London desalination plant will not start even if official drought is declared

In the absence of the Beckton power station, Thames Water will have to rely more on households to reduce their consumption. He has already asked bill payers to let their lawns turn brown and their cars stay dirty ahead of a planned hosepipe ban in the capital.

“Bill payers will rightly wonder what value for money they saw from the significant investment in this plant,” said Karen Gibbs of the Consumer Council for Water.

Industry insiders say Thames Water gambled on placing the facility on an estuary, where it hoped to cut operating costs as seawater, mixed with fresh water from the Thames, would be less salty and therefore less difficult to process.

But the company failed to take into account that the water would be at different levels of salinity at different times of the day, making the plant unreliable in producing a steady supply of drinking water.

Even when the plant is operational, it will produce less drinking water than Thames originally anticipated. The plant was originally intended to produce around 150million liters of water a day – enough for 900,000 Londoners – but was forced to revise its estimate down by a third earlier this year.

“This adjustment has been made on the basis of experience and to avoid creating unrealistic expectations as to what outcome might be achieved over an extended period,” a spokesperson for Thames Water said.

The impetus for the east London plant had been the 2012 London Olympics, which raised fears that an influx of people during the hot summer months could be disastrous for the water supply from the city.

But initial plans proposed in 2004 were blocked by Ken Livingstone, then Labor Mayor of London, who argued the plant was unsustainable and unnecessary – despite the city being in one of the most stressed in the country’s water.

When Boris Johnson became mayor in 2008, the plant was given the green light and construction was completed two years later.

Thames Water originally planned four more, but there are few signs of plans for a new plant.

It’s an experience replicated recently in Hampshire, where Southern Water was forced to scrap plans for a desalination plant last year. The area will be the first in the UK to be subject to a garden hose ban, which begins on Friday.

The plant had been opposed by green groups, environmentalist Chris Packham and Julian Lewis, the local Labor MP.

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