The University of Arizona

The irresistible solution: rationale and risks of extending water limits through desalination in the case of Gotland, Sweden

Sophia Speckhahn, Ellinor Isgren


Water resources are under increasing pressure, and there are tensions between increasing demand and the natural limits to potable water supply. Authorities must find solutions that fulfil societal demands without compromising environmental integrity. As one way to counteract water deficits, desalination has evolved as an attractive solution. This technology is contested and associated with a variety of social, environmental and economic consequences; yet it is increasingly used. In Sweden, the technology is rare but recent droughts have spurred interest. On the island of Gotland, where Sweden's first larger desalination plant was inaugurated in 2016, we examine the perceived benefits and drawbacks of desalination as well as the decision-making process that led up to its implementation. Through qualitative analysis of public documents and stakeholder interviews, we identify mechanisms that contributed to desalination becoming a favored solution. We find that it is associated with a number of benefits that are in line with broader development goals, against which its drawbacks are considered to be acceptable or externalized. Desalination extends natural limits to permit development, delaying deeper social and economic restructuring. Rather than arguing against desalination per se, we emphasize the risk of the depoliticization of water supply through technocratic decision-making, the normalization of scarcity and certain technologies, and the urgency that builds around increasing water supply 'at any economic cost.' These tendencies obscure drawbacks, limitations and conflicting interests. They foreclose the questioning of resource intensive development. In order to invoke transformation towards long-term sustainability of Gotland's water supply, policy-makers should seek to diversify their sources of knowledge and encourage more open democratic debate around alternative regional development pathways.

Keywords: desalination, natural limits, water scarcity, Gotland, political ecology, technocracy, depoliticization, normalization

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