Desalination has received more attention in recent years as many countries have adopted the process to provide clean water to their population. Freshwater resources continue to deplete at unsustainable rates, amplifying concerns over future “water wars.” Only 1% of the world’s population currently relies on desalinated water,with a total of over 18,000 desalination plants.
Current Status of Water Issues
Desalination has become a popular topic because of the continuing depletion of freshwater resources. According to World Bank data, freshwater resources have decreased substantially over the past fifty years.
The graph above, which displays the amount of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita, shows a clear downward trend for every region. The combination of increased water consumption per person and high population growth has seriously strained water resources.
It’s also important to analyze trends of certain regions. While every region will face water-scarcity issues in the future, certain parts of the world are in danger in the shorter-term.
In the Middle East and North Africa region, the relative decrease over the 1962-2014 period was large but represents a similar percentage as other regions (MENA change: 76.8% vs. East Asia: 68.8%). The problem for the Middle East is that their absolute numbers are significantly lower than other regions, even when compared to Sub-Saharan Africa. The number of freshwater resources per capita in the Middle East & North Africa region in 2014 was 351.8017 cubic meters; for comparison, the second lowest (Sub-Sahran Africa) was 8,979.05 cubic meters.
The Middle East and North Africa region has seen some of the largest impacts of water shortages on violent conflicts. While the term “water wars” is often discussed as an issue of the future – and a potential cause of World War Three – there have been clear links between droughts and wars. Water scarcity, which leads to famine and the spread of disease, has pushed many people from rural communities into crowded cities. This was studied in the case of the Syrian war, in which hundreds of thousands (and potentially over a million) people were displaced by an extreme drought in the 2007-2010 period. These people primarily migrated to Syrian cities, where the economic opportunities could not keep up with the population growth.
Desalination: The High Cost and The Future
Water shortages have led countries in the Middle East and North Africa region to build 70% of the world’s desalination plants. While they are costly, these countries have no choice but to invest in them. Bahrain, for example, has few freshwater resources and has been building desalination plants over several decades. 100% of Bahrain’s public potable water is now generated from desalination plants. In the same vein, Saudi Arabia, whose population is much larger than Bahrain’s, invested heavily to build the world’s largest desalination plant in Ras Al-Khair, which produces an astonishing one million cubic meters of water (273 million gallons) daily.
Other regions of the world have been slower to adopt. While desalination technology has been improving steadily in recent decades, the costs remain high. Construction costs are often tens of millions of dollars, while operating costs are significant as well. Large desalination plants, like the Ras Al-Khair in Saudi Arabia or the Carlsbad in Southern California, can cost hundreds of millions to a billion dollars. That is why countries do not invest unless it is fully necessary.
Costs are expected to decrease significantly over the next twenty years. The International Water Association predicts that construction and saltwater costs will drop, while efficiency will increase.
The increasing urgency to develop alternatives to freshwater resource use and the decreasing costs of plant costs will pave the way for a future of desalination.