Desalination Plant Image Credit: Supplied

Water scarcity is a global challenge with rapid population growth around the world placing extreme pressure on finite water resources.

The United Nations forecasts the world’s population will increase from seven billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050, leading to a 55 per cent increase in demand for water. As a result more than 40 per cent of people will be living in areas of severe water stress — defined as where demand for water regularly exceeds supply.

To feed a growing population, food supply must rise by 60 per cent across the globe, meaning agriculture, which already uses 70 per cent of all water taken from rivers and groundwater reserves, will need an even bigger share of the world’s water supply.

The strain on a diminishing water supply will be felt most acutely in cities as rapid urbanisation continues unabated. Cape Town in South Africa is already experiencing severe water usage restrictions after narrowly avoiding running completely out of water earlier this year, following a prolonged period of drought.

Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking before he became South Africa’s president, had said the city faced “real, total disaster”. It was the world’s first metropolis to face such a fate.

The United Nations expects 66 per cent of the global population to be living in cities by 2050 and this increase from the current 55 per cent could cause a major disruption if suitable water technologies are not in place to serve demand.

Here in the UAE, one of the most arid parts of the world with little rainfall — groundwater levels are low and in steady decline. For the UAE and about 150 other counties on the coastline with minimal rainfall and little freshwater, there is currently little choice but to rely on desalination technology.

Desalination is already widely used, with more than 300 million people relying on desalinated water for some or all their daily needs, according to the International Desalination Association.

Desalination has been vital for the UAE’s rapid growth and development, with the country getting 96 per cent of its domestic water through this method.

Energy-intensive process

Two of the big disadvantages of desalination technology are closely linked to each other — firstly, desalination is energy intensive, and secondly these energy needs have historically been met by fossil fuels. In the UAE, seawater desalination needs about ten times more energy than surface, freshwater production.

In the Gulf alone, desalination plants account for 0.2 per cent of the entire world’s electricity consumption. However, these challenges are now being addressed and desalination technology is expected to play a key role in serving growing demand for fresh water.

Energy accounts for around 70 per cent of the cost of desalination. By reducing energy intensity and running desalination plants on renewable energy, operators could both reduce their operating costs and minimise their carbon footprint.

In the UAE, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar) has piloted five energy-efficient seawater desalination projects at a testing facility at Ghantoot. The long-term goal is to implement renewable energy-powered desalination plants in the country, as well as the wider region, and to have a commercial scale facility operating by 2020.

Once rolled out, this project is likely to have implications well beyond the Middle East.

Desalination technology has played a key role in helping the UAE and other countries in water scarce regions grow their cities and industries. Over the next decades, it will also be vital in helping emerging economies develop, although how these countries power their plants will be different.

Desalination, when combined with renewable energy and potentially energy storage, will significantly improve the economic viability of processing seawater and make it more environmentally sustainable. This will play a critical role in responding to the growing global challenge of water scarcity.

Of course, diversifying supplies of water, and reducing energy demand from water production, is only part of the solution to water scarcity. Making better use of water — such as re-using wastewater for irrigating crops (after it has been filtered), or for industry (for heating and cooling) — is another challenge.

Re-using wastewater is now common. Recent advances in technology and purification methods mean that it could have a bigger role in alleviating water scarcity.

Finding solutions to water scarcity will require governments, businesses and innovators to work closer together to address the challenge holistically. Global platforms such as the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), which is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the UAE National Agenda, provides an opportunity for key stakeholders to come together to share knowledge and implement strategies to help tackle some of the most pressing challenges that the world faces today.

The technologies showcased at the ADSW in January will help prevent against water shortages, while ensuring companies avoid increases in operating costs that will ultimately impact their end-users. Over the coming decades, access to a reliable and clean supply of water could become as important to companies as access to skilled labour, capital and technology.

Cape Town narrowly avoided Day Zero this year when the taps to the city were supposed to run dry. Lasting solutions need to be developed and implemented before scores of other cities around the world face a similar crisis.

Khaled Abdulla Al Qubaisi is CEO of Aerospace, Renewables and Information & Communications Technology — Mubadala.