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Andrés Díaz
Engineering Management

September 30, 2021

According to data from the Ministry of Public Works (MOP), as of January this year, there are 23 desalination plants in the country: 15 mining and industrial plants and eight drinking water plants, which together provide 5,570 litres per second (l/s). Most are in the Antofagasta and Atacama regions, and 22 projects are under development at different stages.

In Chile, desalination offers opportunities for mining development and, along with this, challenges are emerging in terms of technologies and a national desalination strategy. Its development is likely to follow a similar path to that of solar or wind energy, which 10 years ago had a high cost and is now being implemented on a massive scale.

Due to the lower availability of water in mining areas, this sector leads the advance in projects under construction and established plants, concentrating 61% of the projects in operation, something that allows them to obtain security and stability in the supply for their operations and thus use less and less “continental” water sources. According to Cochilco’s estimates, within a decade copper mining will equalise almost equally the consumption of inland water and seawater, i.e. by 2031, 47% of the water resources used will come from the sea.

This is a major technical challenge for engineering companies. We must be able to develop projects by specifying and defining the appropriate technologies and materials for each stage of the process, from seawater abstraction to the final disposal of desalinated water. On the other hand, projects must be developed to take care of the water impulsion to the reservoirs that are located up to 200 km away and up to almost 5000 metres in altitude.

The development of the engineering project, for this type of plant, must have the necessary coordination to obtain technical information in a timely manner, from the early stage of the project to its final stage. Undoubtedly, for the development of this type of project, the use of BIM methodologies and the use of 3D design software is indispensable.

It is not only the mining industry that is targeting desalination plants as a benefit. Also drinking water for domestic use and water for irrigation are being obtained from desalination plants. For some communities in rural areas of northern Chile, water from these plants has become their only water supply option. It is to be expected, then, that along with the growing demand for projects aimed mainly at desalinating water for mining processes, a number of projects related to the supply of drinking water for domestic and agricultural use will also emerge.