water and sanitation services.

BNamericas spoke with Hugo Lecaros, manager of corporate affairs at Cramsa, about the benefits of the project and how it could be affected by the political scenario.

BNamericas: The Aguas Marítimas EIS said the project will provide desalinated water for human consumption and industrial uses. Which one is the priority?

Arriagada: When Cramsa started formulating its project, the priority was human consumption. We currently have a request for a sanitary concession that has not yet been signed, so we added the industrial component to avoid further delaying the project.

Once the sanitary concession is approved, we should return to focus on human consumption. But it is not that we have one priority over another, but rather that it is a great project that seeks to achieve both types of distribution.

Lecaros: The magnitude of this project makes it possible to not neglect either of the two areas.

In the process of granting the sanitary concession, all environmental requirements by [regulator] SISS have been met, and we are waiting for the concession to be signed by the public works minister.

In parallel, there is interest in the region for this to materialize, not only related to human consumption, but also because of sustainable development of agriculture, mining and industrial areas that today do not have these types of services.

BNamericas: Antofagasta city, which would benefit from the project, already obtains 85% of its drinking water through desalination, according to Aguas Antofagasta. Would Aguas Marítimas complement that service?

Lecaros: They are different things. Sanitary concessions establish territories where one can operate. We have requested a concession in the urban area of Antofagasta that is outside the coverage of Aguas Antofagasta.

In that area there is 0% drinking water and sanitation service, there is nothing, despite being in the urban radius.

BNamericas: The EIS also mentions a 985,000m3/d underwater outfall, but brine discharges have become a main target of desalination critics. How will you address these concerns?

Lecaros: In the case of the already existing Antofagasta plant, the technology and system are completely different from that of Aguas Marítimas. Our outfall is below the seabed and is much longer than [the current one], a little over 900m versus Aguas Antofagasta's, which is practically on the edge of the beach, at only 200m.

The length and depth of our outfall allows the brine to disperse with the tide more quickly.

The problems that have been seen with other projects in the region will not be seen with our project, because we have considered that negative experience of the past and we aim to solve that problem.

BNamericas: The constitutional convention’s environmental commission has approved proposed regulations that would end private water rights and give the state exclusive rights to sanitation services. How could these regulations affect your project?

Lecaros: As you say, these are proposals, and we are not the ones to comment on proposals that have not yet been voted in the convention’s plenary session, and that is something that will have to be seen at the time.

I believe that the state has many issues to solve and we have always stuck to the current institutions. For us, that is our backbone.

We are talking about assumptions that we have not evaluated, because they will be evaluated the moment they come true.

BNamericas: Is it possible to run Aguas Marítimas without private water rights and with the state providing water services?

Lecaros: Water rights, in legal terms, always refer to inland waters; they do not regulate seawater. In the case of sanitation, one provides a service that, in our case, is to desalinate and make the water potable.

It is not that we pretend to be owners of the water. I believe that no utility believes it owns the rights to use water, that issue is out of the question.

Regarding water rights, it could be the case that Cramsa could help free continental waters, to the extent that the industry has a viable desalinization alternative that allows to avoid using continental waters that require water rights. 

BNamericas: What are the prospects of Chile’s desalination sector in light of the current water crisis?

Lecaros: I would answer that question with what is happening worldwide. One is not reinventing the wheel on these things.

There are no two different opinions in this regard, that the most efficient method for providing water different from using continental [resources] is through desalination, obviously adhering to all the necessary requirements.

It is the best proven alternative today. Technology is advancing a lot, and perhaps tomorrow there will be other, more efficient alternatives. And I have no doubt that as a company that privileges technological innovation, we will evaluate and implement them as they appear.

I believe that desalination is the great solution for this country, which has sea [access] in almost all regions, together with the fact that energy costs have dropped considerably with the emergence of renewable energies.

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