Tobago desalination project moves a step closer

A planned desalination project in Tobago looks to be moving forward, as part of broader efforts to ease the impact of water shortages on the island’s residents and economy.

Seasonal water restrictions are currently in place across Trinidad and Tobago for a third consecutive year, amid warnings that the twin-island nation could face a drought.

Although the country is currently served by two desalination plants, which have a combined daily output of around 45m imperial gallons, both facilities are located in Trinidad; Tobago has long advocated for a locally based plant to improve its water supply.

Bolstering water supplies

In mid-March the T&T Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) called for expressions of interest to build and operate a new desalination plant.

According to Keith Rowley, prime minister of T&T, developing desalination capacity is vital for Tobago’s economy.

“We discussed and agreed that WASA and the relevant ministries will immediately, as a matter of urgency, examine the potential for a desalination facility in western Tobago to provide a sustained supply of water for Tobago going forward, so that we will not have this problem of water shortages in Tobago,” he said following a Cabinet meeting in early March.

Tobago’s Cove Eco-Industrial and Business Park has been flagged as the preferred location for the plant, as it already houses a power station, which is essential for desalination, and is located close to both the ocean and WASA’s water main, allowing for easier distribution.

Like the desalination facilities already operating in Point Lisas and Point Fortin on Trinidad, the plant will be developed on a build-own-operate model, with WASA to pay for the take from the new plant. For their part, water customers in the industrial park might be required to pay a higher usage rate, allowing WASA to subsidise tariffs for domestic consumers.

The plant will produce an estimated 5m imperial gallons per day and will take roughly 18 months to bring online, according to John Thompson, CEO of the Desalination Company of T&T, which operates the Point Lisas facility.

Water ban in place

Two weeks after the announcement, WASA was forced to implement restrictions on water use across the country, following warnings from the Meteorological Service that the current dry season, which usually runs into May, was expected to be especially severe.

Under the new provisions, which came into force in mid-March, the use of hosepipes, the watering of gardens and washing of cars are banned until further notice. WASA has also asked customers to minimise water wastage wherever possible.

The restrictions mark something of a trend in recent years, with similar water bans instituted in 2014 and 2015.

Water supply disruptions are taking their toll on Tobago’s important tourism Industry, according to Chris James, president of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association, with some hotels facing cancellations.

James told media in mid-February that despite efforts by WASA to truck in water, demand from tourist activities was outstripping supply.

“You can turn off the water and try to regulate the supply, but we need much more than the 2000 gallons of water we get a day,” he said.                                                                                        

Longer term, water shortages could pose challenges to the development of new tourist accommodation and recreation facilities.

“The population of Tobago can vary significantly based on the number of tourists and the seasonal variation in hotel occupancy, which directly impacts water demand,” Dion Abdool, acting CEO of WASA, told OBG. “In this regard, the long-term solution is a sustainable increase in water production and a reduction in water wastage.”

Long- and short-term fixes

Beyond tourism, assuring consistent, sustainable water supplies on Tobago will likely be needed to generate further investment in its industrial sector.

For example, up to half of the 40m imperial gallons produced per day at the Point Lisas plant on Trinidad is used to supply the needs of the Point Lisas Industrial Estate, where much of the island’s industrial capacity is located.

While the desalination plant at the Cove Eco-Industrial and Business Park could provide some relief, concerns remain over long-term water security on the island, particularly as industrial activities at the park scale up.

In the meantime, WASA has announced plans to ramp up its well drilling programme in a bid to identify and develop new water sources, although the success of any such programme is also dependent on continued rainfall to replenish local aquifers.

WASA drilled eight new wells in 2015 as part of a study to determine the potential for additional bedrock water in Tobago. According to the test wells, there is potential for a sustainable yield of more than 4m imperial gallons per day.

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