The Wonthaggi Desalination Plant Ethical Issues

Executive Summary

When advancing businesses or projects, it is important not to forget the consequences of the proposed project. This is because there are impacts, either on the environment or on individual lives or a community, that are caused by every endeavour. Construction of the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant (WDP) is an issue that raises various ethical issues as regards its sustainability, its effects on the nearby environment and its cost benefits.

The project is a potential source of pollution, especially the release of brine, which will undoubtedly disrupt marine environment. Plant and animal life will be distorted with possible deaths occurring. These forms of negative consequences have been ignored in the advancement of the Wonthaggi desalination project. There is disregard for alternative water sources such as recycling water and collecting rain water. Such options outweigh the WDP in terms of cost effectiveness and impacts on the environment. This paper addresses the moral issues and stance regarding the construction of the WDP. By employing the utilitarian and Kantian reasoning, it is concluded that the WDP is not a right action as it does not enhance greater good for the majority; the construction of the plant ignores the possible negative effects on the surrounding environment, not to mention that it is not a sustainable approach to water supply.


In every human activity involving disruption of the environment, it is expected that negative and positive effects will be felt. These human activities can be furthered with a consequentialism mind or as a moral duty. When a consequantialism approach is taken the ultimate goal of achieving satisfaction for the majority (without minding the means used) overrides the motive of the action. This is contrary to engaging in activities as a moral duty where the rightness or wrongness of the motive is put into check. The proposed Wonthaggi Desalination Plant is put into challenge as to whether it is an ethical decision, judging from the utilitarian and Kantian theories. This paper ably demonstrates that the WDP is an unethical move that is not in line with either the utilitarian or the Kantian ethics. It is therefore argued that alternative water sources such as trapping rain water would be more cost effective and ethical.

Theoretical Analysis


Utilitarianism considers an action to be ethical if it maximises the amount of good for the greatest number of people. An action is considered ethical depending on the consequences not the acts so this means that if the consequences are good the acts are considered ethical and it also allows that the ends can justify the means (Sandler, 2009). Utilitarianism is referred to as the greatest happiness principle. Utilitarianism holds that an action is right if it promotes happiness. Its big benefit is that it supports the majority and therefore pleasing the greatest number of people. However there are many disadvantages to the theory of utilitarianism, one of the major disadvantages is that it ignores the minority. It requires some people’s happiness to be sacrificed in order to achieve the greatest amount of happiness.

Kay (1997) believes that “This theory fails to acknowledge any individual rights that could not be violated for the sake of the greatest good. Utilitarianism treats people like numbers as it only counts happiness. It uses people as things to be used to increase happiness. It only promotes most happiness for most people and it does not take into account the opposite side views. Utilitarianism assumes that all human beings have a common nature and common desires. It does not take into account individual tastes (Mill, 1863). It also ignores the fact that some people might place a great value on something that others do not view as important. According to utilitarianism, a lie is morally justified, a killing is morally required, and intentionally causing suffering to innocent people is acceptable if, in the long run, the ends will justify these actions. Utilitarianism is morally blind, because sometimes it requires immoral actions in order to maximise happiness.

Regarding the desalination plant, if we undertake a cost benefit analysis we will find that costs to the environment will exceed the benefits. The desalination project is very costly and there are many arguments raised by the minority against the desalination plant because of the environmental impact it may cause to the surrounding areas. The major impact will be to organisms that depend on marine ecosystem. Brine is a waste from the desalination process and it to possible dissolved chemicals as high salt content in addition to its high salt content and possible dissolved minerals is a potential (Danoun, 2007).

These hazardous effects are felt by all organisms depending on the marine environment for survival or reproduction. The amount of salt in the sea will be doubled and therefore causing fish and other species in the sea or ocean to die. There is also the impact of raising the water temperature; the discharge brine will probably cause thermal pollution which may cause negative impacts to the people who live around the area. It is clear that the costs of the desalination project exceed the benefits and it is considered unethical. The government must not overlook the negative impacts and only concentrate on the positives.

Kant’s ethics

Immanuel Kant presented another ethical theory, which is a non-consequentialist approach. Kant thought that the result has no contribution to determine whether the action is ethical or not, instead the action is based on one’s kindness. In his opinion, nothing is good in itself except a good will (Shaw et al. 2009). Therefore, when we try to determine whether the act is good or not, it depends on the motive, which is the will. For example, when you donate some clothes instead of throwing away, the reason may be that you do not need them; and finally you are happy and are appreciated because of this activity.

In Kant’s ethics, we cannot consider this donation is truly moral unless the action is from duty. According to Kant, if you do not do the action from a sense of your duty to be fair and honest, your action lacks moral worth. Actions have true moral worth only when they spring from recognition of duty and a choice to discharge it (Shaw et al. 2009). Duty means the sense you have to follow the rule instead of self-interest when your self-interest is against the code. Thus, to measure the ethical issues in the Victoria desalination project, we have to follow the three formulations of categorical imperative from Kant’s “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”.

First, “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 1785). Through this formulation, it is said we have to universalize the maxim when you follow it. We can simply apply a model of measuring duty to identify the desalination project. The act is to construct the desalination plant and to supply water to Victoria citizens. While we universalize the act to everyone, or every government in this case, the disadvantages of those environmental issues will have huge impact at present and in the future. This hypothesis could happen, so it is an imperfect duty; however, no one wants to live in that kind of world. I think people will choose to save water instead of using non-renewable resources to produce water. Kant said only the objective end can be universally acceptable, so he defined the ends through the second formulation.

Second, “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, 1785). Based on this view, everyone should consider oneself as the end, so we all have value. However, when the desalination plant was presented, the government did not notice that there are a group of people against the project because of the environmental issues. If we are going to build the plant, other groups of people will also be affected, such as fishermen have to move as the chemical wastes will pollute the offshore. Therefore, people are ignored during the projected, and this goes against Kant’s ethics. In combination of these two formulations, Kant concluded in the following.

Third, “therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends” (Kant, 1785). This formulation is concluding the universal acceptability and the humanity as an end. Overall, this can be considered as self-discipline to act moral. While the government was making the decision of desalination, they should have considered everyone, even every life, because the environmental issues are more significant currently. Actually, if applying utilitarianism to analyse the project, as we mentioned in the first part, we can find a lot of disadvantages from construction to future operation, which are even more than the benefits. Some issues, such as greenhouse effect and chemical wastes, will not only influence the creatures near the coastline, but also impact the earth continuously. As Kant summarized in his third formulation, we think this desalination plant decision is not truly moral, but is from self-interest or just solve water shortage.

Corporate Social Responsibility

The government and organisations need to act socially responsible. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) simply means that corporations need to account for their behaviour, products, brands and reputation (MacMillan, 2007; Vanhamme and Grobben, 2008; Vogal, 2005). All companies must be socially responsible with respect to the environment in which they operate (Callado-Muñoz and Utrero-González, 2011). CSR increases firm performance and value (Freeman, 1984).

Firms who act socially responsible achieve a competitive advantage (Jones, 1995). The government needs to be socially responsible and it needs to take into account the negative side of the desalination plant and not only the positive side. Therefore when deciding to run a project, it is necessary to evaluate the consequences. The desalination plant will have major negative impacts on the environment, therefore the government should try and find other alternatives to the desalination plant which can be more environmentally friendly, such as capturing rain water or recycling water which will cost a lot less than the desalination plant and it is also considered ethical. We all have a duty of care to protect our environment. The natural resources are used continuously by us and by our children in the future therefore we must try and do what is best for our environment.

Desalination Plant Issues

Seawater desalination means to remove salt form of alkaline substances; making desalinated water more acidic (Kerkhoff et al., 2011). If desalinated water gets direct access to the water supply system, it erodes the water supply system and accelerates aging water supply system. In addition, the strong acidic water easily leads to a metal device in the supply of heavy metals leaching into the water, threatening people’s health (Belessiotis et al., 2001). Brine mixed with cooling water discharged from power plants reduces the salinity and temperature of water emissions, however, experts have warned that mixing the two water bodies will change their physical and chemical elements, which may still cause harm to the marine environment. The function of sea water may change as the physical and chemical elements change, the quality of water may get worse as a result.

The seawater may lose the ability to clear pollutions by itself, and the physical and chemical characteristics have changed. This influences the utilisation of seawater and marine life. In the desalination process, many chemicals and biological elements will be thrown into the sea water to meet the water standard; however, this will lead to water pollution due to a lot of biological and chemical pollutions. If people drink and utilise this water in daily lives, it will have a negative effect on human life; leading to illness or even cancer. If agriculture and industries utilise the liquid waste, the products may be unhealthy to people, and the quality of industry products may not meet the acceptable standards. More importantly, this may leave a harmful influence on the next generation; many newborns may be born with disabilities and other health problems.

Considerable parts of desalination plants directly discharge seawater through a pipe. A good extent of marine life, such as fish and seabirds may die due to the pump suction or accidentally get stuck in the water filter. Planktons, fish eggs or other small fishes may die after getting through the filter in the desalination process (Liu et al., 2009). Sea water includes many micro-organisms, algae and bacteria. In the desalination process, many chemicals and biological elements have been thrown into the water to meet the water standard; however, this will lead to biological and chemical pollutions (Abdelrassoul, 2006). Since the salinity of water discharged from desalination process is usually 2 times as the sea water, the density also increases. Brine alone or mixed with cooling water from power plants discharged into the sea is the most common way of emissions.

In the vicinity of discharge outlet, high-salinity brine will kill marine life in a short time or cause illness in a long term, especially when marine organisms are sensitive to salinity (Kerkhoff et al., 2011). Brine mixed with cooling water discharged from power plants reduces the salinity and temperature of water emissions; however, experts have warned that mixing the two water bodies will change their physical and chemical elements and may still cause harm to the marine environment.

In 1960s to the mid-1970s, Florida Key West relevant agencies in the United States studied the impact of desalination on the marine environment and had done a long-term observation on a small island of desalination plants (Craig, 2010). The plant uses multi-stage flash desalination method. Daily production capacity is only 9,920 ton. A long period of monitoring showed that: brine discharge has a variety of adverse and even fatal effects on marine life. The sea octopus, a variety of algae, bryozoans and other marine life disappeared in a period of time. At the end of the study, bivalves’ molluscs (e.g. clams) did not survive in the monitoring region. The sea urchin animal has a large number of deaths in the shallow waters (Abdul Azis, 2001). This case only focused on a small desalination plant; for large desalination plants, their emission includes a large number of brine which has a wider adverse effect on marine environment and marine life.


It is argued that more sustainable as well as affordable options should have been considered. Such options would include capturing rain water or water from storms or managing waste water effectively. In fact storm water, if well managed, could result into better water security since the water would be channelled to Melbourne’s storages as well as give room for restoration of damaged ecosystems since urban waterways would be guarded from a lot of damage (Watershed Victoria, 2009). Desalination is very costly and harmful for the environment so recycling and reusing water is a better alternative and is considered to be more cost effective and environmentally friendly compared to desalination. Water conservation is an important industrial objective. It contributes to the conservation of natural resources, reduction of negative environmental impact, and optimization of the cost of water usage and discharge (Rabie et al., 2008).


The desalination project is unethical because it ignores the negative consequences resulting from its furtherance. Continuing with the WDP project does not portray a sense of corporate social responsibility as the negative effects of the project to the environment are largely ignored. This endangers present and future living organisms. Desalination will result into faster depreciation of the water supply system due to effects of increased acidity. Increased acidity will lead to wearing out of the metallic pipes that form the Melbourne’s water supply system. Heavy metals that will be released will be harmful to marine life as well as dependants of marine resources.

The marine environment will be distorted as far as its chemical and biological composition is concerned due to pollution from the plant. This will lead to harmful health impacts on human beings and their future generations. Marine life will also suffer death especially due to release of brine among other pollutants. Seeing that the WDP is not in line with important ethical standings as advanced in the Kantian and utilitarian theories, it will be more reasonable and acceptable to look for alternative water supplies, such as trapping rain water and recycling water. These alternatives are also more cost effective than the desalination project.


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