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.”

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 Agreement – Historic Plan for 3.0C of Warming

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World hopes to improve the Master Plan to keep warming to 1.5C

The best the Paris Agreement can do to control climate change is to keep the warming to 2.7C according to the international Climate Action Tracker. That is assuming every country meets their individual CO2 emission reduction target does and no natural feedbacks will speed the heating of the planet.

Other analysis find the Agreement will result in global temperatures rising to 3.0C or more. Even 2.7C is far too dangerous for humanity and most natural ecosystems we all depend on. Coral reefs will not survive scientists have warned.

Keeping warming below 2.0 will be more challenging – 1.5 even more so. This something humanity has yet to fully understand.

Here’s some things that will have to change:

* No more exploration for more oil, gas, coal

* The current $650 billion to $1 trillion/a year in fossil fuel subsides shift to alternative energy

* No new oil or gas wells, no new coal mines

* Sharply reduce the manufacture of anything that requires fossil fuel or convert them to run on renewable energy including cars and trucks, buildings, power plants and so on. See Study: Stop Building Carbon Infrastructure by 2018

That’s just for starters.

Climate science uses hard numbers. Those numbers say Fossil fuel use has to go to net zero sometime between 2060 and 2070. There is no negotiation.

Paris Climate Talks – Canada’s “Thrilled”

Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks during a news conference, in Paris, France, on Nov. 29, 2015. The Climate Action Network International awarded Canada a second place "fossil of the day" award today at the COP21 climate summit, citing the reluctance of Canadian negotiators to have compensation for weather destruction in poor countries included in the final Paris agreement.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

 

I’m really thrilled Canada was able to play an active part of it.

— Catherine McKenna,  Minister of environment and climate change

Years from now, today may very well be the day our children look back to as the beginning of an ambitious global effort to finally fight climate change. I am proud of the role Canada is playing in reaching this historic and balanced agreement, and I am confident that the world will rise to the challenge of addressing climate change.

— Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

Canada: What a difference an election can make

cop21 logo smlThe historic Paris Agreement is front page news in most of Canadian media in part because Canada’s new minister of environment and climate change Catherine McKenna was a key player in the final outcome. Moreover McKenna endorsed the 1.5C target, and lobbied to ensure human and indigenous rights were part of the agreement.

In Paris Canada might have won the “most helpful” or “biggest turn around” award if such things existed — 180 degree change from previous COPs.

For eight years under the previous Stephen Harper government, ‘won’ consecutive “Fossil of the Day” awards for being the most unhelpful country. An award Canada’s previous Minister’s of the Environment took pride in. It was a government so intent on supporting the county’s fossil fuel industry it denied the reality that climate change was already impacting the country.

“We see in Canada the impacts of climate change. We have wildfires in B.C.; we have flooding in Alberta; Prince Edward Island is shrinking; and we see in our Arctic the permafrost is melting and hunters have shorter seasons. Canadians know that we need to act, and that’s what we’re going to do,” McKenna told the Toronto Star.

“Now it’s time to do the hard work,” McKenna added. “We’re going to go home and figure out the plan. . . Every Canadian has to do their part.”

Most Canadian media focused on the details of the agreement nearly all considered it a historic shift to a low-carbon economy. Some focused on the huge challenge of doing so calling it daunting.

So far there is little analysis of the implications of the deal for Canada, the world’s fifth largest crude oil producer and the biggest supplier of oil to the US. It is also the third largest producer of natural gas and one of the top ten miners of coal.

For context here is my four part series revealing how Canada became a very wealthy, fossil-fuelled energy superpower and an international climate pariah.

First published on the Climate News Mosaic Paris Climate Talks Live Blog available here:

Paris Climate Talks – ‘Betrayal’ vs ‘We Can Work With This’

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Two Sets of Civil Society Reactions to Final Text of Paris Agreement

– Links to today’s official UN press conference videos –

Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam: We can work with the Agreement’

Friends of the Earth, Third World Network, International Trade Union Confederation: ‘Agreement is a Betrayal

 

Paris Climate Talks – Late Breaking Update Friday

cop21 logo smlFinal Paris Agreement to be released Sat Dec 12 at 1030 am CET

Countries will then spend Saturday reviewing, commenting and, if all goes well, voting on the new climate agreement by end of day.

It is certainly possible – some say likely – that contentious revisions will be requested by a few countries and that will delay a final vote until Sunday.

Once accepted by all (or nearly all) — it is a consensus process which often leads to last-minute drama, sometimes forcing the COP President to bend the rules —  the Paris Agreement will be the climate action plan for all nations.

[Check here for the Agreement]

Paris Climate Talks – Final Draft Deadline Wednesday 1 pm CET

cop21 logo smlParis Accord Final Draft Due Wednesday
COP21 President Fabius sets deadline for a clean text by 1 pm Wed in Comité de Paris plenary this evening.Clean text means removing most (90%?) of the 600 to 800 brackets currently in the draft. (Read it here)

Fabius still believes that the Accord can be finalized and voted on by Friday  6 pm.

Loss and Damage Impasse?
Late Tuesday in the second Comité de Paris plenary a facilitator reported the loss and damage mechanism – called the “Warsaw Mechanism” — could not be resolved.Loss and Damage is the third pillar of the Paris Accord and pertains to current and ongoing climate impacts. Those impacts result in both economic and non-economic losses, including the growing issue of climate refugees, people who are forced to move because their homelands can no longer support them.

The US and other countries are very concerned this may open the door to liability claims.

This is just one of handful of issues. No one will get much sleep in Paris tonight.