Making desalination more sustainable - 12/23/13

Making desalination more sustainable

How best to provide safe drinking water has been identified by The Millennium Project as one of the top 15 Global Challenges facing humanity. The Gulf region suffers from the highest levels of water scarcity in the world, and countries like Jordan and Yemen regularly struggle due to lack of water, with the latter being unable to produce enough food to sustain its population.  In contrast, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the highest per capita consumer of water in the world, but is expected to deplete its fresh water sources in fifty years. 

Desalination of seawater is used in water scarce, arid countries to produce fresh water, with 70% of the world’s desalination plants being found in the Middle East. There is concern about the over-dependency of desalination plants in the Middle East, as current methods are expensive, need vast amounts of energy, and require large-scale facilities. They also damage the local environment and contribute towards increased salinity in the sea as most of the concentrated salt is then put back into the sea. 

In Abu Dhabi, where these energy intensive processes require a large amount of oil, the country’s main source of income, the need for use of renewable energy has been recognized. By taking combining new developments in desalination technologies coming from universities and research companies, with  renewable energy sources, the  country hopes to have a large-scale commercial facility up and running by 2020. One country that the researchers in Abu Dhabi and the Middle East may want to watch is Singapore. The country sources half of its water from its neighbor Malaysia, so in a bid for self-sufficiency, Singapore has opened its own desalination facilities, which now caters for 40% of the country’s water needs. The need to constantly innovate and explore more sustainable solutions has led to the exploration of biomimicry, which aims to replicate the energy efficient processes that the mangrove tree uses to extract seawater. Harry Seah, chief technology officer for PUB, Singapore’s national water agency highlights the benefit this technique could bring, “if science can find a way of effectively mimicking these biological processes, innovative engineering solutions can potentially be derived for seawater desalination. Seawater desalination can then be transformed beyond our wildest imagination.” 

Desalination will be a vital method for sating the growing demand for fresh water, but the techniques will need to be improved in order for it to be sustainable in the future. As parts of the United States and Europe increasingly start to suffer from water scarcity, the issue will stop being a third world problem and will instead become a global concern. 

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