Updated: Oct 19
Consider the basic acts of drinking, maintaining hygiene, and doing laundry - all routine tasks that hinge on a single essential component: water.
It is the backbone of industries, especially agriculture, and its significance cannot be understated. Yet, despite advancements to water access globally, the availability of this precious resource is dwindling rapidly. Rising global populations, coupled with extravagant water use, especially among the wealthy class, contribute to water scarcity. However, climate change remains the primary cause of the water crisis. Across the globe, countries are struggling with intensified droughts, a consequence of our changing climate which has impacted all sectors and economies. In Brazil, for instance, these droughts have caused a reduction in tourism, electricity shortages (due to heavy reliance on hydropower), and triggered food and water insecurity, illustrating the far-reaching consequences of water scarcity.
Water Desalination as a Solution to the Global Water Crisis
Europe and the U.S. have started implementing a novel solution to this global issue: water desalination. It is the process of transforming salt water from the ocean into drinkable freshwater. The two main techniques of desalination are either through boiling water to remove salt, and catch the water steam, or the more modern solution of special filters that separate water and salt. In both cases, the water is thoroughly cleaned, as there are often many contaminants such as boron. This solution may seem ideal, in the sense that salt water is almost an endless resource, comprising 97% of all water on Earth.
As time goes by, the technology behind the invention is becoming more advanced and efficient, making this solution even more viable in the future. In Spain and Portugal, it has helped mitigate water shortages.
Indeed, in Barcelona, which faced several droughts over the past years, desalinated water comprised 33% of the freshwater supply in 2023, an enormous increase from only 3% in 2021.
Globally, there are over 17,000 desalination plants (as of 2021) which have helped countries with scarce water resources increase their supply, especially in Saudi Arabia.
The Environmental Trade-Offs
However, this technological solution to water shortages comes at a large environmental cost. With such an energy-intensive technology, the desalination process is highly polluting with a massive carbon footprint, with scholars agreeing that those emissions can no longer be ignored. Also, it has been said that extracting sea water is particularly devastating to marine ecosystems, endangering many species.
On another note, there have been recent technological improvements that do “change the game,” in terms of environmental costs. The IDE plant in Israel for instance, has innovated pumps and motors, to reduce the energy consumption of the plant. Similarly, the Carlsbad desalination plant in the U.S. reduced its carbon footprint, and aims for more protection of marine ecosystems. On a social and economic perspective, this brings about USD$50 million to the local economy, and ensures water in the region for over 300,000 people.
Costs, Profitability, and a Holistic Approach to Water Shortages
From a business point of view, desalination plants have often been perceived as a waste of money, as they are expensive to set up. However, as technology is becoming more efficient, and the desalination practice more common, costs have been reduced. Today, the initial capital investment to build a desalination plant is usually reimbursed after just 4 years of activity - given U.S. and European water prices.
With increased water shortages, this industry is expected to hit USD$29.1 billion by 2030, according to investor reviews.
In general, the profitability of the industry highly depends on local factors, such as governmental incentives, water prices, and availability.
Whilst desalination comes with costs and great benefits, it cannot be the only solution to water shortages. Landlocked locations would suffer from too much of a focus on desalination, as water would have to be transported across borders. Instead, a policy of reducing water use at home, increasing education and government incentives, and improving technological solutions to preserving freshwater might be more beneficial. In the end, each country has its own geopolitical issues that impact their access to water, so one should look at desalination according to each location, and their own challenges.