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Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi once said, “Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”

That’s unfortunate, as the world is starting to run low on fresh water. Less than 1 per cent of the planet’s fresh water is available to a human population that keeps growing. With more than seven billion people relying on access to this life-giving liquid, it’s no wonder the International Monetary Fund has called water scarcity the second most important risk to world stability.

For the oil-rich arid lands of the Middle East, water scarcity has been a portentous reality for the past decade with underground aquifers being sucked dry for agriculture use and tensions over water distribution simmering underneath diplomatic smiles. Already, 80 per cent of the world’s 15 most water-scarce countries are located in the Middle East, with the Gulf region being the hardest hit.

“The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is considered the most water-scarce region of the world. As the region’s population continues to grow, per-capita water availability is set to fall by 50 per cent by 2050,” predicts a 2011 water outlook report from the World Bank.

With populations forecasted to rise from the current 360 million to 600 million by 2050, and such bleak expectations for water, the Middle East has been scrambling to find effective ways to deal with the rising demands on this precious resource. If the region isn’t able to meet the swelling need for roughly another 50 to 60 billion cubic feet of water annually, more MENA countries will be added to the list of the world’s most parched nations.

Because of these pressures, governments have increasingly turned to desalination, a technology that has been used in the Middle East since the 1950s. Historically expensive and often harmful to marine life, the use of desalination hasn’t helped the climate either. In this region, countries have typically used fossil fuels (mostly oil and gas) to generate the energy needed to turn seawater into salt-free drinking water.

Globally, desalination plants are now being used in 150 countries, including Australia, China and the United States. Over the past five years, the number of plants has jumped by 57 per cent to nearly 16,000. According to the International Desalination Association, the capacity of desalinated water rose 276 per cent to 6.7 billion cubic metres a day between 2001 and 2011, with more than half of that capacity located in the Middle East. That kind of growth is expected to continue, if not accelerate.

Christopher Gasson, publisher of Global Water Intelligence, estimates that around 1 per cent of the world’s population is currently dependent on desalinated water. “But by 2025, the UN expects 14 per cent of the world’s population to be encountering water scarcity,” he recently wrote.

The Middle East is particularly vulnerable. Economist Jeff Rubin, author of the best-selling book Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, says fresh-water underground aquifers in countries like Saudi Arabia are down 50 per cent from the levels of the mid-1990s.

“In Saudi Arabia, water use is seven times its sustainable level. And it’s not just the Saudis,” Rubin said in an interview. All of Saudi Arabia’s neighbours are rapidly running through their supplies. “The Emirates and Dubai water use is 15 times that of sustainable levels, while Kuwait runs at over 20,” he said.

The hidden cost of desalination

Desalination can help, but Rubin says that in the Middle East the true cost is most often not reflected in the final price of de-salted water, which takes tremendous amounts of energy to produce. Another problem is the type of energy that’s frequently used: oil.

Every year, Rubin said, the Saudis go through about 700 billion cubic feet of its water in aquifers, and to make up for such usage, they desalinate by burning roughly 300,000 barrels of oil (and less frequently, natural gas) a day.

“Desalinating that immense volume of water could ultimately require the use of a million barrels of oil per day,” Rubin explained. “To put that in perspective, peak water will hasten peak oil.”

The two desalination techniques most used – thermal and membrane – are energy hogs. Thermal desalination, the most popular method in the Middle East, vapourizes seawater through reduced atmospheric pressure to free it of impurities. With membrane technology (or reverse osmosis) water is forced through a membrane at about 800 pounds per square inch to filter out the salt and other impurities. While this approach is preferred in the West, it is also gaining favour in the Middle East.

According to a report from the Pacific Institute, desalination plants on average use about 15,000 kilowatt-hours for every million gallons of fresh water produced. So when oil is burned to produce electricity for this process, significant pollution and climate-warming emissions result. A warming climate, of course, is expected to make fresh water even scarcer, creating a need for more desalination requiring even more energy – an unsustainable cycle.

With about 120 desalination plants operating in the region and a forecasted increase in the worldwide market for desalinated water, more research has gone into understanding the negative environmental consequences of such a process.

Gidon Bromberg, executive director of environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, said the impact goes beyond energy and emissions. “The most direct environmental impact is from the release of brine back to the oceans,” he said. “From a single plant it may be insignificant but we really don’t know what the accumulated impact is yet.” With the rise of desalination plants in the region it’s not known what it will do to the Mediterranean Sea, he added.

“Today’s desalination technologies can basically remove half of the water from the original amount of seawater and make it drinkable. That means the other half is sent back to the oceans and it’s twice as salty,” explained Brent Haddad, professor of environmental studies and director of the Center for Integrated Water Research at the University of California. When this highly concentrated saltwater returns to the ocean it is more than the local sea life can tolerate. This, he said, has negative effects on ocean biodiversity.

For a country like Israel, environmentalists also fear that increasing use of desalination will simply act as a disincentive for the population to conserve water. Israel currently desalinates about 315 million cubic metres of seawater a year – roughly half the public’s domestic water demand – and it plans to expand that volume to 750 million by 2020.

“We’ve seen a dramatic reduction in advertising in water conservation. We’re not against desalination as a technology, we just think getting 350 million cubic metres is enough,” said Bromberg, adding that he recognizes the need to guarantee minimum supply for domestic security purposes.

Water conservation leads to energy conservation, which can lead to reduced pollution and emissions. It’s all connected. There are no plans to use renewable energy for power at the moment in Israel, said Bromberg, “but if the government were to adopt solar as the energy source (for desalination) then our concerns would decrease dramatically.”

A greener way forward

It may not have taken form yet in Israel, but there have been many developments in the Middle East aimed at ensuring more sustainable, lower-carbon approaches to desalination. In the United Arab Emirates, a company called Masdar – a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi government-owned Mubadala Development – has introduced a pilot program to build the first large-scale desalination plant that runs on renewable energy.

Sultan Al Jaber, the company’s chief executive officer, told attendees at this year’s World Future Energy Summit that the plant could run on one or multiple forms of green energy, but the approach is likely to include solar.

“We’ve calculated it would take anywhere between 50 and 200 square metres of solar panels to power one cubic metre of desalination per day,” said Corrado Sommariva, president of the International Desalination Association and a collaborator with Masdar on the pilot project.

According to a 2012 report by Ventures Middle East, Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have also joined the renewables bandwagon. They have agreed to implement a $100 billion plan between 2011 and 2016 to improve desalination technologies to power state-run plants currently guzzling around 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. The idea is that oil would be replaced by solar and wind energy.

“A sustainable future means renewable power with the desalination technology able to perform optimally. We will certainly see more desalination in the future. And if the energy cost of renewables goes down then it will really accelerate – it’s just waiting for that next technological breakthrough,” said Haddad. For the reverse osmosis approach it’s a question of science: on how to use less water pressure for the process, which can potentially reduce the cost of desalination through improvement of membrane performance.

The problem with the future, however, is that it’s not today. Water scarcity in the Middle East is a current event, and efforts are needed now to address a resource issue that has and continues to be a source of regional tension.

As the political chaos following the Arab Spring starts to settle down, the threat of declining availability of water in the region may once again awaken dormant conflicts between countries depending on the three major rivers in the region: the Tigris-Euphrates, Nile and Jordan.

“Wars can erupt because of water,” Mohammed Khalfan al-Rumaithi, director-general of the UAE’s National Crises and Emergency Management Authority, recently told the country’s government leaders.

Evolving conflicts have acted as catalysts for some of the region’s wars, such as the 1967 War and the Iran-Iraq War, and may continue to aggravate more crisis zones in the near future. Already, visible tensions are palpable between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Nile; Turkey and Syria over the Tigris-Euphrates; and Jordan, Israel and Palestine over the Jordan River Basin, which also flows through Lebanon and Syria.

Concerning the Jordan basin, desalination has great potential to calm tensions in the area. A 70 million cubic metre desalination plant planned for Aqaba, Jordan, is expected to supply water to both Aqaba and Eilat on the Israeli side, according to Bromberg. In exchange, Israel would provide additional water from the Sea of Galilee to Jordan.

“We believe that cooperation that has mutual benefits, especially over something like water, is very important for peace building in the region,” says Bromberg.

But the path forward must also include desalination that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, or else collective efforts will ultimately be undermined. If desalination is going to help keep peace in the region and, at the same time, not add more fuel to the climate fire, then renewable energy will need to play a much greater role.

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