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.”

‘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

Free Public Talk on How You Consume 2000 Gallons of Water Every Day

Stephen Leahy sml

 [I will be in the L.A. area Feb 9 to 16 and available for interviews and book signings – Contact me

Critically Acclaimed New Book Investigating The Enormous Amounts Of  ‘Hidden’ Water We Consume Every Day

It takes more than 7,600 liters (2,000 gallons) of water to make a single pair of jeans. That morning cup of coffee required 140 liters (37 gallons) of water before it found its way to your table—water that was used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans. When we spend money on food, clothes, cellphones or even electricity, we are buying water  — a shockingly large amount of water.

WATER IS MORE VALUABLE AND USEFUL THAN OIL

Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products reveals how water is essential to our way of life in ways we never imagined. While water usage continues to soar, shortages now affect more than 3 billion people including millions of Americans and Canadians. A decade from now 3 out of 5 people will face water shortages.

Your Water Footprint provides essential information to reduce your water use which will help you save money, be prepared for shortages and ensure our children and grandchildren will have abundant fresh water.  Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial.

 

“…a brilliant and shocking exposé on precisely how much water we use…” – Publishers Weekly

…exceptionally lucid narration with arresting, full-page info graphics”  — Booklist

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; In Ottawa visit the legendary Octopus Books

UK:  WH SmithAmazonWaterstones

Australia: Angus & RobertsonBooktopia

New Zealand: Mighty Ape

Water is far more valuable and useful than oil

Average water footprint of bottle of cola
Average water footprint of bottle of cola

The water footprint of a half-litre bottle of water is 5.5 litres – yet well over a billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity

By Stephen Leahy

I have a confession: I knocked back 320 pints at the pub last night. I actually only had two shots of a decent single malt but it took 320 pints of water to grow and process the grain used to make the whisky. That’s a whole lot of water considering the average bathtub holds 60 to 80 litres.

Even after 20 years of covering environmental issues in two dozen countries I had no idea of the incredible amounts of water needed to grow food or make things. Now, after two years working on my book Your Water Footprint: the shocking facts about how much water we use to make everyday products, I’m still amazed that the t-shirt I’m wearing needed 3,000 litres to grow and process the cotton; or that 140 litres went into my morning cup of coffee. The rest of my breakfast swallowed 1,012 litres: small orange juice (200 litres); two slices of toast (112 litres); two strips of bacon (300 litres); and two eggs (400 litres).

Water more valuable and useful than oil

Researching all this I soon realised that we’re surrounded by a hidden world of water. Litres and litres of it are consumed by everything we eat, and everything we use and buy. Cars, furniture, books, dishes, TVs, highways, buildings, jewellery, toys and even electricity would not exist without water. It’s no exaggeration to say that water is far more valuable and useful than oil.

front cover resized1A water footprint adds up the amount of water consumed to make, grow or produce something. I use the term consumed to make it clear that this is water that can no longer be used for anything else. Often water can be cleaned or reused so those amounts of water are not included in the water footprints in the book. The water footprint of 500ml of bottled water is 5.5 litres: 0.5 for the water in the bottle and another five contaminated in the process of making the plastic bottle from oil. The five litres consumed in making the bottle are as real water as the 500ml you might drink but hardly anyone in business or government accounts for it.

The incredible amounts of water documented in Your Water Footprint are based primarily on research done at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, where Arjen Hoekstra originated the concept of water footprints. The amount consumed to make something varies enormously depending on where the raw materials come from and how they are processed. Wheat grown in dry desert air of Morocco needs a lot more water than wheat grown in soggy Britain. For simplicity, the amounts in the book are global averages.

One of the biggest surprises was learning how small direct use of water for drinking, cooking and showering is by comparison. Each day the average North American uses 300 to 400 litres. (Flushing toilets is the biggest water daily use, not showers.) 400 litres is not a trivial amount; however, the virtual water that’s in the things we eat, wear and use each day averages 7,500 litres in North America, resulting in a daily water footprint of almost 8,000 litres. That’s more than twice the size of the global average. Think of running shoes side by side: the global shoe is a size 8; the North American a size 18. By contrast, the average water footprint of an individual living in China or India is size 6.

Peak water is here

Water scarcity is a reality in much of the world. About 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity, while 2 billion are affected by shortages every year. And as the ongoing drought in California proves, water scarcity is an increasing reality for the US and Canada. Water experts estimate that by 2025 three in five people may be living with water shortages.

While low-flow shower heads and toilets are great water savers, the water footprint concept can lead to even bigger reductions in water consumption. For example green fuels may not be so green from a water consumption perspective. Biodiesel made from soybeans has an enormous water footprint, averaging more than 11,000 litres per litre of biodiesel. And this doesn’t include the large amounts of water needed for processing. Why so much water? Green plants aren’t “energy-dense,” so it takes a lot of soy to make the fuel.

Beef also has a big footprint, over 11,000 litres for a kilo. If a family of four served chicken instead of beef they’d reduce their water use by an astonishing 900,000 litres a year. That’s enough to fill an Olympic size pool to a depth of two feet. If this same family of opted for Meatless Mondays, they’d save another 400,000 litres. Now they could fill that pool halfway.

We can do nearly everything using less water. It’s all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial, but we can’t make the right choices unless we begin to see and understand the invisible ways in which we rely on water.

First published at The Guardian

Your Water Footprint Book Reviewers Making Me Blush

front cover resized1REVIEWS: 

…exceptionally lucid narration with arresting, full-page info graphics”  – Booklist,  starred review

 

“Leahy, an award-winning Ontario environmental journalist… makes it clear that the most innocent-seeming actions and products are far from water-neutral. — Toronto Star

 

“Leahy drops a tsunami of sobering facts and infographics on the heads of readers who take what comes out of their faucets for granted.” — Kirkus Reviews

 

Journalist Stephen Leahy’s new book about water footprints is a great introduction to the mysterious world of virtual water. – EcoCentric

 

“… answers on our water consumption pour forth in this entertaining and extremely well illustrated book..” — Harvest H20

 

“Leahy’s straightforward, teen-friendly explanations and clever, compelling visuals constitute an ideal introduction to the urgent facts about water.” — Booklist Review

 

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

Website for my new book: Your Water Footprint

YWF website logoNew Book Investigating The Enormous Amounts Of  ‘Hidden’ Water We Consume Every Day

By Journalist Stephen Leahy, Winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for Reporting on Climate Change

It takes more than 7,600 liters (2,000 gallons) of water to make a single pair of jeans. That morning cup of coffee required 140 liters (37 gallons) of water before it found its way to your table—water that was used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans. When we spend money on food, clothes, cellphones or even electricity, we are buying water  — a shockingly large amount of water.

New Website featuring:

Articles: How to save 900,000 litres of water at the dinner table

Sample Infographics

About the Author (including video)

Reviews

Your Water Footprint by Stephen Leahy

http://yourwaterfootprint.me

WATER IS MORE VALUABLE AND USEFUL THAN OIL

The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 10.28.00 AMYour Water Footprint 

By Journalist Stephen Leahy, Winner of the 2012 United Nations Global Prize for Climate Change and Environment Coverage

“…a brilliant and shocking exposé on precisely how much water we use…” – Publishers Weekly

Do you know you’re wearing water? It takes more than 7,600 liters (2,000 gallons) of water to make a single pair of jeans and another 2,460 liters (650 gallons) to make a T-shirt. And you’re eating water too. That morning cup of coffee required 140 liters (37 gallons) of water before it found its way to your table—water that was used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans. If you include toast, two eggs and some milk in your coffee, the water footprint of your breakfast totals about 700 liters (185 gallons).

Furniture, houses, cars, roads, buildings— practically everything we make uses water in the manufacturing process. When we spend money on food, clothes, cellphones or even electricity, we are buying water. A lot of water. Generating electricity from coal, oil, gas, and nuclear or hydro power involves the world’s second biggest use of water after food production.YWF graphic -YWF shirt

…exceptionally lucid narration with arresting, full-page info graphics”  — Booklist,  starred review

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

Published Nov 2014 Firefly Books  160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, $19.95 Paperback (Also avail in hardcover)

Order on Amazon

In Canada:  Order on Chapters-Indigo

In UK:  Order on WH Smith

More reviews and sample graphics on Your Water Footprint Website