Desalination in Latin America

Despite having countless water resources, Latin America has a culture of inefficient water use in almost every area where it is used. 21 million people still do not have basic access to drinking water and more than 116 million receive it with deficient conditions of continuity or sanitary quality. In addition, water resources are not distributed uniformly, generating increasing competition for water among the different users. Irrigation uses more than 70% of the extracted water and projections point to a rise in use in accordance with the agricultural plans of the different countries, as well as an increase in human consumption, as a result of the population growth that characterizes the region.

Water management in the region is highly vulnerable to the  effects of climate change and variability, with more severe droughts and the intensification of flooding events, which in the last 15 years have increased by more than 40% with respect to similar periods in the past.

For all of these reasons, Latin America represents one of the largest emerging markets for desalination. However, this region accounts for only 6% of the market, with Mexico and Chile leading this development. There are currently 30 desalination projects underway in Latin America: eighteen in Chile, five in Mexico, four in Peru, two in Colombia and one in Argentina, with an estimated investment of $25 billion between 2021 and 2025.

In the book “IDA Journal of Desalination and Water Reuse” by the International Desalination Association, Emilio Gabbrielli, the former president of the organization, concludes that it was in Chile, particularly in the Atacama Desert, where modern desalination really began in terms of numbers and diversity of applications. Land-based applications of desalination accelerated in the late 19th century in several parts of the world, but it is only in this stretch of desert along the Pacific coast of Peru, Bolivia and Chile that there is documented evidence that desalination was already being applied in different sectors using all of the evaporation processes known at the time, such as MED machines, and the first known wind and sun driven desalination plant. This latter plant is the famous Las Salinas solar desalination plant, built in 1878, which operated continuously for some 50 years.

The document illustrates, for example, how desalination ensured the supply of fresh water to the ports of Cobija, Tocopilla, Mejillones and Antofagasta along the Atacama Desert by means of dozens of distillers, guaranteeing the operation of steam engines in locomotives along the routes of the rapidly expanding railway network, and enabling mining activity in places where it would otherwise have been difficult.

However, according to the Latin American Association for Desalination and Water Reuse (ALADYR), “one of the barriers to desalination expansion has been cost bias”, but calculations show that the cost increase is not so high, only about 10-15% more than the current rate. “In this sense, we maintain that the seawater desalination is an economically viable solution to diversify available water sources” and furthermore “the most expensive water is water that is not available”, according to the association.

Estrategia del Agua 2019-2022” – Banco de Desarrollo de America Latina (CAF) Desalinización América Latina

“El mercado latinoamericano de desalación, reúso y tratamiento está en franco crecimiento” – Asociación Latinoamericana de Desalación y Reúso de Agua (ALADYR)

IDA Journal of Desalination and Water Reuse

Published in: FuturENVIRO Nº 69 AprilMay 2020