Swakopmund Desalination Plant, Namibia

Namwater first unveiled their plans to build a desalination plant in 1998 in response to growing water demand, particularly in the coastal regions of Namibia. Five years on, it now seems unlikely that the facility once proposed for Swakopmund, on Walvis Bay, will actually be built. The factors which have contributed to this situation principally include a sharp reduction in consumption in the very region the plant was intended to service and the recent announcement of unexpectedly high reserves in the country's aquifers. This, coupled with the argument and uncertainty which has dogged the project almost from the outset, has led to the plant effectively being shelved indefinitely, though not officially cancelled.

The project cost had originally been estimated at $100 million.


Namwater produced a shortlist in 2000, comprising Weir-Envig (a United Kingdom -South Africa joint venture company), BV-Cadagua (USA-Spanish JVC) and Ionics (USA). They all submitted technical bids and were asked to demonstrate their proposals on a small pilot scale to give an indication of the costs involved.

Early in 2001, the contract to build the plant was provisionally awarded to Weir-Envig. This was something of a controversial turn since the water price they had quoted was more than double that suggested by Ionics, who had been widely tipped to win. Ionics have since sued Namwater in the United States after being forced to forfeit their N$5 million deposit when their tender bid was not accepted.

Around the same time, a group of investors suggested that the plant could be built cheaper in conjunction with Israeli desalination specialists Aquaflow, proposing to supply water at potentially a quarter of the cost of the Namwater plans.

Aquaflow had agreed to fund the entire planning and construction of the plant in return for control for the first 12.5 years to ensure payment of its commitments to the financiers. During this period, Aquaflow would have held 76% of the share capital and the Walvis Bay Municipality 24%. At the end of that time, Aquaflow were to transfer 66% of its share-holding free of any consideration, giving the municipality 90% of the issued shares. Ownership of the plant and equipment would also have been transferred to the municipality.

Inevitably, numerous accusations and bitter exchanges followed, publicly and privately, between many of the interested parties. Progress on the project became slow and eventually Namwater decided to postpone its plans until bulk user agreements had been signed. Negotiation began with the three main users involved: the municipalities of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay and the Roessing mine. Although there was much discussion, no agreement was reached, largely due to the continued uncertainty over the cost, which was generally expected to make water significantly more expensive. In the end, with no bulk user arrangements in place, the final contract with Weir-Envig was never signed.


Plans for the desalination plant were initially driven by concerns that coastal fresh water supplies were insufficient and that demand was set to continue rising. However, two developments have subsequently challenged both of these fundamental assumptions.

Firstly, far from continuing to climb, consumption figures in the area have actually fallen. There are several reasons for this. In an effort to smooth the transition to the elevated costs of desalinated water, a new tariff structure was implemented for consumers in the Walvis Bay area. This has led to a steady reduction in consumption and demand is now lower than it was six years ago, when the plant was first conceived. Usage is anticipated to drop still further as measures to provide purified "grey-water" to residents for garden irrigation come into play. In addition, the region's pilchard canning industry, once a major water consumer, has been forced to downsize in the face of diminishing quotas in recent years, further reducing demand. Another significant decrease came when the Roessing mine cut back on its usage in the wake of the increased water charges. This was further compounded when, early in 2002, the mine announced improved recycling methods aimed at lowering its use by 25%, a reduction of 0.5 million m³/year.

Secondly, two flood events, in 1997 and 2000, have provided the Kuiseb aquifer with sufficient water to meet demands for the next ten years under conditions of normal growth and at present yield. This, coupled with further developments planned for the Omdel Scheme and the Lower Kuiseb aquifers, which are the two main water sources for the central area, should supply sufficient water for the next 20 years.

According to the latest Namwater figures, announced at the end of November 2003, the two main sources for the region supply an annual sustainable yield of around 13 million m³. Additional resources, awaiting development, are expected to offer an estimated further 6 million m³/year to this total. Actual current water usage for the whole of the central Namib area stands at just over 10 million m³/year. The abstraction figures for Walvis Bay, where the desalination plant was to have been built, have fallen from an all-time high of 14 million m³ in 1977 to around 7 million m³ in 2001.

Clearly, had it not been for this reduction in consumption and the good inflow of water into the Kuiseb aquifer during the floods of 1997 and 2000, the necessity of desalination would still be an issue. As it is, the urgency of building a such a plant in this part of West Africa has faded, at least for the time being.