Adapting to Water Stress Through Desalination

18 July, 2022 | Stephen Morris
Categories: Case Study, Climate Change, CO2balance, Horn of Africa, Kenya, Safe Water

Water is the most valuable resource on our planet. However, if it wasn’t already before, its value is becoming even more apparent in our rapidly changing world. As a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions, our climate is becoming increasingly warm and more volatile which is having significant impacts on rainfall and water supplies. Higher temperatures are enhancing evaporation and atmospheric water vapour, leading to climatic impacts such as more frequent and intense periods of drought and rainfall, and the shifting of rainfall patterns.

The effects of these climatic changes are affecting water supplies through droughts reducing stocks held in reservoirs and lakes, increasing pollution of water supply from unsafe runoff caused by extreme rainfall, and increasing unpredictability of where and when rainfall occurs. It is not only surface and atmospheric changes being observed in the hydrological cycle, with rising sea levels putting fresh groundwater stocks at risk of contamination from saltwater. Additionally, a rising population is increasing demand for water, and is causing drastic land-use change from intensified and extensive farming which in turn reduces tree cover and further increasing runoff. The combination of these climatic and non-climatic changes is creating significant stress on the world’s water supply.

Figure 1 – Climatic and Social Changes on Freshwater Systems
AR5 Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, IPCC (2014)

Therefore, adaptation is vital to meeting the world’s needs. One such adaptation is found in desalination, the process of removing mineral components from saltwater to turn it into freshwater. When considering only 2.5% of the water on our plant is freshwater, the ability to tap into the oceans and other saltwater sources provides a huge opportunity to adapt to the increasing water stress. Desalination plants have been growing exponentially in number since the latter part of the 20th century and are now a key tool to make oceanic and brackish water safe to drink and cater to the needs of our population.

Figure 2 – Growth in Desalination Globally, 1960-2020
The state of desalination and brine production: A global outlook, Jones, E. et al (2019)

Desalination is considered an ideal solution to diminishing freshwater stocks as it provides a reliable supply of water that is independent of the environmental climate change impacts affecting freshwater supplies. Other impacts on freshwater such as changing land-use, urbanization and hydropolitics are also minimized through utilizing seawater. For example, rivers that are vital to the water supply in one country can be cut off through the building of dams in another country as they seek to provide enough water for themselves, and, yet such issues have no bearing on saltwater stocks.  

However, there criticism remains regarding the use desalination as an adaptation method. The desalination process is energy-intensive, therefore when connected to a grid that generates power from fossil fuels this can exacerbate the very issue that desalination is adapting to by increasing carbon emissions and contributing to climate change. Such methods of maladaptation have been criticized in the Arabian Gulf, where oil and gas are used to power large-scale desalination plants to provide water in this arid region undergoing rapid economic and population growth (figure 3). Although this issue is becoming less severe by the improving efficiency of desalination, the level of energy required to make saltwater fresh is still high. Using energy to produce water also raises issues of dependence on stable energy prices. As seen in 2022, the world’s energy prices are rising rapidly and therefore so is the cost of desalination, potentially limiting the extent to which it can be used as a viable method of providing safe water.

Figure 3 – Jubail plant and Desalination, Saudi Arabia (2018)

Using such expensive and technologically advanced methods as adaptation tools also highlight and reinforce global social inequalities. World desalination distribution has been heavily focused in the Middle East, east Asia, and has significant presence in north America and Europe. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa have by far the lowest level of uptake of desalination, yet countries here are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, have the lowest levels of access to clean water, and death from unsafe water consumption is highest.

Figure 4 – Global distribution of operational desalination facilities and capacities (>1000 m^3 /day) by sector.
The state of desalination and brine production: A global outlook, Jones, E. et al (2019)

In 2021, CO2Balance began a partnership with GivePower, an American-based organization providing solar energy solutions in the Global South, to assist in the operation of three desalination plants in Kenya. Carbon credits sold through the project fund maintenance and ongoing costs of three solar water farms, with six more sites planned for next year, and income is contributing to reducing the cost of water and improving access to lower income people in the country, helping to provide safe water to thousands of people who need it most. The desalination sites are powered through solar energy, therefore providing a clean solution to increasing water stress in Kenya without contributing to carbon emissions. Also, these micro-grid plants remain resilient to the ongoing world energy crisis by not relying on fossil fuels in this period of extreme worldwide energy volatility.

Alongside the visible benefits of improved safe water access, the collaboration between CO2Balance and GivePower demonstrate the ability of technology-intensive adaptation methods to be implemented in the Global South. Reducing the financial and technological barriers to adaptation methods is vital to ensuring safe water access in the most vulnerable areas, and this project provides an example for how this can be achieved.

Figure 5 – GivePower Solar Desalination Farm, Bamburi

Key Reading:
AR5 Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, IPCC (2014)
Can seawater desalination be a win-win fix to our water cycle?, Pistocchi, A. et al.,(2020)
The state of desalination and brine production: A global outlook, Jones, E. et al (2019)