Of all the water on the planet, only a small percentage occurs in Nature as fresh water. A safe estimate seems to be right around three percent, give or take a half percent. A majority of that is locked up in glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. The rest is available to us mostly in the forms of lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers.
Much of what we call “fresh water” is, in reality, not fresh at all, in terms of drinkability. We wouldn’t want to slake our thirst directly from most of the rivers and lakes that surround us, simply because they are not suitable for unfiltered swilling. You gotta treat it first. Surface water, in general, can be uncategorically qualified as unfit if unfiltered for the simple reason that it’s polluted. And the pollutants would include all the things that would make their way onto your Yuk list without much effort—herbicides, pesticides, bacteria, viruses, fecal matter, sediment, etc. Along with all the other stuff that enviro-biologists (I’m pretty sure that’s an actual job title) would recognize and nod about knowingly to one another while the rest of us stood around scratching our heads.
The water that is provided to all of us who live in cities, large and small, comes from utility companies charged with the very important task of keeping our supplies safe. For the most part, they do an outstanding job. The problem we’re facing down around the world is one of scarcity. Some of the usual suspects (liquid in nature) we have always relied upon are being over-burdened. Simply put, their dependability is being tested due to a number of reasons, two of which would include climate change and population growth. As lakes and riverbeds dry up, and aquifers find themselves unable to recharge quickly enough to meet demand, people are turning to other solutions. One that seems to be catching on quickly…almost too quickly…is the desalination plant.
Any engineer or marketing executive explaining how fresh water can result from pumping seawater—the stuff that makes our eyes sting and our hair and skin feel strange, and our gut hurl if ever we are unfortunate enough to ingest it—they’re going to emphasize the crucial concept of reverse osmosis. These amazing membranes keep getting smaller, more efficient, more cost effective. After all, the biggest reason for the oceans being an unsuitable source of drinking water is…well, yeah, it’s the salt Stupid, right? Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Prevent the salt from following the water on through.
So, these salt removal plants are now becoming the new rock stars in the world of water, providing reliable drinking water for many cities and even whole countries that find themselves hard pressed to find other alternatives for their growing and thirsty populations. US, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, India, Australia. The list goes on…into the low hundreds.
Here are my concerns—numerous, yes, but probably not any different from those held by others much more in the know than myself. First of all, it seems to me that we could easily transition into something not unlike the privatization of water as more of these industrial behemoths dot the landscape. That’s a whole ’nother can of worms to open later, but just note that I’ve put it on the table for consideration. When such odious things like water being politicized and militarized for nefarious gain start making headlines…now that’s a dark cloud on the horizon.
It all seems a bit counter-intuitive, I know. More water, more security all the way around. But read on…if we come to rely too heavily on these plants, and let many or all of our other conservation efforts go to moth balls, how easy will it be to make these desalination plants new targets for exploitation?
Second of all, whereas it seems that years, several at best, and sometimes more than a decade, are required to bring a new plant online here in the states, this does not seem to be the case in many other countries. Looking around the world, I’m astounded by the sheer number of these things sprouting up almost overnight. It’s obvious, then, that many customers have little or no concern about the environmental impact these plants bring to the scene. As long as the clean water is flowing, damn the torpedoes.
Over 20,000 of them already up and running around the world, and with many more already budgeted in. In some cases, a new plant in an old country has indeed come at a price, and was not the first, second, or third most popular option considered. But the technology is proven and now familiar, getting cheaper all the time, and pulling from the most reliable source of H2O we have…the ocean. What else is an already stressed country supposed to do?
Thirdly, having considered my first few beefs, is it possible that the ease with which we are now producing fresh water will cause at least some of us to believe that the crisis is over? I’ve already read this very proposal in more than a few places on the web, so it’s not far-fetched. How tempting will it be for one country after another to consider slapping up one desal plant, then the next, and the next, perhaps suggesting that the new status symbol of nationalistic pride is…water? A country’s wealth will be measured by the number of these plants it can boast of. Prestige in pumps, mining blue gold instead of black now.
New urban sprawl might spring up, full speed ahead in areas that would otherwise be unsustainable. Dubai is one of the driest, hottest places on earth. Yet it is thriving. And with its Jebel Ali desalination plant producing a cool half million gallons of fresh water every day, it may be the poster child for decadent development in places where we would otherwise dare not consider as suitable for driving pilings into the ground.
Israel has gone all in and is currently the proud owner of the world’s largest operating plant (this distinction will soon be lost, no doubt). It was built for nearly half what the plant in Carlsbad, California was constructed for. Economies of scale mean bigger, mega-producing facilities might be a new part of a dry and parched landscape. Wherever water is in short supply, you can bet your last dollar the desal plants are coming (get a decal touting desal…hey, look there’s one in SoCal!)
Fourthly, we do know that these things have some drawbacks, and, as I mentioned, some countries are not deterred by those cons. Like the high carbon footprint, the potential for environmental damage to the very ocean they rely upon, the massive deposits of brine they dump back into the sea. It’s just a matter of time before someone cries foul, then conducts the study that confirms what we suspected all along…there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The scales must be balanced.
Having stood on my soapbox long enough, I will say this: thank goodness that the technology is there. Without desalination (and I mean the technology, if not the huge structure that presently goes along with it), producing billions of gallons of fresh water in a reliable manner to multiple millions of people around the world, one can only imagine the dire outlook for many countries where the water isn’t flowing where it always used to go.
Sincere thanks for stopping by!