Peak salt: is the desalination dream over for the Gulf states?

The Middle East is home to 70% of the world’s desalination plants, but the more water they process, the less economically viable they become

By Stephen Leahy and Katherine Purvis (First published in the Guardian)

Gulf states are among the most water-scarce in the world. With few freshwater resources and low rainfall, many countries have turned to desalination (where salt is removed from seawater) for their clean water needs.

But Gulf states are heading for “peak salt”: the more they desalinate, the more concentrated wastewater, brine, is pumped back into the sea; and as the Gulf becomes saltier, desalination becomes more expensive.

“In time, it’s going to become impossible to use desalination in a way that makes economic sense,” says Gökçe Günel, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona. “The water will become so saline that it will be too expensive to desalinate.”

The Middle East is home to 70% of the world’s desalination plants – mostly in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Tens of billions of dollars, $24.3bn (£18.8bn) in Saudi Arabia alone, are being invested over the next few years to expand desalination capacity.

The process is cost and energy intensive; it pumps seawater through special filters or boils it to remove the salts. The resulting brine can be nearly twice as salty as normal Gulf waters, according to John Burt, a biologist at New York University Abu Dhabi.

But the 250,000 sq km Gulf is more like a salt-water lake than a sea. It’s shallow, just 35 metres deep on average, and is almost entirely enclosed. The few rivers that feed the Gulf have been dammed or diverted and the region’s hot and dry climate results in high rates of evaporation. Add in a daily dose of around 70m cubic metres of super-salty wastewater from dozens of desalination plants, and it’s not surprising that the water in the Gulf is 25% saltier than normal seawater, says Burt, or that parts are becoming too salty to use.

Peak salt, says Günel, mirrors the concept of peak oil, a popular concept in the 1970s used to describe the point in time when the maximum rate of oil extraction had been reached. “Peak salt describes the point at which desalination becomes unfeasible,” she says.

And studies have shown that the Gulf will only get saltier in the future. Raed Bashitialshaaer, a water resources engineer at Sweden’s Lund University, says that the growth of desalination plants in the region is happening far faster than his own 2011 study estimated.

With groundwater sources either exhausted or non-existent and climate change bringing higher temperatures and less rainfall, Gulf states plan to nearly double the amount of desalination by 2030 (doc). This is bad news for marine life and for the cost of producing drinking water – unless something can be done about the brine.

Farid Benyahia, a chemical engineer at Qatar University, believes he has a solution. He recently patented a process that could eliminate the need for brine disposal by nearly 100%. The process uses pure carbon dioxide (emitted during the desalination process by burning fossil fuels for power) and ammonia to turn brine into baking soda and calcium chloride. Whether the process is cost-effective remains to be seen but Benyahia believes it could be, especially if markets are found for large volumes of the end products.

Other efforts are also under way to reduce desalination’s country-sized carbon footprint which globally accounts for 76m tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – nearly equivalent to Romania’s emissions in 2014.

The Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance was formed in 2015 to tackle this problem by increasing efficiencies and shifting to renewable energy sources, such as solar-powered desalination. Saudi Arabia expects to have a commercial-scale plant operational by 2017 and in California, a proposed solar-powered desalination plant combines innovation, efficiency and design.

Water pricing, says Günel, is also becoming critical to improving water efficiency in the Gulf.

“Climate change policymakers in the region are pushing for water pricing and awareness campaigns around consumption to explain to governments and citizens that they can’t continue to use water in the same way.”

You’d be shocked to see how your jewellery is made

The Sickest Places in the World

Parts of Indonesia, Argentina and Nigeria are among the top 10 most polluted places on the planet, according to a new report by U.S. and European environmental groups.

 

The Agbogbloshie e-Wasteland in Ghana. Fires are set to wires and other electronics to release valuable copper and other materials. The fires blacken the landscape, releasing toxic fumes. Credit: Blacksmith Institute

The Agbogbloshie e-Wasteland in Ghana. Fires are set to wires and other electronics to release valuable copper and other materials. The fires blacken the landscape, releasing toxic fumes. Credit: Blacksmith Institute

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Nov 5 2013 (IPS) Parts of Indonesia, Argentina and Nigeria are among the top 10 most polluted places on the planet, according to a new report by U.S. and European environmental groups.

They are extraordinarily toxic places where lifespans are short and disease runs rampant among millions of people who live and work at these sites, often to provide the products used in richer countries.

“People would be shocked to see the conditions under which their lovely jewelry is sometimes made,” said Jack Caravanos, director of research at the New York-based Blacksmith Institute, an independent environmental group that released the list Monday in partnership with Green Cross Switzerland.

Full story: The Sickest Places in the World

Overweight? Hungry? Blame ‘Hollow Food’

 

wheat harvest sml

Conventional agriculture produces “hollow food”, with low levels of nutrients and vitamins studies show

By Stephen Leahy

TORONTO, Canada, Mar 4, 2006 (Tierramérica)

(Originally published in 2006)

Organic foods protect children from the toxins in pesticides, while foods grown using modern, intensive agricultural techniques contain fewer nutrients and minerals than they did 60 years ago, according to two new scientific studies.

A U.S. research team from Emory University in Atlanta analysed urine samples from children ages three to 11 who ate only organic foods and found that they contained virtually no metabolites of two common pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos. However, once the children returned to eating conventionally grown foods, concentrations of these pesticide metabolites quickly climbed as high as 263 parts per billion, says the study published Feb. 21 (2006).

Organic crops are grown without the chemical pesticides and fertilisers that are common in intensive agriculture. There was a “dramatic and immediate protective effect” against the pesticides while consuming organically grown foods, said Chensheng Lu, an assistant professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

These findings, in addition to the results of another study published in Britain earlier this month, have fueled the debate about the benefits of organically grown food as compared to conventional, mass-produced foods, involving academics, food and agro-industry executives and activists in the global arena.

According to the new British analysis of government nutrition data on meat and dairy products from the 1930s and from 2002, the mineral content of milk, cheese and beef declined as much as 70 percent in that period.

“These declines are alarming,” Ian Tokelove, spokesman for The Food Commission that published the results of the study, told Tierramérica.

The Commission is a British non-governmental organisation advocating for healthier, safer food. The research found that parmesan cheese had 70 percent less magnesium and calcium, beef steaks contained 55 percent less iron, chicken had 31 percent less calcium and 69 percent less iron, while milk also showed a large drop in iron along with a 21 percent decline in magnesium.

Copper, an important trace mineral (an essential nutrient that is consumed in tiny quantities), also declined 60 percent in meats and 90 percent in dairy products.

“It seems likely that intensive farming methods are responsible for this,” Tokelove said from his office in London.

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Global Land Grabbing by Speculators, Investment banks, Pension funds

Kenya green hills CIAT Neil Palmer sml

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 10, 2012 (IPS)

Land is the missing element at next month’s big U.N. sustainable development summit known as Rio+20, where nations of the world will meet Jun. 20-22 with the goal of setting a new course to ensure the survival and flourishing of humanity.

However, governments are apparently unaware that a reversal of decades of land reform is underway with speculators, investment banks, pension funds and other powerful financial interests taking control of perhaps 200 million hectares of land from poor farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia in recent years. Speculators and investors know land is the key to three necessities of life: food, water and energy. But neither land nor community land rights are on the summit agenda.

“Rural people are losing control over land and water because of this global land grab,” said Honduran farmer leader Rafael Alegria of the international farmers’ movement La Via Campesina.

Anywhere from 80 to 227 million hectares of rural, often agrarian land have been taken over by private and corporate interests in recent years, according to an April report released by Friends of the Earth International.

Many small land holders are being displaced in Central America and up to 40 percent of Honduran small farmers live in extreme poverty, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, Alegria told IPS through a translator.

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Unseen World of Water and the Water Crisis

world water supply

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Mar 22 2013 (IPS)

How much water does it take to turn on a light? It took 10,000 litres to make your jeans. Another three big bathtubs of water was needed for your two-eggs-toast-coffee breakfast this morning.

We are surrounded by an unseen world of water: furniture, houses, cars, roads, buildings – practically everything we use and make needs water.

“There is no way to generate energy without water,” said Zafar Adeel, co-chair of the UN-Water Task Force on Water Security and director of the Institute for Water, Environment and Health in Canada.

Even solar panels need regular washing to perform well. Wind energy might be an exception, Adeel told IPS from a water conference in Beijing being held during World Water Week.

There is growing recognition that peak oil is nowhere near as important as peak water because there is no substitute for water. The growing shortage of water — 1.2 to 1.7 billion people face scarcity — has alarmed many. Water has been identified as an “urgent security issue”, by a group that last year included both former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the InterAction Council, an association of 37 former heads of state and government.

It’s important that “water security” be recognised by the U.N. Security Council as either as a trigger, a potential target, or a contributing factor to insecurity and potential conflict in many parts of the world, said Adeel.

Canada Uses Foreign Aid to Promote Its Mining/Energy Sector

mining gaia

The absorption of Canada’s aid agency into the foreign affairs and international trade ministry has been widely condemned

By Stephen Leahy

Monday 25 March 2013 17.37 GMT theguardian.com

Following the unexpected announcement that the Canadian International Development Agency (Cida) will be folded into the ministry of foreign affairs and international trade, the Canadian government has made it clear there must be a direct return on its aid “investment”, primarily access to resources in other countries.

“It is a fundamental change. Canada is tying aid to its commercial interests. This is going to leave a bitter taste out there,” says Samantha Nutt, executive director of War Child Canada, which has received CIDA funding for more than a decade.

As Nutt acknowledges, all aid is politicised to some extent. But Canada has taken this to a new level. Civil society aid organisations working with CIDA are no longer aid delivery partners but sub-contractors, bidding on aid programmes and increasingly forced to work with the private sector, says Nutt.

“This puts Canadian aid organisations in ethical conflict. How can they criticise the actions of the mining companies they have to work with to get funding to help the poor?”

Cida’s fate has startled not only Canada’s foreign aid community but, by all accounts, Cida staff, who learned of the agency’s fate through the media.

The new department of foreign affairs, trade and development will continue to tackle poverty in developing countries with its $4.8 billion aid budget intact, the government said.

“This is Canadian money … Canadians are entitled to derive a benefit,” said international co-operation minister Julian Fantino last December, adding that Cida is working with the private sector to help Canada “maintain a global advantage”.

Full story

Killer Heat Waves and Floods Linked to Climate Change

Projected drought and dry regions in 2060-2069
Projected drought and dry regions in 2060-2069

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Feb 27 2013 (IPS) 

Killer heat waves, floods and storms are increasingly caused by climate change, new research reveals.

Scientists in Germany say they have found how greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are helping to trap the jet stream, resulting in extraordinary weather such as the 2010 Pakistan flood and the 2011 heat wave in the United States.

Human-driven climate change repeatedly disturbs the flow of atmospheric waves around the globe’s Northern hemisphere, said lead author Vladimir Petoukhov of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany.

Giant atmospheric waves called Rossby waves are meanders in the strong, high-altitude winds known as jet streams and have a major influence on weather. These wave movements are caused by the difference in temperatures between the cold air from the Arctic and hot air from the tropics. 

When the waves shift north, they suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia, or the U.S., and when they swing down, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic, said Petoukhov.

“During several recent extreme weather events, these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks,” he said. “So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays.”