The Desalination Solution: With Water Shortages Looming, It's Time to Commit to Building Seawater Desalting Plants. Prompt Action Can Bring New Rivers of Freshwater and Avert Disasters

Article excerpt

Desalination is likely to become one of the world's biggest industries. Growing communities and new industries must have dependable water supplies in order to prosper. If droughts, exhaustion of groundwater sources, decline of lake or river levels, or a combination of such factors threaten an area's water supply, site-seeking firms may look elsewhere, giving water-rich areas a competitive advantage.

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Certainly, water conservation programs should come first as a strategy for regions facing water problems. Many jurisdictions are already imposing water-use limits. Other communities try drilling wells deeper and deeper until their aquifer is maxed out, or they propose to pipe water from distant streams. But such shortsighted strategies can do incalculable damage to the environment.

There is a better solution. Desalting systems have long proven effective in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Where once there were bleak villages on barren deserts there are now bright modern cities with tree-lined streets. There are homes with lush gardens. In the countryside there are productive farms.

The big desalting plant at Jubail, Saudi Arabia, is a model for the world. A pipeline carries a river of freshwater 200 miles inland to the capital city of Riyadh, and desalted seawater has given a large region an entirely new future filled with opportunities.

There are more than 7,000 desalination plants, mostly small ones, in operation worldwide. About two-thirds are located in the Middle East, and others are scattered across islands in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Aruba's high-tech water plant has for many years met the needs of a thriving tourist industry.

The largest plant in the United States is the pioneering $158-million project of the Tampa Bay Water agency. The project was let to contract in 1999 and after overcoming some technical problems in its early years is now performing well and causing no significant environmental problems. But no U.S. water agency has yet undertaken a really big project comparable to those found along the Arabian Gulf.

A CHALLENGE FOR WATER OFFICIALS

The first obstacle is cost: Today's desalting plants are multibillion-dollar projects, and it will take time for improving technology to bring the cost down. Timid government officials and politicians delay action for years, during which the cost of a plant and related distribution facilities may double or triple.

Fuel for desalination is a major challenge. Desalination plants in most nations don't have access to cheap oil as do plants in the Middle East. So planners of big new units in the western United States need to think of energy from wind and solar installations. Along the Florida coast, ocean energy could become important. The Gulf Stream is an enormous asset waiting to be used. …

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