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Drink From The Sea: From Iran To Australia, Desalinization Aims To Go Mainstream

Both economic and ecologic constraints weigh on the expansion of efforts to access endless sources of drinking supply by treating water from the seas and oceans. But progress is being made, and many still dream of solving a global water shortage with a fl

Getting H2O to Gaza (Middle East Children's Alliance)
Getting H2O to Gaza (Middle East Children's Alliance)
Martine Valo

Drink a splash of seawater? More and more countries are turning to desalinization to supply their water needs, even though the process is expensive and can also come with an environmental price to pay.

On April 16, the Iranian government announced the construction of a desalinization plant that would supply the northeast city of Semnan, whose 200,000 inhabitants live at the edge of the desert.

The water will be taken from the Caspian Sea, then treated and transported to Semnan via a 150-kilometers pipeline, across Mount Elbrus. The process is expected to cost one billion dollars.

The number of countries that have plunged into desalinization currently stands at 150, as severe droughts multiply, population continues to expand, and technology in the field expands. But according to Miguel Angel Sanz, innovation and development director at Degrémont, a Suez Environnement's subsidiary company: "Desalinization is a useful process in case of shortage but it is not a panacea." Still, he concedes, his business is booming.

Currently, 66.5 million cubic meters of soft water are produced in the world, from sea or brackish water, that is to say 8.8% more than in 2010. Global Water Intelligence and the International Desalination Association (IDA) listed 16.000 desalinization plants worldwide, 5% more than last year.

Veolia is one of the giants of the sector, with 800 factories around the world and a daily production of more than nine million cubic meters. Degrémont is another giant: it has already built 250 plants, which can supply water for more than 10 million people.

A political rationale

Treating sea water has gained more and more traction in the face of climate change and rising water consumption. Some governments even see it in political and strategic terms, as desalinazation can free them from having to rely on neighboring countries for something as basic as water supply.

So what could impede the growing success of this business? "Desalinization has two disadvantages: the economic context, that stopped many construction projects in 2009-2010, and the environmental impact," explains Jean-Michel Herrewyn, CEO of Veolia Eau, a division of the French firm Veolia Environment. "It is an energy-consuming industry that has an impact on sea life," says Herrewyn. "The industry had only focused on the economic context problem."

Industry experts have set as an objective to reduce by 20% their energy consumption, which would allow them to cut greenhouse gas emissions without losing economic viability.

It's no accident that desalinization first began in Persian Gulf oil and gas-rich countries: desalinization plants are so energy-consuming that it often needs a thermal power station. But other options are currently explored. To meet the needs of Australia, which already has five Degrémont factories, wind power plants have been built. But it's currently impossible to get the business going with renewable energies alone.

But the ecologically costs of desalinization go beyond energy consumption, as the water pumped back to the sea is always warmer, more salted and polluted with chemical residue.

"As the environmental impact decreases, the desalinization business will increase," Jean-Michel Herrewyn predicts. Still, another structural problem remains to be solved: the developing countries without the money to invest in an industry as pricey as desalinization tend to be the ones who need it the most.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Middle East Children's Alliance

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