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Is Seawater Desalination the Solution for Water Crisis?

by | Mar 23, 2022 | Industry




Around 70% of our planet’s surface is covered in water. But today, one out of three people don’t have access to safe drinking freshwater. Some projections show by 2050, more than half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.

These aren’t just issues in developing countries. These are things that are happening in lots of developed communities also. But how can the world be covered with 70% of water and we are faced with such scarcity?

It is because about 96% of that water is found in the oceans which are saturated with salt and are undrinkable. And most of the earth’s freshwater is stored in glaciers. Less than 1 percent of it is available to us.

Our planet is awash with water. More than one billion trillion liters to be precise. So why can’t we just take all that seawater, filter out the salt and have a nearly unlimited supply of clean and drinkable water? That makes one solution promising which is desalination.

Desalination seems a pretty straightforward solution, you take that undrinkable saltwater, remove the salt and you have an unlimited supply of freshwater.

What is desalination?

Freshwater is essential to life. However, access to adequate amounts of this precious liquid is increasingly becoming an issue. As the world’s population increases, so do the demand for freshwater. The problem is that the amount available on Earth is decreasing, and the availability of freshwater in some areas is limited.

This is where desalination comes in. Although the ocean contains a great number of minerals and salt, it can also produce freshwater. Desalination is the process of removing all the salt and mineral in seawater. The technology that converts brackish water to drinkable one is a complex one.

It involves separating salts from two different types of solutions. The difference between seawater and brackish water is significant. The brackish one contains 10 grams of salts per liter of liquid, while seawater contains 40 grams per liter.

There are two types of desalination processes, thermal desalination (solar-based) and membrane-based (reverse osmosis). Traditional seawater desalination involves the use of reverse osmosis.

This is a natural process that occurs when a solution of low salt concentration flows into a higher one containing salt. While this is the most common method of desalination, it requires an enormous amount of electricity and water to run.

The other method is distilling seawater. This process uses heat to evaporate saline water. The resulting liquid is called the distillate. The distillation process is expensive but it is an excellent way to clean seawater.

Impact of water crisis

Water is an essential life force and has the power to save or kill millions of people. It is essential for cooking, drinking, washing and bathing. Yet, there are 2.2 billion people who do not have access to clean, safe freshwater around the world.

This number is growing rapidly and it is becoming an even more serious problem. A global water crisis can also lead to disease. And also many megacities are unable to keep up with water demands and their supplies are often shut off for hours each day.

As scarcity increases, so do emigration rates. It is estimated that some 700 million people could be displaced by intense scarcity by 2030. Droughts also become more frequent and severe. The global water crisis is an increasingly urgent issue for all countries.

Several of the world’s biggest cities are among the most vulnerable places to face water scarcity. The list of major cities most likely to run out of drinking water includes São Paulo, Bengaluru (India), Moscow, Jakarta, Beijing, Cairo, Tokyo, Miami, London, Istanbul, Mexico City.

According to the World Economic Forum, water scarcity is the biggest risk for the world. It manifests itself in many ways, including partial or no satisfaction of expressed demand, competition for water resources, disputes between users and the depletion of groundwater.

As a result, shortages will affect human health and the environment. But the most immediate problem is the health of our planet. Without access to clean and safe drinking and cooking options, many people can suffer from diseases.

Women and girls spend an estimated 200 million hours hauling water every day. In rural Africa, women walk on average 6 kilometers every day to haul 40 pounds. And every day, more than 800 children under 5 die from diarrhea caused by contaminated water, poor sanitation and unsafe hygiene practices.

woman carrying water overhead
Photo by Gyan Shahane on Unsplash

The number of affected people could rise to 5 billion by 2050. Good governance of these precious liquid resources will be critical in the years to come. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that more river basins are experiencing intense stress.

The combined demands of agriculture and other sectors have led to water scarcity in many areas. The impact on rural communities is significant. In addition, lack of clean and freshwater can lead to conflict and pollution.

The global water crisis is a major concern for many nations. This is no longer an isolated problem, it is a crisis that impacts millions of people all around the world.

Water crisis and desalination

Almost all the freshwater in the world is underground and only a small fraction of it is in rivers and lakes. To provide these communities with freshwater, desalination plants convert saltwater into potable water.

Desalination plants are crucial for freshwater supply, especially in regions where there are frequent droughts or shortages. It serves a vital need around the world, making people healthier and enhancing the environment while freeing up over-stressed resources.

Riyadh desalination plant
Image Credit: VIA REUTERS

Freshwater also plays an important role in commerce and industry, hence desalination helps countries that are struggling to meet their basic needs. A desalination plant creates a fresh source of water for a city or even a region. It’s also a cost-effective insurance policy against a future shortage.

Currently, there are more than 20,000 purification plants around the world, producing up to 105 million cubic meters of freshwater a day. That’s enough to supply the needs of 950 million people each day.

In addition to supplying clean, safe drinking liquid for millions of people around the world, salt distillation also offers many benefits. It provides clean water to thousands of households every day and helps countries reduce their dependency on natural resources.

The problem with desalination

However, desalination is an expensive process and produces a lot of waste. Moreover, the process has negative effects on the environment.

Some desalination plants are not eco-friendly and thermal methods can be harmful. Heat is not the only problem with this process, it can produce a lot of greenhouse gases. Therefore, thermal desalination is a poor solution.

The process is also costly and desalination facilities use enormous amounts of fossil fuels and energy. These facilities consume more than 200 million kilowatt-hours each day. In addition, they release large amounts of CO2 which have adverse impacts on the environment.

This is bad news for the environment, as increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere can lead to increased temperatures and decreased precipitation. The environmental costs associated with desalination make this technology all the more necessary for the future.

The technology help to address scarcity. If the demand for drinking water grows, it will be a good option for many countries. The industry will need to address these issues but in the meantime, the technology will continue to be used to solve the water crisis.

Future of seawater desalination

Seawater desalination is essential for the future of cities and countries. But it is not without controversy. Although it is a critical element of many distribution systems, its growth has been slowed by high costs, inefficient processes and environmental concerns.

Higher investment in technology could make saltwater purification a vital solution in the fight against scarcity. The World Bank estimates that by 2030, freshwater demand will outpace supply by 40%.  The demand for desalination is growing.

By 2050, it is expected that there will be five billion people living in cities and towns with no freshwater supply. The demand will increase due to increasing populations, changing climate patterns and the availability of cheap freshwater sources.

Hence, the need for saltwater distillation will continue to rise. But the downsides must be addressed before it can reach the market. So the future of desalination depends on increased investment in efficiency-boosting technologies and renewable energy.

A solar-powered desalination system can be installed in a residential or business setting. The energy savings of solar-powered systems can offset the negative effects of energy-intensive operations.

Saltwater distillation process is expensive and energy-intensive to build and its process can generate waste, however, it is more reliable as compared to other sources of water. But it’s an effective way to provide freshwater for millions of people and prevent the spread of diseases.

The future of desalination is a complex one. Despite the potential of this technology, its future will be determined by the conditions in each area. The Middle East is one of the most promising regions and is currently the largest user of seawater distillation.

Saudi Arabia has the largest desalination plant in the world and accounts for 17% of global output and the United Arab Emirates for 13%. As of 2013, Dubai was sourcing over 98% of its potable water supply from seawater purification.

The future of desalination will depend on the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the system. This technology is currently a niche industry but it is growing and becoming increasingly significant.

The technology is not perfect but it is still better than nothing. In addition to this, it is more environmentally friendly than many other methods. Despite its high cost, desalination is becoming more affordable and more popular in many parts of the world.

The technology is scalable and reliable, making it ideal for use in remote areas. It will provide a reliable supply of freshwater. The cost of seawater purification has dropped in recent years, making it a cost-effective supply option for cities.

In some places, it is even cheaper than the water imported from other countries. In the United States, desalination has been a good solution to water shortages in neighboring areas, such as California.

It’s can respond to drought and population growth. It’s already helping many parts of the world meet their water needs. But it doesn’t stop there. New technologies are proving to be less expensive and more environmentally friendly.