The alternative source of seawater is improving sustainability in water-stressed regions

As the global population continues to grow, so does the demand for fresh water, increasing the pressure on supplies around the world. Climate change is exacerbating the problem, with many regions becoming water-stressed. 

While 71% of the Earth's surface is covered by water, a whopping 97% of all the water on Earth is found in the oceans as seawater. Since it's a nearly limitless resource, desalinating seawater can play a critical role in addressing water scarcity by providing an alternative supply, especially in regions facing severe shortages. Desalination offers benefits in terms of water sustainability as well as some challenges. Its potential as a solution to water scarcity, along with technological advancements, is outlined below. 

Diversification of Water Supply 

Desalination provides access to a previously untapped water source, seawater, which helps to diversify supplies and reduce reliance on rivers, lakes, and groundwater that may be overexploited or susceptible to pollution and climate change effects. Desalination plants can produce large quantities of fresh water from seawater, offering a reliable water supply. This expansion of resources allows regions with limited supplies to meet their growing water demands.

Building Climate Resilience

Desalination can help build resilience against climate variability and droughts. Unlike surface water sources that can be affected by climate changes, desalination provides a continuous and virtually limitless supply of water that is not dependent on weather patterns. 

Desalination is becoming increasingly adopted in water-stressed regions, including the Middle East, North Africa, southern Europe, Australia, and parts of the United States. This reflects the growing importance of desalination on a global scale.

Desalination facilitates urban and industrial growth by providing a reliable water source necessary for population expansion. Having a sustainable alternative supply reduces the pressure on freshwater systems and the impact on aquatic ecosystems, promoting economic development.

Technological Innovation Enhances Sustainability

While desalination expands water availability, it also presents environmental challenges. Seawater intake structures can entrain marine organisms as water flows through, and the discharge of brine back into oceans can harm sea life if not properly managed. Desalination processes also are energy-intensive, which can lead to higher carbon emissions and contribute to climate change if fuel is not sourced sustainably. The good news is that the development of more efficient desalination technologies is driving innovation in the water sector.

Water treatment companies are developing solutions to address these challenges. Advancements in membrane technology, renewable energy integration, and brine management are making desalination more economically viable and environmentally friendly. Additionally, mesh screens, barrier nets, and low-velocity pumps help prevent the impingement and entrainment of fish, turtles, and other marine life in seawater intakes.

Economic and Social Impacts of Desalination 

As desalination technology becomes more advanced and accessible, it also begins to play a pivotal role in social and economic development. By providing a reliable water source, desalination enables communities in arid and drought-prone regions to not only sustain their current populations but also to plan for growth. This access to clean water supports agriculture, industry, and domestic use, which are fundamental to socio-economic stability and growth. Furthermore, the ability to produce water independently of natural water cycles reduces vulnerability to water scarcity and enhances security in strategic regions.

Policy Integration and Environmental Stewardship 

The expansion of desalination capabilities necessitates the development of robust policies that promote sustainable practices and environmental stewardship. Governments and regulatory bodies are increasingly called upon to create frameworks that encourage the adoption of best practices in desalination technology. These policies should aim to optimize water resource management, ensure the protection of marine environments, and foster the development of renewable energy sources. By aligning technological advancements with comprehensive environmental policies, the potential negative impacts of desalination can be minimized, making it a cornerstone of sustainable water management strategies.

Overcoming Cost Barriers

Desalination can be expensive compared to other water sources. However, financing mechanisms such as public-private partnerships (P3s), leasing agreements, and build-own-operate or build-own-operate-transfer contracts can help. These flexible structures require no upfront capital. The desalination plant is designed, built, operated, and maintained by a water treatment vendor who takes care of everything from maintenance and repairs to environmental management and reporting.

Desalination is reshaping the global water landscape by providing a critical alternative water source that complements existing supplies and enhances water security in regions with water stress due to population growth, climate change, and resource depletion. 

To maximize sustainability, it's crucial to integrate desalination into a broader water management strategy that includes conservation, recycling for reuse, and efficient use of existing resources. Advancements in renewable energy can help reduce the carbon footprint associated with desalination operations. Innovative solutions that minimize the environmental harm associated with seawater intake and brine discharge can reduce the environmental impact on marine life, making it a more sustainable solution for addressing water scarcity.