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.”

Costs You $50-75 To Drive 100 Km (62 miles) – Don’t Blame Gas Prices

cost_of_vehicle_ownership

Smartest Thing You Can Do Is Dump Your Car

By Stephen Leahy

Uxbridge Cosmos, Feb 2013

Cars and trucks are extraordinarily expensive. The full cost of driving 100 km is between between $50 and $75 when fuel, wear and tear, insurance, depreciation, and repairs are included. The cost of owning and operating a car, van, SUV or truck ranges between $9,000 to $15,000 a year depending on the purchase price of the vehicle according to automobile clubs like the CAA . That’s a big chunk of aftertax income spent each and every year. Double this for two-car families.

If you pay $50 at the pump about $33 will go directly to oil companies. The gas station gets around a dollar and the rest is for provincial and federal taxes.

Finally ask yourself how many hours a day your vehicle isn’t being used? Most are parked 22 hours a day.

Why not give your car a day off once a week? A ‘No Car Day’ is easy to do, saves money and reduces emissions of climate-heating carbon dioxide (CO2). The average passenger vehicle emits around 4.8 tonnes of CO2 a year.

The biggest savings by far is to get rid of one vehicle. When you consider the full costs of ownership, the $9 000 to $15,000 saved will let you rent vehicles or taking taxi as needed with plenty of cash left over. For maximum savings use the bus or train. A bus from Uxbridge is only $10 to downtown Toronto — 75 km one way. Using your car that 75 km trip really costs $45 not including parking.

New study – drive less lose weight guaranteed: If drivers nationwide traveled 1 mile less by car each day, not only would fuel consumption fall, but annual health care costs could drop by billions of dollars as fewer people would be classified as obese or overweight, Jacobson estimates.

My related articles:

EcoMobility Gaining Ground As Cars/Roads Become Too Expensive

Cars Kill More Children Than Malaria — Leading Cause of Death Ages 5 to 14

Lend Your Car, Save, and Save the World

Bike vs Car on a Hot Planet

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

Pollution as big a health problem as malaria or TB, finds report

Haina, Dominican Republic - Children are developmentally impaired as a result of lead poisoning
Haina, Dominican Republic – Children are developmentally impaired as a result of lead poisoning

Industrial pollutants harm the health of 125 million people,

many of whom live in the developing world and work in mining

Stephen Leahy

guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 October 2012 12.30 BST

Waste from mining, lead smelters, industrial dumps and other toxic sites affects the health of an estimated 125 million people in 49 low- and middle-income countries. This unrecognised health burden is on the scale of malaria or tuberculosis (TB), a new report has found.

This year’s World’s worst pollution problems (pdf) report was published on Tuesday by the Blacksmith Institute in partnership with Green Cross Switzerland. It documents, for the first time, the public health impact of industrial pollutants – lead, mercury, chromium, radionuclides and pesticides – in the air, water and soil of developing countries.

“This is an extremely conservative estimate,” said Bret Ericson of the Blacksmith Institute, a small international NGO based in New York City. “We’ve investigated 2,600 toxic sites in the last four years, [but] we know there are far more.”

The US has an estimated 100,000-300,000 toxic sites, mainly factories or industrial areas, but toxic sites in the low- and middle-income countries assessed in the report are often in residential areas. “We see a lot of disease when we go into these communities,” said Ericson. “But we were surprised the health burden was so high – as much as malaria.”

Click to read full story:  Pollution as big a health problem as malaria or TB, finds report | Global development | guardian.co.uk.

Green Approaches to Water Safest and Cheapest Solution

Wetlands regulate, clean and cool water. Mare Aux Cochons high-altitude wetlands, Seychelles Islands (ReneeLeahy copyright)
Wetlands regulate, clean and cool water. Mare Aux Cochons high-altitude wetlands, Seychelles Islands (ReneeLeahy copyright)

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jan 18 2013 (IPS)

After Hurricane Sandy swept through the northeast of the United States late October 2012, millions of New Yorkers were left for days without electricity.  But they still had access to drinking water, thanks to New York City’s reliance on protected watershed areas for potable water.

Instead of using electric-powered water treatment plans, New York City brings its high-quality drinking water through aqueducts connected to protected areas in the nearby Catskill/Delaware forests and wetlands – just one example of how protecting watersheds can provide residential areas with drinking water and flood and pollution protection at bargain basement prices.

New York saved between four and six billion dollars on the cost of water treatment plants by protecting forests and compensating farmers in the Catskills for reducing pollution in lakes and streams.

In 2011, countries around the world invested more than eight billion dollars in similar watershed projects around the world, according to the State of Watershed Payments 2012 report released Thursday. That year, China led the way, accounting for 91 percent of watershed investment.

“Whether you need to save water-starved China from economic ruin or protect drinking water for New York City, investing in natural resources is emerging as the most cost-efficient and effective way to secure clean water and recharge our dangerously depleted streams and aquifers,” said Michael Jenkins, president of Forest Trends, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the United States, which compiled the report. Continue reading

Toxic Pollution Shortens Lives By More Than a Decade

Haina, Dominican Republic - Children are developmentally impaired as a result of lead poisoning

Toxins and pollutants are major cause of illness

100 Million affected by 2000 toxic sites

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Nov 14, 2011 (IPS)

Toxic pollution affects the health of more than 100 million people, shortening their productive life spans by an astonishing 12.7 years on average.

It is a common misperception that disease is responsible for most illness, when in fact toxins and pollutants in the environment are a major source of illness and reduced life spans globally.

Unlike diseases, toxins and pollutants like lead, mercury, chromium, radionuclides and pesticides were created by humans and are often improperly disposed of in a classic example of fouling our own nests.

“To be honest, we were astonished the number was so large,” said Bret Ericson of the Blacksmith Institute, a small international NGO that released its annual report “World’s Worst Pollution Problems Report 2011” last week.

At least 100 million people are affected based on assessments of 2,000 toxic sites in 47 countries. Most of these sites are right inside villages and towns – all are close to people.

“There are thousands more sites out there,” Ericson told IPS. Continue reading

Tourism Is Poisoning the Mexican Caribbean

By Stephen Leahy*

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Feb 10, 2011 (Tierramérica)

The booming tourist industry along Mexico’s Caribbean coast, particularly in the area of Cancún and the “Riviera Maya,” is polluting the world’s largest underwater cave system and harming the world’s second largest coral reef, a new study has found.

Pharmaceuticals, cocaine residues, shampoo, toothpaste, pesticides, chemical run-off from roads and many other pollutants have been found in the immense system of underground rivers and aquifers south of the resort city of Cancún, located on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo state.

“There is little question the pollutants we detected have come from human activity along the coastal region,” said Chris Metcalfe, a researcher with the United Nations University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

The British journal “Environmental Pollution” published a study by the Institute this month, titled ” Contaminants in the coastal karst aquifer system along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.”

Metcalf told Tierramérica that pit latrines, septic tanks, leaking sewer lines and golf courses were the most likely sources of groundwater pollution.

The flow of groundwater takes much of this pollution into the coastal zone and the region’s famous Mesoamerican Barrier reef, the second largest in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.

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Land-based pollution is just one of the impacts on the coastal reefs, Metcalf said. Overfishing, coral diseases, and climate change have also contributed to an estimated loss of up to 50 percent of coral since 1990.

Without serious attention to preventing groundwater contamination, tourist development will kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Metcalf said.
Continue reading