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.”

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:

Why the Paris Agreement is Historic – In 60 Words

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Every country in the world just agreed to:

1. Phase out fossil fuels well before the end of the century

2. Try to keep global warming to less than 1.5C (very difficult since it’s already 1.0C)

3. Rich countries will help poor countries to green their economies, help pay for the damages from climate impacts and help them adapt to future impacts.

[The Paris Agreement is like buying life insurance. It’s for the benefit of our children and grandchildren.]

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 – Reactions to Saturday’s Final Agreement

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Breaking: Final Plenary to Vote on New Climate Agreement  Delayed to 17:30 CET Saturday

Now that parties have had a chance to review the final text points of disagreement remain. Some changes will likely be made in the final plenary this evening. However these usually need to be agreed on beforehand in the informal sessions that are happening right now.

Tension mounts while it is clear nearly everyone senses the end of COP21 is very near.

Wide Range of Reactions to the new final text:cop21 logo sml

The Paris agreement is a historic turning point for the whole world. One of the most remarkable outcomes of the agreement is that its objective is to “pursue efforts to limit” global warming to 1.5C above preindustrial, while holding warming “well below 2C.

While the agreement is itself historic, the challenges ahead in achieving it will dominate the 21st-century. The agreement has been made at a time when national greenhouse gas emission reduction contributions for 2025 and 2030 together far exceed the levels needed to hold global warming well below 2C, let alone limit to 1.5C.”

Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics

“If agreed and implemented, this means bringing down greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero within a few decades.

John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

There’s much in the text that has been diluted and polluted by the people who despoil our planet, but it contains a new imperative to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. That single number, and the new goal of net zero emissions by the second half of this century, will cause consternation in the boardrooms of coal companies and the palaces of oil-exporting states.”

— Kumi Naidoo, International Director, Greenpeace

Rich countries have moved the goal posts so far that we are left with a sham of a deal in Paris. Through piecemeal pledges and bullying tactics, rich countries have pushed through a very bad deal

Sara Shaw, Friends of the Earth International climate justice and energy coordinator.

t’s a sad day for vulnerable people everywhere. An exclusion clause that robs the poor of their right to compensation.

Azeb Girmai, LDC Watch International

If agreed and implemented, this means bringing down greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero within a few decades. … CO2 emissions have to peak well before 2030…

John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

“If agreed, this deal will represent a turning point in history, paving the way for the shift to 100% clean energy that the world wants and the planet needs. By marching in the streets, calling leaders and signing petitions, people everywhere created this moment, and now people everywhere will deliver on it to secure the future of humanity.

Emma Ruby-Sachs, Acting Executive Director, Avaaz

For the first time in history, the whole world has made a public commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deal with the impacts of climate change

Mohamed Adow, Senior Climate Advisor, Christian Aid

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 – Update & Key Disputes

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Late Wednesday night for over 3 hours dozens of countries’ stated the draft Paris Agreement is a great start but… x, y and z need fixing.

And so informal groups are meeting overnight to find compromises on a number of key issues. In the morning a new revised draft Paris Agreement will be released. There will still be bracketed issue.

Expect negotiations to go into the weekend.cop21 logo sml

Key Issues in Dispute

* Developing countries want a strong and separate article for the Warsaw International Mechanism for loss and damage associated with climate change impacts

* Finance – who’s going to pay and by when. More $$ from rich nations will be needed

* Differentiation – who has to do what

* Ambition – what’s the long-term temperature goal

* Response measures -what to do when measures to address climate change hurt fossil fuel-dependent economies ie Saudi Arabia