Subramanian Swamy's Delusional Desalination Dreams for Tamil Nadu

Technology can help only as long as it seeks to work with nature. If it seeks to replace nature, the collateral damage it will cause will compromise our future.

Subramanian Swamy has a sense of humour. On Fools’ Day, he tweeted to the people of Tamil Nadu this: “If Tamil people want adequate drinking and field water I can arrange through sea water desalination plants. If Cauvery water then howl and cry.”

If Tamil people want adequate drinking and field water I can arrange through sea water desalination plants. If Cauvery water then howl&cry

— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) April 1, 2018

Urging Tamil Nadu to reduce its reliance on Karnataka’s catchment has its merits. For one, it enjoins Tamil Nadu to take care of the substantial watershed in its jurisdiction. Then, it suggests that there should be a more judicious usage of water by radically increasing water efficiencies in agriculture, domestic and industrial sectors.

But desalination says none of this. It promises relief without rocking the boat. The Cauvery crisis is not about the availability of water or how Karnataka and Tamil Nadu refuse to share what they have. The crisis is a result and proof of how technological smartness has distanced us from our ecological wisdom to a point where we no longer know how a river flows or nature works, or even realise how unbending its laws are.

The suggestion of sea water reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plants to sate drinking and field water needs has to rank among the more successful Fools’ Day jokes had it not been for Swamy meaning the tweet’s contents seriously. He has been suggesting this since 2016, when he probably met a glib Israeli salesperson pushing the idea. Just the audacity of suggesting desalination to replace Cauvery is impressive.

Israel is certainly a forerunner in agricultural innovations. The country did this not by borrowing a technology but by developing a culture of farming that learnt from and responded to local agro-climatic realities. Desalination plays a minor role in meeting the country’s water needs and an even smaller role in Israeli agriculture. And even there, it is not without problems.

For Tamil Nadu, abandoning the Cauvery and opting for desalination plants for agriculture would be disastrous if it were at all techno-commercially feasible.

Tall tales and technofixes

Desalination as a “solution” for Tamil Nadu’s water problem is what social activists disparagingly refer to as a ‘technofix’.

Technofixes allow us to believe that an easy solution exists for a difficult problem. For example, that the problem of garbage can be solved if everyone just learnt to put their trash in bins; that plastic would cease to be a problem if everybody recycled; that climate change can be dealt with by switching to renewable energy; that the problems of flooding and drought across the country can be solved by interlinking rivers; and that pollution can be tackled by pollution control.

Unlike context-specific technological interventions that are extremely valuable, a technofix is more a problem than a solution. It ignores root causes and pretends that if it works in one context it will succeed in every other. Technofixers, or people like Swamy, have a penchant to offer silver bullet solutions and behave as though social contexts, cultural habits and ecological responses will all adapt to enable the technofix to fix the problem.

Technofixes and their proponents are dangerous because they aggravate the problem that they claim to address by lulling society into a false sense of complacency. Their actions highlight dubious benefits even as it exacts a heavy price on the environment and invisible and marginalised sections of society.

Desalination dreams

SWRO is a process of separating the salt from the sea water to produce freshwater.  The technology has proven to be beneficial in water-scarce places like the arid lands of south Israel, Eastern Spain and the Middle East. Even here, they have only supplemented other available resources, not replaced them. SWRO is energy and capital intensive, and has significant environmental implications.

Desalinating 1 cubic metre (1000 litres) of water requires between 2.5 and 3.5 kWh (units) of electricity. In comparison, the average daily electricity consumption of an Indian household is about 3 units of electricity.

Chennai has two desalination plants of 100 million litres per day each. Together, the plants will consume between 500,000 to 700,000 units of electricity each day if they run at full capacity– enough to power 2 lakh households for a day.

What would it take to replace Tamil Nadu’s share of Cauvery water from Karnataka by desalination plants? Besides the quantum of Cauvery water that is generated from within Tamil Nadu’s substantial catchment, the Supreme Court has allotted the state 177 TMC of water from the Karnataka-Kerala watershed, to be released by Karnataka.

This amount is not to be released all at once but in sync with the planting seasons. But let’s set all these niggling complications aside for the time being, and look at the magnitude of the task that Swamy has offered to complete within four months of being given the go-ahead.

177 TMC translates to 5 trillion litres a year or 14 billion litres a day. At 3.5 units of electricity per 1000 litres, desalinating 14 billion litres each day would require 98 million units of electricity. That is enough electricity to cover the daily needs of 30 million households or 150 million people for a day, which is more than the combined populations of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

The Nemmeli desalination plant. Credit: VA Tech Wabag/Twitter

The Nemmeli desalination plant. Credit: VA Tech Wabag/Twitter

For a Harvard-trained economist, Swamy does not seem to have run his numbers on desalination before proposing the technology as the delta’s thirst quencher. The end-user price for water manufactured at the newer, lower-cost Nemmeli desalination plant located near Mahabalipuram to the south of Chennai is about Rs 50 per 1000 litres.

Delta dilemma

In 2012, just the delta districts of Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu had a combined net sown area under paddy of nearly 500,000 ha – at least 100,000 ha more than all the agricultural lands of Israel put together. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Israel has a total cultivated area of 392,000 hectares.

Unlike Israel, where vegetable and fruit crops suited to arid lands are grown, the delta specialises in paddy, a water-intensive wetland crop. New and innovative methods may have reduced water usage to about 2000 litres per kg of rice, but old habits die hard. Delta paddy continues to average about 4000 litres of water per kg of rice produced. Even if we were to assume the lower end of water consumption of 2000 litres/kg, just the water costs of producing a kilo of rice using desalinated water will be about Rs 100.

The three primary delta districts had a combined production of 1.35 million tonnes of paddy in the year 2010. If all of the delta was to switch to a highly water-efficient paddy cultivation, using a meagre 2000 litres per kg of rice produced, 2.7 trillion litres will have to be desalinated each year. The cost of water for a year’s paddy production in the delta will be a staggering Rs 5.4 lakh crore (Rs 5.4 trillion) or $84 billion.

The glowing articles in the media about the transformation of Israeli agriculture due to desalination fail to highlight the costs and contexts within which such a transformation can be justified. Israel’s needs are paltry compared to the delta’s. Israeli agro-climatic conditions are vastly different. The arid regions of Israel do not receive the kind of rainfall that Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam get. Neither is the country blessed with the kind of water factory that Tamil Nadu has in the forests of the Western Ghats.

The three largest desalination plants in Israel, namely the Sorek, Hadera and Askhelon – in that order – have a combined capacity of producing 600 billion litres of water a year, a fifth of what would be required just to supply water-efficient paddy agriculture in three delta districts.

Israel’s agriculture was designed by its people in response to their specific context. Even here, desalination is a small, though, significant part of the supply formula. In 2005, less than seven percent of Israel’s total water needs was met through desalination plants. The proportion of agricultural water supplied by desalination is even smaller.

If that is the case for an arid country like Israel cultivating crops that require less water, it will be worse for a region like the delta that specialises in wetland crops like paddy.

Other problems

Unfavourable economics aside, desalinated water for agricultural use has other problems. Manufactured water is low on essential plant nutrients like magnesium, sulphates and calcium. This means the farmer will have to pay extra for additional fertilisation of the soil.

The electricity required to run the desalination plants will come from power plants, which have their own negative impacts on the environment, climate change and human health. Responding to a question about desalination, the Scientific American‘s EarthTalk column writes:

“Beyond the links to climate problems, marine biologists warn that widespread desalinisation could take a heavy toll on ocean biodiversity; as such facilities’ intake pipes essentially vacuum up and inadvertently kill millions of plankton, fish eggs, fish larvae and other microbial organisms that constitute the base layer of the marine food chain. And, according to Jeffrey Graham of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography’s Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine, the salty sludge leftover after desalinisation for every gallon of freshwater produced, another gallon of doubly concentrated salt water must be disposed of can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems if dumped willy-nilly offshore. For some desalinisation operations, says Graham, it is thought that the disappearance of some organisms from discharge areas may be related to the salty outflow.”

Attempts to set up such mega-desalination plants on Tamil Nadu’s coast will be fought tooth and nail by the region’s fisherfolk. This will vitiate social harmony by pitching the fishers and farmers against each other. Worse, marine fisheries, which are an important source of inexpensive protein and livelihood for lakhs of fishworkers, will be harmed for questionable returns in the agricultural sector.

The Nemmeli desalination plant in South Chennai was built amidst much opposition by fisherfolk in the region. Less than a year after construction began, the fishers of Sulerikattukuppam had lost their community hall and net mending sheds to sea erosion induced by the construction activities of the desalination plant. When they opposed it, the men of the village were hunted down and thrown in jail, and the village was literally threatened into submission to make the plant a reality.

Cauvery should remain the lifeline

Tamil Nadu can live within the means provided for it by nature, which are by no measure meagre. The state receives plentiful rainfall. Its water harvesting traditions may be ailing, but are still alive. It has a large population that is wedded to agriculture and keen on making it work. It has the river Cauvery, which it shares with Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry. More than half of Cauvery’s total catchment area of 81,155 square kilometres falls in Tamil Nadu. In addition to that is its share of water from the catchments in Karnataka and Kerala.

Rather than sparring with each other, the two riparian states should come together to keep Cauvery alive. Credit: Ashwin Kumar/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Rather than sparring with each other, the two riparian states should come together to keep Cauvery alive. Credit: Ashwin Kumar/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

But for all this catchment area to translate into usable water, we need more than just a tribunal order or a management board. Rather than confronting and competing with each other, Cauvery’s riparian states should be working together with the realisation that caring for the Cauvery will protect their shared environmental fates. When North America’s Great Lakes were threatened by industrial pollution, Canada and the United States together set up the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes to curb industrial emissions on either side of the border.

But in India, judicial and administrative processes are fixated on the allocation of notional water, with no mention made of mechanisms and obligations to ensure that the river has sufficient water for all human and ecological needs. Barring the grudging allocation made for “environmental flows and “inevitable escapages into sea,” the Supreme Court’s recent order and the earlier tribunal verdict make no mention of the obligations of riparian states to nurture the river.

This exposes the mercenary and ecologically bankrupt nature of India’s institutions. The Supreme Court, the various state governments and the chest-thumping nationalists on either side of the border are solely focused on who gets to kill the golden goose, and who gets the last egg.

Why not instead focus this energy on the exercise of keeping the river alive? This can bring the warring riparian states together with a sense of common purpose — to heal the river and save ourselves. A healthy Cauvery is integral to the well-being of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. But Cauvery cannot be revived unless we redesign our agriculture and our economies to work within the limits framed by the laws of nature.

These laws are simple. The river has to flow and reach the sea. With the river’s water, the silt must also be allowed to flow. Flowing water has to touch the earth it flows on and seep into it. Short- and narrow-sighted, poorly interpreted engineering principles of efficiencies tend to violate these simple laws by constructing large dams, insisting on harvesting and using every drop, mining groundwater and lining river beds and canals with concrete.

Technology can help only as long as it seeks to work with nature. If it seeks to replace nature, as is sought to be done in the case of sea water desalination plants, the collateral damage it will cause will compromise our future.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.