Desalination: No silver bullet in the Middle East

The Ruwais Desalination Plant in the United Arab Emirates

The Ruwais Desalination Plant in the United Arab Emirates

We totally ripped off the title of an instructive National Geographic article about the prospects for desalination as the solution for a sufficient and predictable water supply. Our favorite quote from the article, and as far as we’re concerned, the money graf:

As the world is seeking to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, desalination plants are factories like any other—generally dependent upon unsustainable energy sources. Experts fear large-scale use of desalination would exchange one environmental problem, freshwater shortages, with another: burning fossil fuels.

In their current iteration, desal plants are fossil-burning, power-sucking, air-polluting factories. If you’d like to know just how factory-like they are, and how complex the process of desalination from the ocean is, see water expert Cynthia Barnett’s multi-media report.


4 Responses

  1. Geoff Lawton has done some work in the middle east (Jordan), the goal being sustainable food production through methods of permaculture. It resulted to some degree inadvertently towards desalinization of the desert, all through plant use. Really amazing stuff.

  2. Your link to the referenced NatGeo article is broken. Pity I would have loved to read who the so-called “experts” were that think that way about desalination plants. Most desalination plants are good environmental citizens, properly regulated and diligently operated where ever they are needed to be a valuable asset to a communities balanced portfolio of water supply options.

  3. Thanks to the PR flak from Water Consultants International, Inc–a company whose business is, per its site, “planning, design and implementation of advanced water treatment (AWT), and membrane and thermal desalination projects”–for pointing out the broken link, which I fixed.

    WCI’s site:

    Thanks also for the breathtakingly perfect example of corporate-speak that is the second sentence, marred only by garbled syntax, a misspelling, and at least one grammatical error. Not bad for 30 words.

    It would be fair to take to task for referring to “experts” without citing anyone specific. But, National Geographic? Cut me a break.

    Hey dude, you want “experts” without the quotation marks? Well, I’ll give you experts without the quotation marks: the fine folk at the Pacific Institute, headed up by Peter Gleick,, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on water. In the institute’s recent report, Desalination, With a Grain of Salt: A California Perspective, ( the researcher’s take a moderate and cautious position on desalination, one most likely held by the experts dismissed by our pen-pal from WCI. From PI’s site:

    “The potential benefits of ocean desalination are great, but the economic, cultural, and environmental costs of wide commercialization remain high. In many parts of the world, alternatives can provide the same freshwater benefits of ocean desalination at far lower economic and environmental costs. These alternatives include treating low-quality local water sources, encouraging regional water transfers, improving conservation and efficiency, accelerating wastewater recycling and reuse, and implementing smart land-use planning.”

  4. Dear Mr Simpson. Thank you for pointing out the grammatical and stylistic errors in my post. Forgive me. I’m primarily a technologist, however I’d like to put part of the linguistic blame on blogging from my iPhone.

    Thanks for fixing the link and letting me see who the referenced experts were in the Nat Geo report. I’m surprised you are so quick to assume if it comes from Nat Geo it must be beyond reproach but thanks for letting me read it.

    You clearly are a follower of the Pacific Institute and Peter. Yes I get to call Mr Gleick by his first name, it makes the dinner and National Academy of Sciences conversation more informal. I agree with much of what Peter says but disagree on many items, including the over simplification of desalination and the role it can play in a balanced portfolio of water supply options. There are several inflammatory statements about desalination in the Pacific Institute publications which I don’t think stand up; many of the world’s desalination plants are not “ultimately useless” as the Executive Summary of “Desalination, with a Grain of Salt” states. There are many other inflammatory and unquantified statements in that publication from June 2006. We are in 2009. How much have positions changed as the drought in the southwest continues?

    On the topic of science I noticed your explicit response to me did not raise any concern about the problems I cited relating to over-abstraction from our existing fresh water sources. Do you agree with the high environmental impact of sucking our rivers and aquifers low? I know that in a couple of months everyone, especially those in southern California, will have changed their attitudes and vastly reduced their water consumption and misuse. I’m sorry, I keep forgetting that. Its going to rain too.

    We collectively continue to hold water up as some valuable yet virtually free commodity. And it continues to get used and abused.

    Mr Gleick is right about one thing. The cost of desalinated water must include all costs and I say it does which is partly why it is expensive. As soon as the environmental cost of transporting water out of the Colorado River and out of the Northern California water sheds has been calculated please let me know. My money is that the cost to mitigate desalination, seawater or otherwise, is less than the cost of righting the wrongs we’ve being doing for decades.

    Desalination will never solve all the water shortages of somewhere like California but it can reduce the environmental impact related to where Southern California steals its water from today.

    I apologize in advance for my stylistic and grammatical shortcomings.

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