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Take Me to the Water

Recent controversy over the Bi-Water/Ocean Conversion water supply contracts has shone a light on one of the most important aspects of island life today—the increasing demand for water and the resulting difficulty in providing and maintaining supply.

This problem is not unique to the BVI. Neighbouring islands such as Antigua, St Martin and the US Virgin Islands all experience immense difficulty in providing sufficient potable water to their residents. This is largely a result of increasing population density outstripping water supply as well as poor infrastructure planning and maintenance.


Just a few years ago, most of the populations of the islands could provide for themselves by collecting water from the roofs of dwellings and storing it in a cistern. In some countries such as the USVI, the construction of a cistern was mandatory when building a dwelling while it was accepted practice just about everywhere. Lately, as demand has begun to outstrip supply and as consumers have begun to expect more services from their governments, island nations are rushing to install desalination plants to convert the one incontrovertible asset—sea water—into a product suitable for human consumption. This technology will do much to displace older and cruder solutions, such as transporting bulk amounts of water from one island to another, like barging bulk water from, say, Dominica to Antigua. As costly as this practice is, it still is cheaper to ship the water from Dominica than it is to transport it by truck once it has landed in Antigua.

In St Martin this year, the government on the French side had to supply water to the Dutch side—and not for the first time.

The one major cost associated with desalination is the immense energy cost incurred when extracting potable water from the ocean variety. Current methods require about 14 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce 1,000 gallons of desalinated seawater, according to LiveScience. The desalination agreement signed this year between BVI government and BiWater (BVI) calls for a plant capable of producing 2.3 million gallons per day. A separate agreement with Ocean Conversion BVI calls for the provision of 0.6 MGD of potable water, says industry magazine Desalination and Water Reuse Quarterly.

Other major complications in the supply of water involve the integrity of the infrastructure—leaking pipes, rusted valves, etc. These aspects are decidedly unglamorous and require serious willpower to find a solution. Perhaps the simplest way to save money and water is to encourage the citizenry to reduce consumption. This has never been a popular solution—changing the behavioural habits of a population is likely to be as successful as the recent attempt to replace plastic shopping bags with the re-usable variety.

One has only to look at the number of shiny, bright, gleaming cars driving the streets of dusty Tortola to know that old habits would be hard to break. How many gallons of water does it take to wash, say, 1,000 vehicles once a week? Twice? That's a lot of KwH. 


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