Desalination: Rethinking cities in the age of urbanization

The problem

The world’s population is growing at an alarming rate, one that threatens the planet’s well-being. This is due to the reality that our resource consumption rates, especially in North America, are beyond reason. However, it is not just the rate at which we consume that is the problem, but also our lack of consideration for the natural environment that sustains life on Earth. As urban sprawl progresses, urban dwellers need to collaborate in order to thrive sustainably.

One resource we are particularly running low on is fresh water (Figure 1). Many predict that water will be the next major source of conflict amongst nations. Today about 700 million people, around the world, are not able to access enough water. This number is predicted to reach 1.8 billion in only 10 years (Talbot, 2015). In order to curb this looming threat, we need to learn how to use less water, recycle it better, and find more creative and advanced methods to extract fresh water from our environment.

Figure 1: High Tide for Seawater Desalination – MIT Technology Review

Also, numerous regions of the world today are experiencing droughts and water supplies are not of sufficient quality for human consumption. The result is insufficient food production, disease and, ultimately, death. Consequently, new sources of water are vital to sustainable development (“Aurecon – Global Expert Consulting Engineers “).

Tackling the problem

One way to tackle this issue is to tap into seawater, as well as brackish water, as sources of potable water. In Israel, IDE Technologies has developed a $500 million sweater desalination plant, Sorek, that uses reverse osmosis (RO) to produce 20% of the nation’s residential consumption. The desalination processing plant has the capacity to pump out 627,000 cubic metres of water a day (Talbot, 2015), enough to supply Toronto with 62.7% of its fresh water needs (Trafford, 2014). In many regions of the world, using seawater is the only viable option when it comes to increasing water supply (Talbot, 2015).

Applicable around the world?

Today desalination is used in numerous arid regions of the world including the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Specifically, there are plants operating in the countries of Oman, Spain, Gibraltar, Greece, India, Japan, and Australia, amongst many others (Figure 2). Recently, for the first time in the United States, a large-scale, RO water desalination plant began operating in Tampa, Florida. Desalination plants have been developed in various regions of the world, not only in coastal regions, but more inland regions such as central Asia and central Europe.

Figure 2: Desalination Worldwide – Poseidon Water

Scalable?

In 2004, Israel relied only on rain and groundwater for its fresh water needs, but now has four plants desalinizing enough water to account for 40% of the country’s water supply (Talbot, 2015). Providing 40% of 8.46 million people’s fresh water consumption proves that seawater desalination infrastructure is truly scalable. More staggering, however, is the fact that today, water desalination plants around the world pump out more than 3.5 billion gallons of fresh water a day, a figure that has rose exponentially in the past three decades[1] (“Desalination worldwide”).

Practical?

The number one process that is expected to quench the world’s ever-growing thirst for fresh water is desalination. As time progresses, huge efforts are invested into R & D for refining and advancing the process in order to make it more viable and thus a practical solution for water shortages. In the past, desalination has always been thought of to be a last resort option. Thanks to advances in technology, it is now becoming a viable option. The core component in any desalination plant is the RO membrane, the productivity of which has doubled in the past two decades (“Salt Water into Drinking Water” 2016).

The Sorek desalination plant in Israel is making profit selling its product, at a price of $0.58 USD per cubic meter, to the country’s water authority. At such a price, the plant is selling its output at a significantly lower rate than that of most big-scale desalination plants around the world. Sorek isn’t only making strides when it comes to the price of its product, but also in its levels of energy consumption (“Salt Water into Drinking Water” 2016).

Addresses sustainability?

Adelaide, Australia has been plagued by drought and as a result turned to seawater desalination as a last resort. Before investing in the infrastructure and investing in the desalination plant, the government took the initiative of ensuring that its endeavour will be a sustainable one. It listed a number of criteria that it would have to satisfy in order to go through with building the water processing plant,

  • Intake system cannot impact the marine environment in a negative way
  • Discharged water cannot be too salty so that it harms the marine ecosystem
  • The plant itself must operate in an efficient manner, using the least amount of energy possible
  • The plant must run on renewable energy
  • Construction can only impact the environment positively, if at all

In 2008 a group of cross-functional experts came together in order to design the plant and develop an environmental impact statement (EIS). About a year later, the EIS was completed and the project was awarded to a major developer. In 2014, after the plant had been in operation for a few years, the government completed an environmental impact assessment (EIA), which indicated that all of the criteria, set out before the completion of the EIS, have been successfully met. At that point, the plant and its operation were declared sustainable (“Aurecon – Global Expert Consulting Engineers “).

Feasible in Toronto?

A desalination plant is undoubtedly feasible in Toronto. This system’s application in numerous regions of the world could attest to that. Even though Toronto is not on the coast, the desalination plant can still use brackish water, as opposed to seawater. Developing a desalination plant and implementing the necessary infrastructure in Toronto is in no way more difficult than doing the same in central Asia or Europe[1]. However, the more difficult question to answer here is one about viability. Most would argue that such infrastructure would simply be too costly in order to replace sources of fresh water, which are abundantly found in Southern Ontario. For now, Toronto is most likely better off tapping into Lake Ontario for its fresh water needs. However, this could change in the future. As water wars creep up on us, it might start making economic sense for Toronto to develop desalination plants, not just for its own use, but also for export to other areas of the world. There are many who are not as fortunate as us being situated so close to a major body of fresh water such as The Great Lakes.

Conclusion

In today’s world, many regions of the world are plagued by droughts and don’t have sufficient sources of fresh water. Additionally, consumption rates are through the roof and people are wasteful, not giving enough consideration to the environment. Many predict that the next major source of conflict will be water shortage around the globe. We have started seeing this already in the Middle East where Egypt and Sudan are in conflict over their use of the Nile River. Because of water shortages, Sudan is in a race to build a dam that will help its nation secure a more consistent source of water throughout the year. Egypt has completed several studies that show that such a damn in Sudan will diminish water supplies downriver, threatening water supplies throughout Egypt. With water flows restricted in the Sudanese Nile River, Egyptians will undoubtedly feel the pinch.

In order to ward off such conflicts globally, dwellers in urban centres across the world must creatively work together in order to evaluate[2] and tap into new sources of water. One process that has proven to be promising over the past three decades is desalination. Desalination plants in a variety of regions across the globe have proven that desalination infrastructure is indeed scalable. For example, a desalination plant in Israel is producing enough potable water, accounting for 40% of its fresh water consumption (“Desalination worldwide”). This plant has managed to achieve this feat at record-low costs, proving that such efforts are indeed practical. Most importantly, efforts in Adelaide, Australia were successful in showing that desalination plants can definitely be developed and operated in a sustainable fashion, one that does not have any negative impact on the environment.

Finally, with a proven track record around the world, desalination infrastructure is surely feasible in Toronto. However, it might not be viable at the present time. Unfortunately, this can all change not too far in the future when fresh water reserves further diminish. At such a point, it might become viable for Canadian cities to start tapping into brackish and seawater as sources of potable water.

References

  1. “Aurecon – Global Expert Consulting.” Desalination: A sustainable solution to water shortage, www.aurecongroup.com/thinking/thinking-papers/desalination-a-sustainable-solution-to-water-shortage.
  2. “Desalination Worldwide.” Huntington Beach Freshwater, hbfreshwater.com/desalination-101/desalination-worldwide.
  3. “Salt Water into Drinking Water: World’s Largest Desalination Plant Up And Running.” Futurism, 1 Aug. 2016, futurism.com/salt-water-into-drinking-water-worlds-largest-desalination-plant-up-and-running/.
  4. Talbot, D. (2015). Megascale desalination. MIT Technology Review, 1–4. Retrieved from http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/534996/megascale-desalination/
  5. “Vital Statistics: Population of Israel.” Population of Israel (1948-Present), www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/population-of-israel-1948-present.
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About the Author

Mark Zaky
Mark ZakyVP Internal Events
Mark started his own real estate development firm in 2014. After learning so much from his business activities, he is now looking to get some formal education in the field. Mark is a fulltime student at the Schulich School of Business, and also working on his first few residential developments in Burlington. Mark holds an Honours Bachelor of Science (HBSc) in Computer Science from the University of in Toronto and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from McMaster University.

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