After tunnel fire, focus turns to resilience and water consumption

The disruption caused by the tunnel fire last month has focused attention on how Gibraltar can strengthen the resilience of its water supply, while also putting a spotlight on a commodity that is becoming increasingly valuable against the backdrop of climate change and rising temperatures.

Gibraltar produces its potable water through reverse osmosis using seawater, so in that respect it is spared from supply concerns faced by many communities around the globe hit by drought.

But reverse osmosis is an energy-intensive process and in a volatile world where energy costs have spiked as result of crises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there will be a need for greater awareness of a commodity that is often taken for granted.

The disruption in recent weeks has brought that to the fore.

The cause of the fire that led to a collapse in an eastside tunnel housing a key section of pipe connecting AquaGib’s reverse osmosis plant in Governor’s Cottage to the wider network is still under investigation by the Royal Gibraltar Police.

Several factors including the structural safety of the tunnel have slowed the progress of that investigation, though all possibilities including arson remain open.

“We have a person of interest but our investigations into the cause of the fire are still ongoing,” a spokesman for the RGP said.

But even at this early stage, basic lessons have already been drawn, including the need to review the security of areas where critical infrastructure can be further protected.

While sensitive sites including the reverse osmosis plant are tightly secured, Gibraltar, like any other country, has kilometres of water pipes that are above ground and thus exposed.

"It's not possible to have these [pipes] totally secured,” said Albert Isola, the Minister for Utilities.

But locations such as the entrance to tunnels “could be better secured and they should be”.

“That's one thing that will be looked at,” Mr Isola told the Chronicle.

"We can’t guarantee the security of all of our pipes but where we can, we should do a better job.”

"This is one location where we could've, not just for that reason but because there are stores there with other things in there as well and the access to those points should be better secured."

"Everything is going to be reviewed once we've come out of the water shortage problem."

RESTRICTIONS

On Friday, the Strategic Coordinating Group monitoring the water situation advised that restrictions on heavy users – pools, construction, marinas, parks – should remain in place, at least for the weekend.

The reason is that production of water was halted for several days during the early stage of the fire. That, coupled to heavy demand during the summer, means reservoir stocks have not yet adequately recovered.

“The advice received from AquaGib has been that although stock levels have increased since the last briefing on Wednesday, the desired amount required before being able to safely begin the relaxation of restrictions for high consumers has not yet been reached,” a spokesman for No.6 Convent Place said on Friday following a meeting chaired by Deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia alongside Mr Isola.

“As a result, the Government has agreed to continue with all present restrictions over the weekend and will review the situation again on Monday morning.”

The Government said recent consumption had been higher than expected and is “comparably higher” for this time of year, in part driven by scorching temperatures in recent weeks.

The Government urged people to be “as conservative as possible” with their use of potable water to allow AquaGib to reach the desired stock level amount in as short a time as possible.

At the time of the fire, Gibraltar’s 13 reservoirs, which have a combined total storage capacity of some 70 million litres, were at around 45% of capacity, meaning they were holding around 30 million litres of water.

This level was regarded as normal in summer, but only as long as production was not interrupted and stocks were continually replenished.

According to Mr Isola, daily consumption of water in the summer stands at around 5.2m litres.

At the time of the fire, Gibraltar had five reverse osmosis plants, four on the east side that were shut down because of the tunnel collapse, one in Waterport that continued to function producing 1.5m litres of water daily.

Daily demand, in other words, far outweighed production and literally drained reservoir stocks.
“They just haven’t been enough to carry us through what has happened here,” AquaGib’s chief executive, Paul Singleton, told GBC at the time.
To add to the challenge, once reservoir levels drop below 20m litres, water pressure becomes an issue and some areas can face problems because it is the volume in the tanks that, through gravity, delivers the required pressure to ensure supply across the board.

“We always knew that once we dropped below 20m litres, we would begin to lose pressure,” Mr Isola said.

“The problem is the pressure.”

“We have a gravity system of supply, which means that once there isn't sufficient pressure in the tanks, we won't get the water up to most places.”

“A lot of Gibraltar was still getting water throughout the whole episode, the higher ones weren't.”

“The whole pressure thing has been the biggest challenge.”

CONTINGENCIES

With the Governor's Cottage plant out of action during the first days of the fire, restrictions were put in place very early on, particularly for high consumers, to slow down the slide in stocks in a bid to minimise the impact on water pressure and thus supply.

But consumption remained high, which had a knock-on impact on stocks and supply across much of Gibraltar.

"The daily consumption in the summer is high and so there wasn't much more that we could do to prevent it, other than bring in [additional] water," Mr Isola said.

Among the contingencies looked at from the outset, some of which were put into play, was bringing in water from Spain in trucks or via barge, exploring the possibility of a pipe across the border, and bringing in an additional reverse osmosis plant.

Potable water was trucked in from Spain 25,000 litres at a time through a direct agreement between AquaGib and Spanish water company Aqualia.

Planners had aimed to import up to one million litres daily but logistical challenges made that difficult because they could not get the trucks close enough to the reservoirs, meaning water could only be fed into the network through one connection, Hesse's Point.

An additional temporary reverse osmosis plant was sourced with the help of Balaena, the group that recently bought GibDock. The new plant, which is being leased at a cost of £85,000 a month for six months, is capable of producing one million litres daily.

"They knew we needed help, they're a huge logistics company, and they approached us and asked if they could help," Mr Isola said.

As often happens in emergencies, the minister said there had been a "huge disparity" in the offers that came in. By way of example, he said one offer was for a plant capable of producing only 500,000 litres a day at a cost of £1m a month.

"We looked at every conceivable contingency should we need it, while hoping we wouldn't," Mr Isola said.

"But of course, the extent of the fire and the nature of the damage caused the need for the diversion of that pipe, which was five days' work pulled together in two days by 24/7 operations."

"It was a remarkable response."

After multiple challenges, the temporary equipment is now fully installed and AquaGib has six reverse osmosis plants – four on the east side, two in Waterport - working at full tilt producing 6.5m litres of potable water a day.

Even prior to the fire, the company had ordered an additional plant to reach that level of production and ensure it was feeding more into the reservoirs than users were taking out in the peak summer period.

As autumn and winter approaches, demand will fall ensuring reservoir stocks are replenished faster.

"Every year, we watch very closely the stock levels of water on a weekly basis," Mr Isola said.

"Of course, when a plant is taken out in a perfect storm in the way it was and for the length of time it was, that's a problem."

RESILIENCE

Additional resilience is also being sought through new pipes.

Mr Isola said the damaged pipe in the tunnel will be repaired when it is safe to do so, and that AquaGib is considering installing a second pipe to provide alternative routeing in future should it be needed.

On day one of the crisis too, the government cleared a plan to lay a pipe to the border to enable AquaGib to easily connect to the Spanish network and source water commercially from Spain if need be.

Gibraltar will always be self-sufficient in its water production, but connecting to the Spanish water grid would provide important resilience going forward, not just for Gibraltar but potentially too for communities in the Campo hit by drought.

"From an environmental perspective, I think it's far more beneficial to have a pipe underground than having hundreds of trucks coming in with water, or going out with water," Mr Isola said.

"Don't forget the pipe could be used both for ourselves or to provide water in an emergency to our neighbours."

"We believed [the pipe] was going to be efficient, cheap to do, and easy to do."

"I don't know how anybody could have an objection, in the event of an emergency either way, to have access to water if we need it."

"Why not have that resilience?"

BEYOND THE CRISIS

Beyond these immediate, practical steps, however, there is a deeper underlying reality, and that is the need to understand that water, even if produced from an endless source such as the sea, is an extremely valuable commodity.

Gibraltar has always avoided the drought restrictions faced by nearby communities, but when the taps ran dry here in recent weeks, that reality was placed starkly in the spotlight.

Going forward, Mr Isola said, it should focus minds, not least because of the electricity cost of producing drinking water through reverse osmosis.

"It's a commodity that we take for granted but we really shouldn't," he told the Chronicle.

"As with every negative thing that happens, you have to learn from it, and I think this is going to give us the opportunity to take a longer term, closer look at this."

"We have to understand how lucky we are that we have never been impacted by drought or water shortages, as our neighbours have."

"Climate change is going to make this planet more heated than it’s ever been before, with more extremes of weather, and we need to be better at how we look after our water supply."

This is not just about ensuring water reserves, but also about changing consumption habits.

During the fire crisis, officials monitoring daily consumption noticed that whenever the public was asked to be responsible in their usage, consumption significantly fell.

As soon as the situation began to normalise, however, it spiked sharply again.

“That means it can fall, and it also means we should be able to produce less because we need less,” Mr Isola said.

"It makes a lot of sense to have much more awareness of the simple things that we can each do in our homes which will work toward reducing our need for water."

For now then, while restrictions on heavy use remain in place, importation of non-potable water by barge will continue as this alleviates pressure on potable water consumption.

Members of the public were reminded on Friday that non-potable water is being made available free of charge and can be collected from the Morrisons car park and the lower level of Mid-Harbours Industrial Park.

This water can be used for any non-essential activity such as gardening but should not be used for drinking.

The Department for the Environment is also arranging the deployment of non-potable water bowers to all our local marinas which will assist with some of the difficulties boat-owners are currently facing in washing down their vessels.

The Government said it will continue to closely monitor the situation over the weekend and has convened a further meeting of the Strategic Coordinating Group for Monday morning.

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