How the Sun Might Help Solve a Looming Water Crisis in the Arab Gulf

For a city in the Arabian desert, Dubai is astonishingly well-watered. Grassy yards and man-made duck ponds scatter neighborhoods known as The Springs and The Lakes. Across the United Arab Emirates, crowds flock to golf courses, water parks and synchronized fountains. Yet a water crisis is famous for its U.A.E. and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf area, among the very water-stressed on the planet. Thus far, Gulf Arabs have relied on fossil fuel-burning desalination plants to make the majority of the water their swelling populations and expanding industries consume. They ’re embracing cleaner technologies and beginning to exploit their abundant sunshine to produce drinkable water from the sea.

1. How does seawater become drinkable?

From the procedure known as desalination. Gulf Arab nations rely on desalinated seawater for most of their non-agricultural needs — from bottled water to residential pipes. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, and the wider Middle East and North Africa region is home to 48 percent of the desalination capacity currently in operation. Over one third of the water consumed yearly in Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E.’s largest emirate, comes from desalination plants, sufficient to fulfill almost 450,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

2. How can it be done?

For the time being, mainly by burning natural gas or oil to boil seawater, tons of it, subsequently recovering droplets of distilled fresh water — a procedure known as thermal desalination.

3. What’s the disadvantage to desalination?

It’so pricey and can be dirty, even though the water comes out clean.  Using fossil fuels means these plants lead to greenhouse gases which exacerbate climate change. They also dump salt back in the sea in a heated, concentrated brine. This discharge frequently contains heavy metals and chemical pollutants and is seen as a severe threat to marine ecosystems from the semi-enclosed Gulf. By one estimate, producing 1 cubic meter of desalinated water can price from 70 cents to $1, whereas the same quantity of treated groundwater costs 15 cents to 40 cents. One desalination plant producing about 7 million gallons (roughly 26,500 cubic meters) per day — a source adequate for as many as 200,000 people — can guzzle up to electricity as a petroleum refinery or a little steel mill.

4. Can there be a better method?

Gulf states could hasten the switch to cleaner technologies such as reverse osmosis, which passes seawater via membranes to remove salt and other impurities. Reverse osmosis consumes one-quarter or less of the energy of thermal amenities. It’s the most prevalent method in much of the world, including the U.S., the second-largest producer of desalinated water.  However, for example thermal plants, reverse osmosis centers in coastal areas discharge brine back into the sea.

5. Are there any choices to desalination?

The Gulf nations could reduce their water need by performing more to treat and recycle wastewater, but by itself wouldn’t probably keep up with growing needs.  Authorities could also try to limit consumption by reducing water subsidies, however this may be politically difficult. Other steps are largely unproven.  For instance, the U.A.E. was seeding clouds with salt crystals fired out of airplanes to generate more rain. Although cloud seeding is an idea that’s been in existence for 70 decades, its effectiveness is still an issue of debate.

6. How does solar energy fit in?

Abengoa SA, a Spanish energy and environment company, is currently developing the world’s largest solar-powered desalination plant in Saudi Arabia along with a local water firm. The $130 million centre at Al Khafji City on the Gulf shore are the very first large scale desalination plant to be powered by solar energy, and it’s designed to utilize reverse osmosis.  Until recently, the abundance of cheap or subsidized gas and oil generated solar electricity a less economically viable choice. Now the plunging cost of solar energy may spur an expansion of sun-powered desalination and could even cut the purchase price of water.

7. How awful is the water shortage in the Gulf?

The Middle East-North Africa region has the world’s scarcest provides of water, but Gulf Arab countries consume more of it per person than anywhere else, according to the World Bank. More than 60% of those folks in MENA countries live under conditions of high or very large water stress. All six Gulf Cooperation Council states — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the U.A.E. — are very likely to be “exceptionally highly stressed” by 2040, according to the non-profit Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute.

8. What’s causing that?

Gulf countries use their groundwater largely for agriculture despite earning only a small financial return for depleting a vital source in the parched Arabian Peninsula. Farming accounts for over 60% of groundwater use in Abu Dhabi nevertheless contributes less than 1 percent into the sheikhdom’s gross domestic product. At current consumption rates, the oil-rich emirate can run from groundwater “in just a few years,” the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency stated in a 2017 report.  

9. How about other Gulf nations?

Kuwait uses 20 times more surface and groundwater than it can replace each year on a long-term foundation — the highest karma speed in the GCC, according to some 2008 study from the Food and Agriculture Organization. The U.A.E. is near, while Saudi Arabia uses almost 10 times its replacement rate, the analysis shows. India, by contrast, consumes less fresh water than it ’s able to replenish each season — 34 percent. The U.S. uses only 16 percent of its renewable water sources, and Brazil less than 1 percent, FAO data show.

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