Why Desalination Won’t Solve the Water Crisis: 3 Key Reasons

Low lake and reservoir levels across much of the world have become increasingly common.

Desalination is certainly an important process, it gives humans the ability to develop populations in areas of the world that would otherwise be largely uninhabitable. Desalination also reduces stress on natural water sources in marginal semi-arid areas of the planet, its ability to help humanity is not in doubt, however, can desalination alone solve the world’s water crisis? This is the question I posed to myself and set about researching the topic and coming up with a summary of its shortcomings.

Desalination alone won’t solve the water crisis, mainly due to its high energy demands and marginal economical model, but also intense political opposition in some parts of the world. Desalination needs to go hand-in-hand with other personal and commercial initiatives to help alleviate the world’s water crisis.

If you are looking for a more optimistic viewpoint on desalination potentially being able to solve the water crisis, I wrote an article explaining relevant arguments Can Desalination Solve The Water Crisis: 5 CRITICAL Points.

Marginal Economic Model

Until desalination has a proven track record of creating value, widespread adoption will be a slow process.

Unfortunately, most destination projects rely on either direct government funding or at least favourable tax terms and subsidized loans. Although this is changing around the world as water scarcity drives up the true cost of water, we are also experiencing a global energy shortage which in turn drives up the cost of desalination. There are various methods to improve the feasibility & efficiency of desalination such as mining the brine for dietary, industrial and even rare chemicals and minerals as well as finding synergies with thermal power generation. I wrote an in-depth article on utilizing desalination waste products for additional financial return from desalination here as well as an article focussed on improving the efficiency of desalination plants and searching for synergies with neighbouring industries here, both of these articles go into much more depth on improving the economics of desalination.

As mentioned above, making desalination a viable business opportunity is necessary before it will truly be able to single-handedly solve the water crisis. Whilst it continues to be a marginal opportunity, strongly linked to high water prices and low energy costs, it will likely only attract private investment in areas of the world where both of these price situations exist. These areas tend to be in the arid middle east where energy is plentiful and water is not, however with technological advancements going in the right direction and compromises being made on the environmental front desalination will likely form a key part in solving global water shortages.

If you are interested in the in-depth workings of the economics of desalination, I prepared a comprehensive business case here, looking into global markets and the key factors influencing its feasibility including a concise case study on the Carlsbad desalination project in California.

High Energy Requirements

Unfortunately, desalination uses a lot of energy, most of which still comes from thermal power plants.

As alluded to in the previous paragraph, desalination uses a lot of energy, which is not ideal in times of record high energy costs that we find ourselves in today. Although progress is being made in improving desalination efficiency around the world, the amount of energy required is truly staggering. To give an idea of the energy required for a truly large-scale desalination operation, the Ras al Khair desalination plant in Saudi Arabia has its own full-sized commercial power plant incorporated into the desalination facility. The Ras al Khair facility produces over 414 Olympic swimming pools of water per day, to power this operation its onsite thermal power station produces 2400MW of electricity, enough to power a small city. Although it does consume copious amounts of energy, the Ras Al Khair facility utilizes synergies by warming water for desalination via the cooling of its turbines, a process previously discussed in the above paragraph.

If you are interested in some key details about the Ras Al Khair destination plant, I wrote a full article on the topic here which is worth a read!

Political Opposition

Sometimes well-meaning political activists can derail projects that would actually benefit the environment.

The one thing that can derail a desalination project even if it makes societal and economic sense, is political opposition. As we have seen in many parts of the world, people want swimming pools and long showers in the desert, but they don’t want to physically see the industry required to make it possible. Not to say anyone is wrong for this mindset, however, it does lead to small regional centres whose natural water sources, rivers and their corresponding ecosystems getting depleted & destroyed due to their limited voting power against inner-city elites who don’t want a desalination plant near their neighbourhood.

In a political system that favours areas with larger voting populations, as is the case in democracies worldwide, regional areas from where most large cities draw water tend to get the lion’s share of the impact. The “Not in my backyard” mentality is synonymous with well-meaning city residents who probably recycle their rubbish and drive a Tesla. An example of this was the Huntington Beach desalination plant in California, which was denied planning approval on environmental grounds only to approve essentially the same destination plant down the coast in Dana Point an area of lower population density.

If you are interested in reading about political opposition to desalination plants and more specifically reasoning behind why California doesn’t build more desalination plants, I encourage you to read my article on the topic here.

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