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Desalination is the answer – but it must be green

The path forward in addressing water scarcity and pollution demands pragmatic solutions

Staff at a Saudi desalination plant. The kingdom is investigating more sustainable desalination methods Reuters
Staff at a Saudi desalination plant. The kingdom is investigating more sustainable desalination methods

The Earth has an abundant supply of water. The challenge, however, lies in its availability and our ability to manage and preserve this precious resource. 

Desalination is hailed as the ultimate solution to water scarcity. But if not conducted responsibly it could endanger the Earth’s oceans and exacerbate the climate crisis. 

Traditional desalination generates brine as a byproduct and it is often discharged back into the ocean or waterways.

This brine is highly concentrated in salts and other chemicals, posing a serious threat to marine ecosystems by altering the salinity levels and disrupting the balance of aquatic life.

Brine discharge can lead to habitat destruction, harm to marine organisms and overall ecosystem degradation, impacting fisheries, coastal communities and biodiversity.

The energy-intensive nature of desalination plants also contributes to air pollution and increases dependence on finite fossil fuels, perpetuating unsustainable practices. 

Addressing these challenges requires innovative desalination and wastewater treatment technologies to mitigate environmental impacts while meeting the escalating global demand for freshwater.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are at the forefront, pioneering the development of energy-efficient desalination plants and harnessing solar power to meet their energy demands. By doing so, they mitigate their carbon footprint and drive down costs. 

According to a UAE-based public sector source, utility companies in the UAE have started exploring sustainable options to manage and recycle brine using “Zero Liquid Discharge” – a treatment method that converts wastewater into recycled water and solids, alongside membrane distillation.

These techniques can effectively address the issue at scale. Although seawater reverse osmosis also produces brine, the byproducts of other methods are significantly more disruptive to ecosystems. 

However, the global uptake of these innovative approaches remains uneven. 

In some instances, both private and governmental investors have been inclined to take shortcuts in desalination plant construction. This has resulted in environmental damage rather than the intended outcome of ensuring access to clean water. 

However, new wastewater treatment systems are revolutionising the wastewater market with modular and portable technologies, providing chemical-free and energy-efficient solutions. 

These innovations hold promise in mitigating environmental impacts and improving water management practices on a global scale.

The region’s pressing water scarcity issue offers a unique opportunity to lead globally in innovative technology

According to Adam Taylor, founder of water treatment startup Migo, this technology is not a replacement for traditional desalination plants, but can offer complementary support by recycling and better managing existing freshwater resources. 

Innovative water technologies can also act as an end-polishing component for desalination plants to reduce sludge and remove residual chemicals for safe discharge into surrounding waterways.

Furthermore, housed within 20-foot shipping containers, these types of system can alleviate inland water demand by revitalising contaminated aquifers, mitigating the need for yet more desalination plants. 

The region’s pressing water scarcity issue offers a unique opportunity to lead globally in innovative technology, value creation and best practices related to water security.

A combined approach of leveraging wastewater treatment processes and maximising the use of all available water sources would be optimal for maximising regional and global water resources.

The path to addressing water scarcity and pollution demands pragmatic solutions. A combined effort from businesses, governments and communities alike is required to invest in innovative technologies, foster collaboration and prioritise sustainability.

Committing to practical actions will safeguard this vital resource for current and future generations.

Dubai-based Erin Grover advises on emerging technologies for climate impact, food security and supply chain transparency

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