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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 14, november 1-15, 2009
Minjur desalination plant dogged by delays
(By A Special Correspondent)

Chennai is a water-starved city that, despite the success of its rainwater harvesting schemes, still struggles to meet its daily demand of 350 million litres of water. In these circumstances, given its proximity to the sea, a desalination plant was considered one of the best solutions. Two such plants were announced, one in Minjur and the other, more recently, in Nemmeli. But the repeated postponements of the first plant going on stream have made most Chennai residents skeptical about the eventual success of such a scheme.

The 100 MLD (million litres per day) plant was originally expected to be commissioned sometime in June 2008. A special purpose vehicle, Chennai Water Desalination Limited (CWDL), was set up to design, construct, operate and maintain the seawater reverse-osmosis plant which was originally estimated to cost Rs.470 crore. It was promoted by IVRCL Infrastructures & Projects Limited and Spain’s Befesa Construction Tecnologia Ambiental, with 75 per cent and 25 per cent equity, respectively. The latest delays have ensured that the cost of the project will exceed Rs. 550 crore.

The two main components of the project are the system that ensures supply of the seawater and the reverse osmosis plant. The latter, comprising five osmosis racks, has been ready for quite some time and is idling owing to delays in the former. The delays have been attributed to “unanticipated technical bottlenecks, particularly in marine works”. The principal delay has been in the construction of what is called the velocity cap which is a concrete structure that brings in the seawater. The reason given for this is that cyclone Nisha in November 2008 prevented construction activity. What is unexplained is as to why the work had to be taken up in November when the whole plant was expected to be ready by June of 2008.

A new deadline was fixed for January 2009, but this came and went with no completion in sight. In June 2009, the pumping station for seawater was inaugurated and an announcement was made in the State Assembly that the plant would be commissioned “within the year”. At around this time, Fitch, the financial rating agency, placed CWDL on a “negative watch” status owing to the continued delays. Perhaps goaded by this, CWDL made an announcement that the plant would be commissioned by October 2, 2009 and that Metrowater would get 100 MLD of water from that date. But this has not happened.

The latest reports reveal that a 600m pipeline of 1600 mm diameter is still to be laid below the sea and is awaiting favourable conditions. Efforts are now on to get seawater pumped in from neighbouring Chennai Petroleum’s desalination plant. The latter, which is a 27 MLD plant, has a greater capacity than what is needed by Chennai Petroleum. But it is nowhere near what Chennai city as a whole needs.

In the meanwhile, the State Government has gone ahead and announced a Rs. 900 crore desalination plant at Nemmeli. This, it has been declared, will be completed in 24 months. But with the experience of Minjur, and given the reluctance of all concerned to learn from past mistakes, adherence to time schedules and budgets at Nemmeli will be no more a certainty than the future at Minjur.


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