Can renewably powered desalination address the world's looming water crisis? Image: Herbert Goetsch/Unsplash
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- The climate crisis and population growth are putting ever more strain on the world's water supplies.
- Desalination offers an unlimited resource - but it has a significant environmental impact.
- New technologies allied to public-private partnerships can help us chart a sustainable way forward.
Numerous dystopic predictions have been used to stir the global conversation about the increasing impact of environmental degradation – especially in those parts of the world where the infrastructure is simply ill-equipped to handle catastrophes. Whether it is the world continuously heating up, or the increasing number of people (now approaching one billion) who even today have no access to reliable clean water, or communities that are blessed with supplies increasingly facing dwindling clean water sources: at some point, these predictions are going to start becoming reality.
The challenge is to ensure we do not reach that point. Promisingly, recent major developments led by technology and entrepreneurship could light the way.
If current estimates are correct, by 2050, the Middle East and Africa (MEA) will be home to around 3.4 billion people, more than the populations of China and India combined. Aside from environmental pressure, this growing number of people also puts pressure on governments to provide basic utilities such as power and water, which is already a scarce resource in a freshwater-deprived region.
Nearly two-thirds of the region’s population live in areas that lack sufficient renewable water sources, and more than 60% live in places with high surface-water stress compared to a global average of about 35%. This, coupled with unsustainable water use practices, have long been an issue in MEA, and both the public and private sectors have been scrambling for ways to correct this destructive trend.
One rather obvious technology that has risen in prominence over the last several decades is desalination. This generally refers to removing salt from seawater, but could also apply to treatment of other types of water (such as wastewater or brackish water), to make it potable.
The need for renewably powered desalination
This water treatment technique has long been explored and used to address global water supply issues. Some countries in the Middle East rely on it to produce up to 90% of their drinking water needs. The region is host to around 40% of global desalinated water capacity – and a huge part is specifically from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia, for example is home to some of the world’s biggest desalination plants. Major providers and operators such as ACWA Power are compelled to increase production and improve operational capabilities, especially as the country pursues an ambitious transformation strategy to both meet the needs of its growing population and increase industrialisation, putting more pressure on potable water supplies.
The scale of desalination’s contribution to the supply of fresh water seems to be less dramatic when you zoom out. According to the International Water Association (IWA), desalination only provides 1% of the world’s drinking water. Although thousands of plants have been contracted globally – most of which are in the Middle East – the world can still do more to harness the power of the ocean, which as the IWA recognizes is 'drought-proof' and 'limitless'. However, desalination is considered energy-intensive and expensive, and it has a significant environmental impact.
Around 70% of desalination in the Gulf is currently done through an energy-intensive evaporative process entirely using fossil fuels. Even as a filtration-based technology, reverse osmosis (RO), becomes increasingly reliable and less energy intensive, the electricity that is used to create the required pressures for this process is of course still substantially generated using fossil fuels.
Significant advances in material science are significantly further reducing the energy intensity of the RO process. The rapid cost reduction of renewable energy to generate electricity is then offering the prospect of utilising that electricity to “fuel” the RO process. Innovation, entrepreneurship and the increasing involvement of the private sector is continuing to help reduce both initial and operating cost and environmental impact all of which in turn will enable desalination to play a crucial role in addressing the looming water crisis.
International interest groups, such as the Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance, have been promoting the use of clean energy for desalination, setting global targets until 2036 to further reduce reliance on fossil fuels in the water treatment process.
We need to accelerate our efforts to achieve these ambitious targets. Some countries in the Middle East are already leading the pack in commissioning renewable energy- powered desalination projects. The cost of renewable energy should be further reduced to ensure the promotion of mainstream use. Desalination technologies can also be stretched further to become more efficient and to leave less of an impact on the environment.
The demand for decarbonization across the world has sped up countries’ technological impetus, and the Middle East, which has traditionally relied on hydrocarbon for its energy needs, has made great efforts in adopting more sustainable practices. The movement has been highly collaborative – with many government initiatives inspiring the private sector to push the envelope of innovation.
At ACWA Power, we have found that working with government bodies in the Middle East to explore ways to boost the use of renewable energy in desalination activities has enabled a step-change in progress. The same is seen in other regions, including Europe and North America, to ensure clean energy generation is seen as a valuable economic investment. Desalination demand is only projected to expand rapidly, and water production will continue to eat space in countries’ energy use. The overall vision is to make renewable desalination replace conventional systems in the near future.
What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?
Innovation in desalination must go beyond energy discussions to include crucial developments in water quality. The modern urban challenge in emerging cities such as Riyadh will require more ingenious ways to provide reliable utility services. This prompts a multi-sector approach – from effective policy-making to developing high-tech methods.
In 2018, South Africa’s Cape Town started counting down to what was termed 'Day Zero' – or the moment the city completely ran out of drinking water. The apocalyptic scenario was a huge driving force for the government to rethink its infrastructure strategy, and better integrate technology in the provision of basic utilities and the continuation of life.
From the arid regions of the Middle East and Africa to small and underdeveloped islands and even the vast metropolises of the US, technology and entrepreneurship will continue to be an integral part of the conversations around the global water crisis. Policy makers, utility providers, academia, and the entire private sector must be prepared to capture the new wave of opportunities arising from discoveries arising from today's efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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