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Next to the tamil village “Bhommayapalayam” on the Bay of Bengal, about 10 km north of Pondicherry, Niveau élevé’s team is currently building a seawater desalination plant. The aim is to create a completely environmentally friendly desalination plant that will meet the following criteria:

  1. The plant is to be powered 100% by CO²-emission-free electricity, specifically wind energy.
  2. The plant is supposed to work completely without chemicals.
  3. The plant is designed to avoid the real main environmental impact of desalination plants: the formation of a carpet of oxygen-free, heavy water on the seabed that suffocates all life below.
  4. The plant is intended to be a model plant which, if successful, can be replicated along the coasts of India with public support.

Building such a facility is no easy task. There are many hurdles, from the scepticism and resistance of local fishermen, to the approval process, to the technical challenges of a new ecological concept. But one of the biggest problems we face is transporting the drinking water from the coast to the intended distribution point, about 9 km inland. So we tackle the most difficult problem first. Now that we have bought the land for the plant and have completed the approval process by and large, we are turning our attention first to the pipeline for the drinking water.

The first obstacle is that between the seaside building site and the coastal road, 200 m inland, there is a cemetery. Digging a trench and laying a pipeline through this old cemetery is impossible. Crossing under the coastal road is the next big step. Further on, there is a section along a small road lined with private houses. Here, too, a ditch between the road and the houses is not possible. A very fundamental problem is also the fact that one has to think ahead about what will happen if the groundwater of the coastal area starts to draw salt water. The local residents will then certainly try to dig out and tap the pipeline. The most difficult part is the first kilometre. Once that is overcome, the worst is over. After that, there is a small road that you can follow and at the edge of which you can sink the pipes into the ground.
To overcome the first 400 metres of cemetery, coastal road and settlement area, there is only one solution: the pipeline must be pulled in underground 7 to 10 metres below the surface using a drilling method. After that, we have to continue the pipeline in a deep trench on land that we were able to buy.

We have been acquiring the land for the plant for some time, and the land for laying the pipeline only recently. The first kilometres of pipelines have been lying on the site of the future plant for more than a year, as it was difficult to get permission from the Highway Department to lay a pipeline under the coastal road. But finally the time has come and in October 2016 we can finally start: 9 km stretch in total, several pipes next to each other, made of HDPE (High Densitiy Polyethylene). The aim of the routing is one of the highest points in the area, about 50m high, from where we want to distribute the water to the different settlements. Our goal is to complete the most difficult and expensive section of about one kilometre within two to three months and then approach the finish point in several stages of one to three kilometres.
Since the first models of the watches are currently being manufactured and the release of the brand is imminent, we quickly decide that Julia (see Team chapter) will not only present the new watches in a photo shoot in the diamond-cutting workshop and the glass manufacture, but also against the background of the work with the drinking water pipeline. Julia comes from Zug, the place in Switzerland where the heart of Niveau élevé watches beats. However, she lives mainly in Auroville – South India.

The seawater desalination plant is one of the important projects for which the Niveau élevé brand is to contribute decisively to the financing. To what extent it can do this remains to be seen. For us, however, all these projects are one. It is exciting and interesting to cut diamonds and create extraordinary jewels. It is fascinating to try to create a watch brand that is made up of three elements: a philosophical approach to life, a very specific kind of aesthetic and an expertise in jewellery, diamonds and glass. It is just as exciting to tackle an environmental project on the scale of our seawater desalination plant, or to try to put the energy supply of a future city on a self-sufficient, ecological basis. However, it is equally exciting to try to rethink the principles of our monetary society and to see if there are alternatives. The seawater desalination project is very much at the forefront of all our activities in that the increasing salinisation of the coastal region in the southern part of the Bay of Bengal is of great concern to us all. An environmental catastrophe of gigantic proportions is brewing here.

With the ever-growing world population, increasing technology, rising average living standards and climate change, resources are generally becoming scarcer. But it is the very simple things that are in the most dire straits: Air, water, sand, fertile farmland, etc. According to the annual reports of the World Bank, global economic output doubled between 2002 and 2014, i.e. within 12 years. That means in 2014 twice as much was produced as in 2002, twice as many cars, twice as many homes, twice as many mobile phones… If we look at the statistics of the extraction of raw materials, they confirm the picture one hundred percent. The global production of coal, iron ore, aluminimum (bauxite), oil, copper, etc., was twice as high in 2014 as in 2002 for all so-called “commodities”.

Perhaps our planet will manage to double the extraction of iron, coal, etc. a few more times. But doubling water consumption every 12 to 15 years? In some areas this will be possible, but in many areas it will not. In Africa, India and several other overpopulated cultural areas, there is already an acute water shortage. But the worrying thing about water scarcity is that even if water consumption were to be frozen at today’s levels, the situation would worsen even without an increase in consumption. In many areas, we are already living on geological freshwater reserves that will be depleted very soon. A striking example of this is India.

India is a country with a huge population growth. The approximately 1.3 billion Indians will probably double again within the next 60 years. But the population explosion is not the main problem in terms of water. A much bigger problem for nature’s water balance is India’s changing life patterns. Until half a century ago, 95% of the population lived in rural areas. There was hardly any running water in the houses in the villages, no toilets, no showers. The water for drinking and washing was brought from a village well to the hut by clay jug, and so the per capita water consumption was no more than 20 litres per day. Today this looks different. Running water is accessible to about two-thirds of the population and so average water consumption has increased to over 100 litres per capita per day. In addition, large industries that require a lot of water emerged, e.g. the textile industry.

Thus, the balance between abstraction and natural recharge of groundwater has become completely unbalanced during the last decades. In the area around the industrial city of Coimbattore, as in large parts of India’s south, the groundwater level has dropped to 400 m. The groundwater level in the area is now lower than in the rest of the country. With a ground elevation of 200 m above sea level, this means that the groundwater level is 200 m below sea level.
Studies by a French research team investigating the groundwater situation on the coast of the Bay of Bengal have shown that in the Pondicherry area, depending on the population density, between six and seventeen times as much groundwater is pumped out compared to what gets back into the groundwater through rainwater seepage. At the same time, the research revealed that the groundwater level on most stretches of coastline is already well below sea level. However, this means that the water table is currently filling up with water stored in clay layers under the seabed. For thousands of years, fresh water flowed underground from the interior towards the coast and did not stop at the beach, but continued to flow under the sea. How far the freshwater bubble extends under the sea has not been researched. What is clear is that the freshwater supplies under the sea are currently emptying into the groundwater of the coastal region and that in a relatively short time the entire freshwater bubble will be depleted, with the repressing saltwater then suddenly collapsing into the groundwater. At this point, the coastal groundwater is suddenly salinated, with catastrophic consequences for the local population.

India has very high economic growth, measured against the global average. On the one hand, this means that water scarcity will worsen dramatically because consumption will increase even more and, at the same time, geological freshwater reservoirs, such as the one under the seabed, will be depleted. At the same time, this also means that India will soon be able to afford to build seawater desalination plants on a large scale and thus meet its freshwater needs at least in part. Already, a large desalination plant in Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal, produces 150 million litres of drinking water per day. A second even larger plant is under construction near Chennai and will soon produce about three times as much drinking water.

However, solving India’s drinking water problem via huge desalination plants will exacerbate India’s environmental problems and the global climate problem. The mega-plants bring with them three problems:

They are powered by grid electricity, most of which is generated from coal in India. The main cost factor for desalinating water is energy. The energy consumption of such systems is correspondingly high. You have to reckon with about 5 KWh of electricity per 1000 litres of drinking water in the conventional plants that are currently under construction. The Chennai plant thus consumes about 0.75 million KWh of coal-fired electricity per day. In order to cover the water needs of the coastal region in the long term, once the groundwater has become saline, it would probably take several hundred million KWh of electricity per day, with the resulting consequences for the CO² content of our atmosphere.

The systems work with chemical additives in the seawater that is sucked in, primarily to “flocculate” the organic particles or the plankton organisms. In the construction of the large plants, this is necessary because the plankton clogs the membranes of the plants through which the salt water is forced. These additives then end up in the approx. 70 % of the saltwater that is sucked in and pumped back into the sea.
The biggest environmental problem with mega-plants is that at least 70 % of the seawater that is sucked in, enriched with the salt that comes from the fresh water produced, is pumped back into the sea. So a plant that produces 150 million litres of drinking water per day discharges almost half a billion litres of enriched salt water into the sea every day. This in itself would not be such a big problem. But all the water is returned to a single point a few hundred metres from the coast. The problem is that this water, due to the high pressure it was exposed to during the process of salt enrichment, has lost all natural oxygen. So it is “dead” water. The fact that the salt content is 1/3 higher than normal makes the water heavier. So it immediately sinks to the seabed and spreads there like a carpet. The coastal region of the Bay of Bengal is a “shelf area”. Beneath a relatively thin layer of water, the seabed extends about 100 km into the Gulf at depths of only 10 to 100 metres. The return water from the plant thus reaches the seabed without much mixing with normal seawater, forming a huge carpet of oxygen-less, highly saline wastewater laced with chemicals. Thus, it suffocates all life that is on the seabed. If the “Brine carpet” were to build up at a height of 20 cm and it took one day for the heavy water to mix with the lighter normal and oxygenated water, this would mean a dead seabed the size of 2.5 million square metres for half a billion litres. With a large number of such installations, this would result in a significant impairment of the maritime life of the coastal region.

To counteract this development, Niveau élevé’s team is currently building a smaller, environmentally sound desalination plant about 10 km north of Pondicherry. The three environmentally relevant criteria have been solved in an exemplary manner:

The plant will have an “ERS”, i.e. an “Energy Regain System”. This means that the enriched salt water, which is discharged from the circuit under high pressure upstream of the membrane, does not simply flow into the sea, but passes through a turbine beforehand and converts the pressure into a recovery of electricity. This reduces the electricity consumption for drinking water production from 5 KWh to 3 KWh per thousand litres. In our system, this electricity is not provided by normal grid electricity, but is produced by the in-house wind farm mentioned in the previous chapter.

The plant will be operated entirely without chemicals. The chemical “flocculation” of the plankton is replaced by a high UV irradiation of the sucked-in water followed by a microfiltration system. The seawater that is sucked in flows through quartz tubes, which are UV-permeable, before it reaches the pressure pumps. These quartz tubes are irradiated by powerful UV lamps and the high dose of UV light in the intake water destroys all organic substances. These are then filtered out in microfilters. The technical disadvantage of this system is that you have to clean the microfilters relatively often. But it is possible to operate the system without chemicals.

The prototype desalination plant will produce a maximum of 10 to 15 million litres of drinking water per day and will only discharge the “brine”, i.e. the enriched salt water, into the open sea 500 metres from the coast. A “batrimetric” study ensured that, with 20 million litres of Brine discharge daily, the turbulence from the flow at the site in question was large enough to prevent the formation of a carpet of heavy water.

This pilot plant, which can supply a maximum of 100,000 people with an estimated drinking water demand of about 130 litres/day, has of course not yet solved the general water problem on the east coast of India. However, it is planned to use the plant as a model plant and, after completion, to use state, municipal or private funds to promote the construction and operation of municipal, identically constructed plants for small-scale facilities on the coast. If this model of seawater desalination works well, the plant would be the only alternative for communities up to 100,000 inhabitants on the coast. It can be assumed that there are enough investors for this model of plants, including state and municipalities. The big trump card of the concept is the land prices on the coast. The price for a square metre of coastal land on the east coast is about 5000 rupees, or €70. Since in the case of groundwater salinisation, without an alternative water supply, the land would no longer be suitable both for agriculture and as a place for local fishermen to stay, the price would collapse to a fraction. If one compares the loss of value of the coastal land with the construction costs of a small or medium-sized desalination plant, one immediately sees that already the landowners could finance the plant from only a small part of the conservation of value of their land. If one adds the fact that such a plant would be good business for owners and operators at the same time, there is a justified hope that the model of this plant could be copied many times. If, at the same time, it were possible to obtain government subsidies for the construction of similar plants due to the environmental friendliness of the plant, then the project could possibly make a not insignificant contribution to a sustainable solution of the drinking water problem in India.

The question that arises with this concept is, of course, whether the environmentally friendly aspect can be maintained when implementing a duplication of the plants. One might fear that, although the technical concept of the plant would become established, the green electricity, for example, would be replaced by normal grid electricity. It would also be conceivable to save the UV and microfiltration system and still use chemicals again. Equally, one could be concerned whether a change in the size of the plant, in combination with a point of exit of the “brine” closer to the coast, would not again result in an oxygen-free heavy water carpet.
But there is also something to be said against concerns about the three main points of environmental friendliness. Commercial grid electricity currently costs about 8 rupees per KWh in India. This is significantly more than the production costs of one KWh of wind energy. A wind turbine of the Enercon model with a capacity of 0.8 megawatts, currently costs about 50 million rupees in India. Such a plant produces between one and two million KWh of electricity per year. This means that if you use your own electricity, you save about 12 million rupees per year. So a wind turbine has paid for itself after 5 years, but runs for about 20 years. In addition, there are tax benefits from the state, such as the possibility to write off 80 % of the wind turbine per year. The costs per cubic metre of drinking water are thus only about half as high when using wind energy as when using grid electricity.

The use of chemicals in the plant certainly saves costs and makes operation somewhat easier. But one of the main hurdles to building a plant is the approval process. This drags on for years in India, is quite expensive and, above all, is ultimately decided by the “Water Pollution Board” in Delhi. The “Environmental Impact Study”, which is costly and complicated to prepare, plays a key role in the approval process. Of course, operation without any chemicals at all makes the process much easier, especially if there is a model plant already in full operation, where you more or less only have to copy the Environmental Impact Study. In most cases, it must be assumed that a desalination plant will only be built when the groundwater has become unusable due to salinisation.

In such a situation, of course, there is a need for help, and a years-long procedure for planning permission brings enormous difficulties for the local population. It must therefore be assumed that a shorter and cheaper approval period is taken more seriously here than the commercial advantages of simpler handling in the subsequent operation of the plant.

The approval procedure also includes an investigation into the acceptance of the surrounding population. As a rule, these are fishing villages on the coast. Since local fisheries are the first and immediate sufferers of an oxygen-less heavy water carpet, it must be assumed that defusing the potential for conflict with fishermen, if this point is handled thoroughly, is likely to be decisive. If the question of the consequences of the plant for the fishery is openly discussed, then it will hopefully be difficult for careless handling of this point to prevail.

So we see good opportunities to be able to scale up the environmental friendliness of our pilot plant as well. It is only important that the first plant runs without problems and is a success both technically and socially.