Will desalination be the answer to hydro stress?

Because of the aridity, fresh water can be an extremely scarce resource. The maximum level of hydro stress is reached in the Middle East and North Africa. In some more clement areas a potential shortage can be balanced by water transfer projects, from one rainy region to one other dry (southern Spain, turkey, California…) but in the Arabic peninsula, there whole region is a desert and the only potential resource is the non renewable aquifers that have already been largely exploited. Desalination is fast becoming the major option for water supply.

The main issue remains the price of the operation, above all the cost of energy. The main producers of desalinised water (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait) are in the same time rich in oil and gas. The new process of reverse osmosis (membrane filtration) has halved the price of desalination (distillation). In the longer term, when energy resources become scarce, the cost of desalination becomes more daunting, and realistic attempts must be made to recover the costs from consumers. For the moment, that’s not the case in the gulf, where water is almost free. The high cost of the process is seem to increase the awareness of the need of water, but we can notice that a country like the United Arab Emirates is in the same time the most exposed to hydro stress, and the biggest user of water in the world per capita.

Even if the Middle East represents around 60 % of the global market, local research into desalination techniques is quite non existent. Even if it’s a main third world Issue, the most affected industrial countries (Israel, California, and Australia) can boost the perspectives of that industry by investing more in R&D. To reduce the costs, the Chinese have developed a desalination technology combined with nuclear plants (cheaper energy). But if we are can produce significant quantities of renewable energies (wind, solar…), it’s possible to imagine desalination plants that produce unlimited quantities of fresh water for an extremely limited price.

By focusing on high value added products (industrial, agricultural), an expensive desalinated water can allow the best manufacturing practices and a technical qualitative jump (drop by drop for farms). Saudi Arabia has thus created some of the most productive milk factories in the middle of the desert. Because of its high fecundity, Saudi Arabia will have 50 Millions inhabitants in 2030. But the soil can only feed 4 Millions. What will happen when the oil reserves will droop? The good news is that the cost of desalinisation is falling. The bad news is that the price is never likely to be low enough to cost-effectively supply agricultural needs.
May be, some arid areas like the Arabian Desert are ecologically not made to welcome tens millions inhabitants. The wars of the XXI may certainly be caused by geopolitical tension concerning the water supply. In one way or another, the way of life in water stressed regions has to be changed and become more respectful of the highly limited resources.

Adel Ouardani

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Posted in water

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