Plant backs up London water supply

The UK’s first-ever mainland desalination plant opened this week to provide a backup supply to ‘seriously water-stressed’ London in the event of a drought.

Thames Gateway Water Treatment Works, at Beckton in east London, will, when required, turn a mixture of seawater and river water from the tidal River Thames into high-quality drinking water for up to one million Londoners.

The opening of the £270m facility this week marks the latest addition to Thames Water’s efforts to ensure that it can meet the demand for water. According to the utility, the ongoing replacement of London’s leaky Victorian water mains has helped cut leakage by more than a quarter in the past five years.

London is classed by the Environment Agency as ‘seriously water-stressed’, which means that demand could outpace supply in a long dry period.

With climate change threatening hotter, drier summers and an additional 700,000 people forecast to move to London by 2021, it is hoped that the new water works can help provide the capital’s supplies for the future – regardless of the weather.

The key treatment process in desalination is reverse osmosis, which involves forcing salty water through extremely fine membranes. This technology is used at 14,000 water treatment plants across the world and has kept crews on Royal Navy ships refreshed for decades.

However, while most reverse-osmosis plants have one or two stages, which yield around half of the source water as drinking water, the Gateway works is claimed to be the world’s first ever four-stage reverse-osmosis system, yielding a far more efficient 85 per cent.

The works will only take in water on the outgoing tide, when it is a third as salty as normal seawater and so requires less energy to treat it.

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 the fact is, London isn’t as rainy as you might think – it gets about half as much rain as Sydney and less than Dallas or Istanbul. Water is an increasingly precious resource that we can no longer take for granted.

‘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.

‘The 2005/06 drought was too close for comfort, with only a very wet May saving the day, and we never want a repeat of that. It highlighted what we already knew: additional water sources are needed, as well as a lot more work on reducing leakage, to be sure we have sufficient supplies long term.

‘This new works is a major advance in desalination technology and in UK water-resource management. Running it on biodiesel, derived from materials including used cooking oil, will also help us tread as lightly as possible on the environment, on which our core business depends.’

Thames Water supplies 8.5 million drinking-water customers across London and the Thames Valley with 2,600Mld (million litres of water a day). The utility stated that the new works will produce up to 150Mld, enough to supply 400,000 homes, or one million people.

It was also pointed out the water will be blended with other supplies, meaning that up to 580,000 properties in north east London (1.4 million people) will potentially receive it in varying proportions. Additionally London’s water supply is connected by a Ring Main, so the benefits will be felt across London.