Desalination Effects on the Environment and the Role of the UAE

15 Apr 2021 | Original

In the UAE, 42% of the potable water supply comes from thermal desalination of seawater. The UAE has more than 70 major desalination plants, and produces 14% of global desalinated water making it the second-largest producer worldwide.[1] According to the State Energy Report in 2015, water demand in the UAE grew at the rate of 35.8% from 2008 to 2012, while the installed capacity of the desalination plants reached 1,585 million gallons per day, and total water production stood at 393,878 million gallons per year.[2] As its population grows and economy expands, the UAE will continue to increase desalination to ensure water availability.

Desalination is a method used to reduce the salt content of sea and ocean water so that it can be consumed for drinking and economic activities. Desalination plants typically use a large amount of natural gas, and are one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the region. To reduce its carbon footprint, the UAE has embedded sustainability and innovative desalination technologies in its water safety policies. One such effort is the 2013 Renewable Energy Desalination Programme founded by Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company. Under the programme, Masdar’s mandate is to research and develop energy efficient desalination technologies.

While a lot of headway has been made in achieving energy efficiency, there remains a need to increase focus on the treatment of harmful desalination byproducts. Desalination processes lead to the production of brine, a high-salinity byproduct that can threaten maritime ecosystems if released back into the sea without treatment. Even when not released back into the sea, brine can seep underground and harm groundwater.  Brine reduces oxygen levels in water, introduces harmful toxins, and increases the temperature of seas and oceans. It is estimated that the UAE contributes more than 20 percent of brine globally. Brine treatment in itself is a challenging process that uses high levels of energy and capital, and releases high levels of GHG emissions as well.

To eliminate the harmful effects of brine on the environment, disruptive technologies would need to be researched and used on a larger scale, and at a faster pace. For example, the UAE is researching innovations to repurpose brine for agricultural use as part of a project led by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). The aim is to be able to reinvent the agriculture system as saltwater based. Another promising technology that is being experimented with in the UAE is the development and use of algae that can absorb salt from water. Indeed, in Brazil, researchers are working on introducing certain algae into brine that can tolerate salty water. In addition to neutralizing some of the harmful toxins in brine, the algae is said to be digestible by humans and is high in proteins and vitamins.

There is plenty of scope for creative innovation in desalination technology and brine treatment. Recently, the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science developed a new technology that uses a radically different approach to the treatment of brine. Their methodology costs less and uses less energy, while removing more than 95 percent of salt in brine, hence making it possible to either return it safely to oceans, or use it in other economic activities.[3] Another innovation was developed by a Canadian based company called Oneka. The company produces small buoys that are placed in the ocean to desalinate water that is then directly pumped to communities. Not only does this innovation use zero land and electricity, it produces brine that is only slightly more saline than ocean water, and since the buoys are placed in the ocean, the brine is distributed in a larger area and dilutes rapidly. While this innovation is targeted towards small island communities, there is a potential for research on larger scale applications of the same technology.

The UAE plays a key role in global innovation. It has rich human capital, a growing economy, an enlightened government, and is a hub for disruptive innovations. Given this, and its heavy reliance on desalination, the UAE can pioneer researching, developing and adopting technologies that can make brine treatment efficient and eliminate its harmful effects on the maritime environment. This way the UAE can play an important role in the provision of safe and sustainable access to clean water the world over.

[1] United Arab Emirates Information and Services.(2020). Water Security Strategy 2036. Retrieved from https://u.ae/en/information-and-services/environment-and-energy/water-and-energy/water-#:~:text=Connecting%20desalination%20technologies%20to%20renewable,stage%20flash%20distillation%20(MSF).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science. (2019). Radical Desalination Approach May Disrupt the Water Industry. https://phys.org/news/2019-05-radical-desalination-approach-disrupt-industry.html