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.”

Oceans on the Brink: Dying Plankton, Dead Zones, Acidification

A number of marine diatom cells

By Stephen Leahy

[Originally published Jul 31, 2010 for the Inter Press Service (IPS)]

The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet and plankton its red blood cells. Those vital “red blood cells” have declined more than 40 percent since 1950 and the rate of decline is increasing due to climate change, scientists reported this week. (Update Dec 2016: New analysis show this is an overestimate. See my comment below.)

Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries,” said

Boris Worm of Canadas Dalhousie University and one of the worlds leading experts on the global oceans.

“An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently,” said Worm, the co-author of a new study on plankton published this week in Nature. Plankton are the equivalent of grass, trees and other plants that make land green, says study co-author Marlon Lewis, an oceanographer at Dalhousie.

“It is frightening to realise we have lost nearly half of the oceans’ green plants,” Lewis told IPS.

“It looks like the rate of decline is increasing,” he said.

A large phytoplankton bloom in the Northeast Atlantic -NASA Earth Observatory Collection.

[See also my series of articles on ocean acidification]

Independent environmental journalism now depends on public support, learn more about how this works and how you can help, click here.

Climate change is warming the oceans about 0.2C per decade on average. This warmer water tends to stay on top because it is lighter and essentially sits on top of a layer of colder water. This layering, or stratification, is a problem for light-loving plankton because they can only live in the top 100 to 200 meters.

Eventually they run out of nutrients to feed on unless the cold, deeper waters mix with those near the surface. Ocean stratification has been widely observed in the past decade and is occurring in more and larger areas of the world’s oceans. Continue reading

Climate Change Explained in 165 Words

The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.

Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm.

The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.

[For story behind this explanation – a Russian journalist and a bar are involved – click here. (only 320 words!)]

terrifying co2 graph
Graphic by Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus/Chief Scientist Pacific Institute

 

consensus_500
These climate experts publish studies in peer-reviewed journals like Nature or Science. There is a something called the ‘Oregon Petition’ that claims otherwise. However some of the signatories are fraudulent, such as Charles Darwin and members of the Spice Girls, and less than 1% of signatories have backgrounds in climate science.

Paris Climate Talks – Voices 4 Mother Earth Gathering

Sacred prophesies of Indigenous peoples say the gathering  of people at the Paris climate talks are turning point for humanity

From 1 to 5 December 2015 some thirty outstanding Wisdom Keepers from around the world – elders and grandmothers of Indigenous Peoples, spiritual leaders, scientists, economists, artists, youth and more – will gather in the Voices 4 Mother Earth Gathering – World Wisdom Gathering just outside Paris.

“We recognize that all people are members of the Human Family and that our life depends on our Mother Earth. We accept our obligation to our children and our children’s children to live in modest harmony with all living things.”

Global Warming Explained in 60 Seconds or Less

derek me cop15 sml logo
Derek and Stephen Leahy at entrance to UN climate conference COP 15 in Copenhagen

One night in a bar a Russian journalist who I’d just met says:  “This global warming is too complicated for people to know if it’s real or not”.

“You don’t think climate change is happening?” I asked with surprise since we were both covering a big United Nations climate conference.

“No one has been able to give me a good explanation to prove it’s real,” said Yuri (not his real name).

“I can explain it to you in less than one minute,” I replied.

Yuri was sceptical but I went ahead and said:

“The moon has no atmosphere so it is scorching hot (+100C) during the day and bitterly cold (-150C) at night. The Earth has an atmosphere made up of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases. Over 150 years ago scientists proved that CO2 traps heat from the sun. We also know without any doubt that burning fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal emits CO2.

Measurements, not computer models or theories, measurements show that there is now 42% more CO2 in the atmosphere than 150 years ago before massive use of fossil fuels. That extra CO2 is like putting another blanket on at night even though you are already nice and warm. The Earth is now 1.0 C hotter on average according to the latest measurements. Heat is a form of energy and with so much more energy in our atmosphere our weather system is becoming supercharged resulting in stronger storms, worse heat waves, major changes in when and where rain falls and more.

That’s it.

After a long silence Yuri says “I guess that makes sense…”.

I’m not sure he was convinced but the truth is that climate change is not that complicated.

One additional thing to know is that CO2 is forever. Every little CO2 molecule we add to the atmosphere will continue to trap the sun’s heat for hundreds and thousands of years.

‘We Have Nothing Without Water’ – Treehugger Interviews Author of Your Water Footprint

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 11.06.18 AM

Why care about your water footprint?

"Your water footprint" by Stephen Leahy

© “Your water footprint” by Stephen Leahy. Groundwater comes from aquifers that take thousands of years to fill. Globally, aquifers are being drained faster than then can refill.

Margaret Badore (@mbadore) Science / Clean Water

November 18, 2014

We learn in elementary school that water is in a constant cycle of evaporation and precipitation, making our crops grow and flowing from rivers into oceans. While the amount of water on Earth remains fairly stable, its distribution around the globe is changing, and this change is being accelerated by human activities.

A new book, “Your Water Footprint,” by environmental reporter Stephen Leahy, takes a close look at the “virtual water” that surrounds us in everyday life. This isn’t just the water we use to boil pasta or take a shower, it’s the water that’s used to grow our coffee beans and power the local energy plant. As the demand for this kind of water increases, the more threatened our access to fresh water becomes. At the same time, pollution makes vast amounts of water unusable.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Leahy over Skype.

TreeHugger: What were your goals for writing this book?

Stephen Leahy: To help people understand this other aspect of water that we use, that we don’t see. This virtual water concept: the water it takes to make things, the water it takes to grow our food, to make our products, to make our clothing. This is that unseen water that we don’t think about, and because we don’t see it, we’re not really aware of it.

It’s an enormous amount of water that we end up consuming every day without realizing it.

TreeHugger: The book is very number heavy, which makes it easy to compare how much water is used in different things. How did you go about finding all the data?

Leahy: It was a nightmare actually, the numbers. Especially for a person who’s a writer, not a numbers guy.

What I did, and this was based on covering science for many years, was figure out a baseline. Who is the best researcher? Who has the best data collection of water footprints? It turned out to be the University of Twente in the Netherlands, and they actually pioneered the concept of water footprints. They’ve developed a whole methodology about how you calculate it, and they’ve done piles of studies of the various water footprints of various products. Sometimes not in the way we think of products. So, they would do a water footprint for wheat, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a burger bun or bread, so I did that. I figured out how much wheat goes into a loaf of bread and did that part of the calculation myself.

So, University of Twente was a godsend, because there are lots of different ways of calculating water footprints, and there’s different numbers out there.

TreeHugger: In the introduction, you discuss this concept of the “water-food-energy nexus.” I’m hoping to can tell us a little more about that.

Leahy: Most people realize that we need water for food, but what most people don’t understand is that we also need water for energy. There’s no form of energy that doesn’t need water. We have a growing population, and a growing shift in diets from vegetable-based to meat-based, which uses a lot more water. At the same time, there’s a billion people who don’t have access to electricity and they of course want to get electricity. As we look to produce more energy and more food, we’re going to need more water. This is the point of the nexus: we don’t have enough water to do all that in the future.

TreeHugger: So, looking forward, we need to reduce our water footprint. I think a lot of our readers are going to be familiar with the concept of reducing a carbon footprint, and in a lot of ways these concepts overlap. So, from your perspective, what are the ways the two footprints don’t overlap?

Leahy: Certainly on the energy side they overlap a lot. But on the food side, that’s probably the best example. If you switch from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet, you could reduce your daily water footprint by 1,300 liters. So, that’s an enormous amount of water when you put it over a year, nearly half a million liters in savings.

The other thing you can do is swapping beef for chicken. Swapping beef for chicken for a family of four would save 900 liters of water.

Food waste is another example, 38 to 40 percent of food in North America is wasted, and that’s a huge amount of water embedded in that food. The “best before” dates are actually problematic in that regard, because it doesn’t really mean the food is bad, it just means the company’s not guaranteeing the flavor.

TreeHugger: I also wanted to ask you about how you think about the trade-offs between the water impact of a product and some of the other impacts of a product. I was thinking about tee-shirts, because I write about clothes a lot. So, on one hand, we could say cotton is natural, it can be low in toxins if we use natural dyes and it’s biodegradable. On the other hand, cotton has a high water footprint. Then if we look at polyester, it has a lower water footprint, but there are concerns about it releasing toxins as it breaks down and contributing to micro plastic pollution. So, how do you look at these kinds of trade-offs? Do you have advice for weighing them?

Leahy: This gets a little bit complicated, because a big number for a water footprint is not necessarily indicative of something that’s bad. If you’re in a water-rich area and need a lot of water, and you’re not polluting this water, that’s going to be okay.

It’s kind of site-specific and product-specific, so this does make it quite a bit more complicated. On the clothing side of things, if you’re growing cotton in a country that has reasonable amounts of rainfall and preferably it’s grown organically, that is it’s grown without pesticides and chemicals, you’re greatly reducing the contamination of water. And if you’re using rain-fed cotton and not depleting an underground source, those are some conditions under which we could talk about products being truly sustainable, because you could continue this for quite a while.

TreeHugger: So, as we look to the future, there are many areas that will soon be facing the collapse of “water bubbles.” Do you think we need to see a shift in water policies or do we need to reduce our personal water consumption? Or is it both?

Leahy: It’s both. From a government policy point of view, water needs to be respected a lot more in terms of managing it long-term. There are places like California that don’t have any rules about how much ground water you can take. Anyone can take as much groundwater as they like—and that’s not uncommon.

The other side of course is consumers. I think consumers need to raise the issue more with both their elected leaders but also the industry. Some industries have responded, Levi’s has greatly reduced their water use for the production side, although it’s not exactly waterless since it takes a lot of water to grow cotton. So, that’s a role for consumers: asking, ‘Where is this product made? Where did it come from?’

Because there are certain things that don’t make any sense. For instance, Egypt is the number two exporter of oranges in the world. Egypt, well it’s is basically a desert, so why are they exporting all these oranges? There are actually all these economic reasons that don’t make any sense from a sustainability point of view. So consumers can make a decision and say, I’m not going to buy a product that requires a lot of water from the desert, because that’s just dumb.

The point about the virtual water is that we have very little without water. So, we’re extraordinarily dependent on water in ways we just don’t realize. And yet, we under-price water, water is very cheap, and water doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

This interview has been shortened and condensed.

Original post

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

October 2014 Firefly Books, 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics only $19.95 Paperback (Also avail in hardcover) Order today

In US:  AmazonPowell’s Books; Barnes&NobleIndiebound

Canada:  Chapters-Indigo Signed copies avail at Blue Heron Books – Stephen’s home town bookstore

UK:  WH SmithAmazonWaterstones

Australia: Angus & RobertsonBooktopia

New Zealand: Mighty Ape

High Seas Represent $148 Billion Carbon Sink But Overfishing is Destroying It

Tuna from the Spanish Purse Seiner
Tuna from the Spanish Purse Seiner

By STEPHEN LEAHY

Stephen Leahy's picture

 

Scientists estimate that phytoplankton absorb and bury more than 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 in the seabed every year.

This would be news to readers of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper’s detailed two-page spread on the Global Ocean Commission report, which failed to mention this vitally important carbon reduction service (or that it is worth an estimated $148 billion a year).

Additionally, if governments ended fishing in the unclaimed oceans beyond 200-mile economic zones, near-shore fish catches would soar, even more carbon would be safely removed from the atmosphere and the oceans would be healthier said co-author of the study Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre.

The high seas are like a failed state. Poor governance and the absence of policing and management mean valuable resources are unprotected or being squandered,” said David Miliband, co-chair of the commission and former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom.

The dollar value of all the fish caught in high seas is actually negative

Governments like Japan, Spain, the U.S. and China subsidize fishing fleets to destroy the high seas by overfishing and deep-sea bottom trawling to the tune of $152 million a year.

Here’s the kicker: The dollar value of all the fish caught way out there is actually negative when costs like fuel and subsidies are subtracted. Turns out high seas fishing fleets get 25 per cent of their income from subsidies according to a 2009 analysis by Sumaila.

Most would not be fishing the high seas without subsidies” Sumaila told DeSmog Canada.

Restoring ocean productivity

Fishing should be banned in the high seas, which represent 64 per cent of the world’s oceans just to protect and enhance its role as a carbon sponge, he said. But that is just one of 14 other valuable services the high seas provide humanity according their study, The High Seas And Us: Understanding The Value Of High Seas Ecosystems.

The study was commissioned by the Global Ocean Commission, an 18-month-old organization comprised of business leaders and former senior politicians including former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin.

The commission is calling for the negotiation of a new agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to prioritize ocean health and resilience and restore ocean productivity. It also called for an elimination of subsidies on high seas fishing within five years.

The commission’s proposals also call for mandatory tracking of all vessels fishing in the high seas, a ban on the transshipment of fish at sea, measures to end plastics pollution and binding standards for the regulation and control of offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation.

Carbon really does sink

Phytoplankton are the carbon-eating plants of the seas and pass on this carbon when they’re eaten. When organisms die in the deep seas, their organic matter ends up on the bottom of the ocean, which makes for an effective, natural carbon sequestration process.

Fishing is crippling this free carbon-removal system. This is especially true for bottom-trawlers that bulldoze the sea floor scooping up every living thing. Trawling is by far the most common fishing method and recent studies warn it’s destroying corals and the sea bottom leading to “long-term biological desertification.”

Last May, scientists writing in the journal Science called for an end to “the frontier mentality of exploitation” of the high seas and recommended a ban on trawling to protect the carbon-removal service and halt the decline in the productivity of the oceans. The amount of wild fish caught peaked 20 years ago.

About 70 per cent of fish caught inside the 200-mile limits spend some time in the high seas. If the high seas are protected those fish are likely to grow larger and become more numerous, benefitting near-shore fisheries, Sumaila said.

A number of studies of marine protected zones where fishing is banned or very limited show these areas act as baby-fish incubators increasing the overall population of fish.

If fishing was banned in the high seas, fisheries profits would more than double, the amount of fish would increase 30 per cent and the amount of ocean fish stock conservation would increase 150 per cent according to a study published in PLOS Biology last March.

Given the reality that fishing the high seas is a money loser, even a low carbon price could make a fishing ban valuable, not to mention the other potential benefits of regulating international fisheries. Sumaila said the $148 billion-a-year value of the high seas carbon sponge is a conservative estimate, and it could actually be as high as $222 billion.

Fishing and trawling bans have been proposed before. Last December the European parliament narrowly rejected a bottom-trawling ban on its vessels.

We need wide public understanding of the vital importance of the high seas to all of us,” concluded Sumaila.

Top 10 High Seas Fishing Nations (according to Sumaila’s study) in descending order:
Japan
South Korea
Taiwan
Spain
USA
Chile
China
Indonesia
Philippines
France

First published by DeSmog Canada Wed, 2014-06-25 10:01