The 2017 World Economic Forum Global Risks Report included a highlight from a 2016 survey of 750 experts who concurred that water scarcity poses the gravest threat to global society over the next decade. Some regions are obviously more arid than others, but scarcity is not always about the lack of a natural resource. It can also often be about the over-demand and mismanagement of an existing resource.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Denmark saw the economic and environmental waste of leakages and over-consumption of water. Policies were implemented to improve the delivery of water and to raise awareness about the value of water. Denmark has been particularly successful in reducing water wastage in general and in particular has turned wastewater into “resource water”. Investing in water is good for society, good for the environment and good for business as it brings energy costs down too.
A much more arid region where water is substantially scarcer and more expensive than oil, the Arabian Peninsula also sees the great value of investing in producing clean water for good reason: The oil will eventually run out and the Peninsula will rely entirely on external sources of imported water. So far, the most popular solution, a rather expensive means of extracting large quantities of fresh water from the sea, has been desalination.
Desalination is very energy intensive, costs a lot, and produces brine – a salty sludge that no one really knows what to do with except throw it back into the sea (increasing the salinity of the water) or dump it in the desert (where it creates salt crystal ponds). In typical Arabian Peninsula fashion, when the UAE announced a major solar-powered desalination plant a couple of years ago, Saudi Arabia responded by building a solar-powered desalination plant that would be four times as big.
This kind of competition is good. It is healthy for capitalism, and it drives the transition to more sustainable modes of obtaining energy and water. Most countries cannot afford the high price tag of solar-powered desalination plants, however, or if even if they can they still prefer to invest in something else like wind energy or hydropower when they have an abundance of water.
Today, an estimated 60 per cent of global production of desalinated water is in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of the Peninsula, and global desalination could grow by a third by 2020, according to Steve Griffiths, vice-president of research at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology talking at the International Water Summit in Abu Dhabi.
Between Abu Dhabi and Dubai there is a small strip of coastal land called Ghantoot where the EXPO2020 hosted by the UAE will hold some activities. Right now, there is the UAE Racing & Polo Club and not much else there apart from a testing station where Masdar, the clean energy company of UAE company Mubadala, has created five joint ventures with European companies worth about $1 to $2 million each that are researching and exploring new technologies to scale-up and deploy desalination.
These are all relatively small plants compared to the offshore rigs drilling hundreds of holes deep into the sea bed in search for and in competition with their neighbours to tap quite literally into the remaining reserves of oil and gas. But they are still important mini-projects by Masdar/Mubadala standards as they have the potential of bringing more clean water in a more efficient way to more people.
Of the five plants, only one is exploring how to reuse part of the brine and to reduce the overall “outfall” (waste) of desalination. There is no silver bullet: The brine will have to be reprocessed in parallel treatment plants and reinserted into other industries that can use the minerals from it. This is an even more costly process. How to reuse brine is equivalent to how to store energy, but these are the holy grails of the water and energy sectors.
Back at their headquarters in Masdar City in the UAE, researchers are happily exploring how to make rain as an alternative source of water. Apart from implementing forward osmosis, reverse osmosis, membrane distillation, brine treatment and integrating renewables at the desalination plants, the Masdar Institute and the UAE Research Programme for Rain Enhancer Science are looking into how to stimulate rainfall in arid zones like the Arabian Peninsula.
It is exciting to see so much research and activity around addressing the public enemy number one of water scarcity in the Arabian Pensinsula. The UAE is a veritable petri-dish of innovative projects looking to find sustainable solutions. In this case, it’s about playing God a little and using remote-sensing to optimise cloud-seeding in order to instigate more rainfall.
How that will affect the environment and the natural habitat has yet to be seen. But somehow it’s ok that there is now vibrant almost-emerald green Astro-turf covering patches of sand by the highways. At least no water is being wasted.
The writer is founder of Revolve Media and vice-president of Revolve Water.