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Is Desalination the Answer to a Thirsty Planet?360°ANALYSIS

Globally, over 300 million people rely on desalinated water for some or all of their water needs.

There is perhaps no place more fitting for innovation in desalination and water treatment technology than Israel. From the modern state’s founding until today, its culture has in many ways been defined by its constant struggle for survival. Beyond hostile neighbors, Israel has also had to contend with another form of hostility: its climate. A recent seven-year drought brought water scarcity into sharp focus and saw the heavy employment of various forms of water treatment as a source of relief.

In total, desalination supplies 35% of Israel’s drinking water, a figure that is projected to reach 70% by 2050, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. One plant alone, the Sorek Desalination Plant, supplies around 20% of Israel’s municipal water demands by treating saltwater from the nearby Mediterranean.

In general, desalination refers to the process of removing saline, or salt, and minerals from seawater or brackish water in order to turn it into fresh water safe for human consumption. It should not come as a surprise to learn that the water-scarce Middle East as a whole accounts for 60% of the world’s desalinated water. Average rainfall in the region is paltry compared with local water needs, and regional governments have long been forced to look for alternative sources of water, desalination chief among them.

Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s largest economy, is also the biggest producer of desalinated water in the world, and its neighbors, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Qatar, are not far behind. As in the Middle East, the prominence of desalination as a source of freshwater is steadily gaining traction around the world, especially as continued climate change leads to irregular shifts in weather patterns and, in turn, drought.

California’s recent drought has brought Israeli methods into the spotlight as IDE Technologies, an Israeli firm, and its local partners recently completed the Carlsbad desalination plant in San Diego. The plant is now the largest desalination plant in the Western hemisphere and is expected to provide freshwater to 300,000 people in Southern California. This comes at a time when California, among other hard-pressed regions, is facing major water shortages. With the inauguration of the Carlsbad Plant, hopes have been raised that the future of fresh water may not only come from above but also from the sea.

Liquid Renaissance

As the human population continues to grow, the volume of accessible potable water continues to decline. The simple fact is that the global supply of freshwater is being depleted at a higher rate than it is replenished, something which is especially true in certain regions.

This is caused by a number of factors: climate change, shifts in precipitation, an overall increase in population and attendant demands for foodstuffs, mismanagement of water systems, a growth in water-intensive industrial production, and contamination via pollution. Today, roughly 70% of all freshwater is used for agricultural purposes. That figure is expected to continue to expand along with concurrent growth in the global population, which is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, putting acute pressure on existing potable water supplies.

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Today, the desalination industry is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance as demand for its technologies balloons across the globe. According to the International Desalination Association (IDA), over 300 million people globally are reliant upon desalinated water for some or all of their water needs and that figure is expected to rise in coming years. To meet such growth in demand, capacity is being expanded rapidly.

The World Economic Forum, in its annual Global Risks report, lists water crises as the number one global risk in terms of overall impact on the world. One of the reasons for such liquid doom is that roughly 700 million people around the world currently lack adequate access to clean water, while by 2025 approximately 1.8 billion people will be living in areas with water scarcity. This is troubling news as the United Nations (UN) predicts global water demand to increase by 55% by 2050 placing added pressure on existing reserves.

Given the parallel growth in water-related threats with an overall increase in demand, what role is there for desalination? From first glance, desalination seems like a natural solution to the world’s water woes given seawater accounts for 97,5% of all water on planet earth. Of that remaining 2,5% of freshwater, slightly over two-thirds is trapped in glaciers and polar ice caps, leaving a paltry 30.1% of the world’s freshwater left for human consumption. So why not borrow from the ocean? There is certainly enough seawater to go around.

This line of thought has certainly struck a chord with industrialists and state leaders around the world as desalination has grown steadily in the second half of the 20th century. Furthermore, desalinated water is used for more than simply human consumption— something which accounts for roughly 60% of global desalinated water usage—but also nearly one-third is used for industrial purposes, while the remainder is used in agriculture and other miscellaneous purposes.

Paying the Price

One of the great ironies around desalination is that due to the fact that it is a highly power-intensive industry, a large volume of fresh water is required as coolant. This in turn creates a pernicious cycle whereby water, often the desalinated water itself, is used for cooling purposes. Of the two most common methods of desalination, thermal distillation and reverse osmosis (RO), the latter is by far the more consumptive of the two.

Another issue is that desalination technology is expensive. In poorer regions, more often than not those most at risk, the price may make it prohibitive while in other areas of the world the simple fact that standard sources of water are far cheaper makes desalination either unnecessary or superfluous. However, as water becomes more scarce, prices will be driven upward, making desalination an attractive alternative to governments while at the same time potentially making desalinated freshwater prohibitively expensive for the world’s poorest.

There is also the environment to think of. When seawater is desalinated, the removed salt is often returned to the ocean which in turn affects salinity levels in and around the run-off location. In addition, there are obvious concerns related to how desalination affects sea life in areas where seawater is sourced or salt returned. As desalination grows in popularity, the health of local marine life populations may come under duress if preventative actions are not taken into account.

In the end, the lure of desalination as an immediate source of freshwater is too great to ignore, especially in areas where droughts remain a constant threat. Furthermore, as desalination grows in popularity, relative implementation costs should fall as new technological improvements drives efficiency. However, broader concerns related to climate change and other drivers of freshwater depletion remain unaccounted for.

The fact that the world’s supply of freshwater is diminishing should be cause for alarm. However, as the planet continues to warm, the volume of groundwater shrinks and the threat of regional desertification increases, more attention needs to be given to preventing such events from happening and less should be focused on adapting to uncomfortable realities.

Desalination, water treatment and other technologically-driven solutions are important tools when it comes to taming increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, especially in arid regions, but they should not be relied upon as panaceas to what really ails the planet, namely climate change twinned with rapid population growth.

To suggest that these measures are enough to turn back centuries of industrialization is naïve. It would be akin to suggesting immediate surgery to alleviate pain as opposed to making lifestyle choices that are sustainable in the long term. And that is what is needed—comprehensive policy-backed measures, such as simple water management or price disincentives when thresholds of water usage are surpassed, to combat climate change, not short-term quick fixes which will only delay further degradation of the planet.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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