Friday, November 12, 2010

Burning Antiguan tax dollars and boasting about it.

First blogged about Thursday, September 23, 2010, this topic didn't seem to create as much interest as the blog I did about the oil spill. I guess people are tired of hearing about how our tax dollars are being wasted away at a time when we have so few to give the government. Last week I heard one of our country's main ambassadors boasting about this plant and shook my head.
When the government of any country burns money through total mismanagement, corruption, incompetence or from any of the variety of other ways that we have seen here in my adult life many of us sit back and accept it as being business as usual. What is now driving many to the breaking point or to a point where they actually may do something about this notion of "business as usual" is when the government on the verge of bankruptcy calls in the IMF for help. Why would this upset people? Well the IMF helps just like Shakespeare's "Shylock" helps and the pound of flesh that Shylock and the IMF wants will be taken at any cost. No country can run without its people being taxed, but I for one don't want my government spending huge amounts of my tax dollars on terribly planned and mismanaged projects like this one. I will let the reader decide who is to blame for this mess.
The reason I am re-blogging about this water disaster is because one of my guests gave me some photos taken recently showing the further demise of our tax dollars. See the photos here and read the blog below if you can bear it.

There are other aspects to these photos which tell other tales, but I think I better stick to the desalination mess.

Historically, Antigua was one of the last islands to be colonized simply because of the never ending water shortage the island has been faced with. With very little rainfall comparatively and without large enough mountains for streams and rivers, Antigua has always been a dry island. Early European colonists knew living here would be tough and it wasn't until England realized the strategic importance of Antigua's coastline that the island became attractive. From the first colonial structures to the most modern buildings today, water catchment has always been important. As mentioned in one of my earlier blogs about the oil disaster here, Antigua finally tried to fix the water problem with a massive desalination plant sometime in the 1980s. This was a huge step in the right direction and for most of my adult life water shortages were a thing of the past.
Sadly for one reason or another, the main desalination plant has not been able to keep up with demand. Depending on who you speak with, the reasons for this failure can be blamed on one political party or another. Anyway, that isn't the purpose of this blog. This blog is about an attempt to start up another smaller desalination plant at one of Antigua's favorite beaches which ultimately has been an unbelievable "cock-up".
Before I explain what is going on at Ffryes beach I should first explain what has happened there over the past few years:
Without proper permission, or any study from the Environment Division a massive dredging and sand mining project was undertaken a few years ago which took hundreds of truck loads of sand from the swamp behind the beach. Even after the swamp was dug up right up to the high water mark on the CocoBay Beach, more sand mining continued between the swamp and Ffryes Beach as seen in this photo where the holes were filled with dirt after the sand was excavated:
This unfortunate area already had already seen heavy mining in the hillside behind the hotel and swamp. I don't know what was done with all of the sand that was mined from this area but I am sure that someone became very wealthy out of this environmental disaster. Needless to say that this area has had major industrial work done over the past few years. These photos were taken in October 2008 and show you the effect the sand mining has had on the beach which in a high tide merges with the swamp. Notice the mined hillside in the back too:

This was all quite odd when you think about it from a tourism perspective and also from a nationalist perspective. I say that because Ffryes Beach had always been thought of in my mind as "The People's Beach", a undeveloped beach where people had always visited especially on public holidays.
Also going on was the construction of several small tourism developments. Dennis Beach Bar at one end, the very controversial Tamarind Hills development (which i will leave for another day) on the other and several other developments nearby too. I guess that's another story which leads me astray from the topic at hand. Desalination!
After all of this had gone down, the government's Water Department decided that they would start a desalination plant on the beach.
According to the water manager, they had first thought that a better site would be next to the Urlings Fisheries facility where the waters are clearer and an industrial facility already existed. Fisheries said "No Way", so Ffryes was the next alternative according to the manager.
Instead of doing an extensive study to see if the area would be a feasible site for desalination, construction began at the same time that studies and test wells were being drilled. Well after well was drilled without and success. Hydrogen Sulphide was found in most of the wells and there was never a fast enough flow of water into the well from the surrounding material which was mostly made up of clay. Clay isn't permeable enough to permit the smooth flow of filtered brackish water. In addition to the clay, the little sand that was found in the wells was also too fine for water to flow quickly.
In desperation the drilling machine was even positioned right on the beach just to prove that the wells were not going to work in the area. That last and final well couldn't get sufficient water either and the machine was finally taken away. The building seen in the video below which is where the main desalination process takes place as well as housing the water distribution mechanism. This was all already completed by this time the last well failed to produce enough water.

Well what good is a water facility without water? None, so the only choice was to go directly into the sea. Why wasn't this done to start with? After all the facility is a desalination plant right?
Well Reverse Osmosis plants (more here) produce what we call fresh water from what we generally call salt water. This is accomplished by using a series of very specific filtration processes. Ideally wells are used because water that "wells up" inside a well has been filtered by the earth surrounding the well. A coastline well gives you fairly clean filtered salt water which ideally needs considerably less filtration than water that is taken directly from the sea.
With that in mind, water taken from the sea in an area where the water is clear and sediment free will require less filtration and maintenance than water that is taken from a murky coastline.
Here we come to another huge problem with Ffreys Beach. Whenever there is ground swell usually during the cold front season between November until May, the coastline along the coast where Ffryes is located is terribly murky. The seabed is a very fine sandy bottom that remains shallow for miles. I am not an engineer, but after spending most of my life on the water in and around Antigua, I am afraid that this will cause big problems for the Water Department's RO plant. The filtration process will never be able to effectively cope with the heavy sedimentation which is normal in the area.
During the summer the waters are usually very clear there unless there is a storm out to sea. Today Hurricane Igor is now history but large North swells are still making the waters along that coastline very murky. This video shows the pipe going into the water this past weekend when Igor's swells were being felt along the shore.

The swells were pushing around the pipe and rocks were brought in from the Tamarind Hills mine to hold the pipe down. I believe the Environment Division got involved to stop this thankfully.
I am told by the government's water manager that a huge array of studies including many done by scuba professionals has been done and that all environmental costs will be lower at this facility than those associated with pumping water to this side of the island all the way from the Crabbs water facility. That being said, he told me that his first choice would have been the Urlings area if the Fisheries Department hadn't killed that plan. The eye sore and potential environmental problem that the pipe is will be dealt with according to the manager. He says that foreign contractors will bury the pipe and it won't be visible. This is very good news because as you can see it surely doesn't fit on the beach.
It always amazes me how terribly our different government departments do at working together and planning together. I don't think the ministry of tourism is involved with this project in any way. If they are I am very surprised indeed. Of course, this project would have considerably lower costs of all types if a more appropriate place was chosen for it. I understand why Fisheries would have been concerned with a desalination plant at their facility but there can be no doubt that it would have been a better choice considering the year round water clarity there and the history of desalination in another sensitive ecological area in the North Sound. A carefully managed system at Urlings would have been far better. I guess all we can do is wait and see how this thing works out. For more on reverse osmosis desalination check this animated video: