The scramble for drinking water turns to the sea

To slake thirsty populations, more countries and businesses are adopting cost-efficient saltwater conversion methods.

By Bruce Kennedy Jun 3, 2013 9:16AM

Bottled water (© Grove Pashley/Corbis)Is water the oil of the 21st century? U.N. data say more than 40% of the world's population currently has to cope with water scarcity, and that figure could swell to 66% by 2025. In fact, the U.N. expects nearly half of all people to be dealing with "high water stress" issues by 2030.

Everyone depends on water, and many nations and businesses already have water conservation programs in place. But the market for desalination -- converting sea water into drinkable fresh water -- has grown from a trickle to a torrent in recent years, and it's attracting the interest of a growing number of governments and corporations.

In the past, desalination plants could be found in water-scarce countries with the finances, energy resources and wherewithal to afford the costly process. Those were mostly Middle East and Persian Gulf nations.

But according to the Global Water Intelligence website, new cost-efficient methods of desalination along with growing water demand have prompted the building of big plants outside the traditional markets. The world's largest membrane desalination plants are in Australia, as well as in Algeria and Israel. But facilities can now be found in 150 countries, including in China, across Europe and in the U.S.

There's also been a 57% increase in the capacity of existing plants, which were producing close to 20 billion gallons of fresh water last year, compared with 12.6 billion gallons in 2008.

"Growth in desalination is not linear, and it is tied to many other factors including the cost of oil, prices of certain commodities, and availability of financing," Patricia A. Burke, the secretary general for the International Desalination Association, said last year. "However, the underlying factors that have driven the growth of desalination remain in place, including population growth, industrial development, pollution of traditional water resources, and climate change."

Some big companies are tapping the market. Defense industry giant Lockheed Martin (LMT) says its engineers have come up with a material that dramatically cuts the amount of energy needed for the membrane desalination process. The new material is "500 times thinner than the best filter on the market today and a thousand times stronger," engineer John Stetson told Reuters. "The energy that's required and the pressure that's required to filter salt is approximately 100 times less."

The company acknowledges that access to clean and affordable water is a global security issue as well.

"As more and more countries become more developed," said Tom Notaro, Lockheed's business manager for advanced materials, "access to that water for their daily lives is becoming more and more critical."

More on moneyNOW

Jun 3, 2013 9:56AM
I have often wondered why there seems never to be a grand plan to make an economically viable desalination push. With modern technology there should never be a problem with water supply, as the earth's surface is two thirds water. 
Jun 3, 2013 11:47AM
 It is about time. Having seen what Los Angeles has done to Mono Lake and a large part of California in the last century, draining water from every source possible, it is sickening to even think the population there tolerated it, especially knowing sea water was much closer to them.
 Water tables are shrinking and disappearing in central Texas from excess pumping without regulation. Houston buys waste water from Dallas on a long existing contract. Now, Dallas wants to recycle that water and Houston will not let them out of the contract. And yet, Houston is on the Gulf Coast with plenty of water at their finger tips.
 People are very wasteful in many ways and water is a very big example.
Jun 3, 2013 10:13AM
I've always believed that future wars and political posturing will be about water and not oil.  There are many alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to fresh, drinkable water.  Thank God the US is rich with water via the Great Lakes!
Jun 3, 2013 12:59PM
You think people are crazy fighting/arguing/posturing over oil today... wait until they start fighting over water.  It's the most valuable and important resource on Earth.  Why?  Because every living thing on Earth needs it.  They don't need oil.  Cost-effective, large-scale desalination can't come fast enough.  But conservation and other water-saving technologies (like reusing treated waste water) needs to be encouraged and used as well.  I live in a water-rich area of the Midwest but I still encourage my kid that we don't waste water.  It's too important.

Jun 3, 2013 10:16AM
Jun 3, 2013 11:03AM
We should be sending free, salted pretzels to our water-poor enemies around the world.
Jun 3, 2013 1:47PM
We can live without Crude Oil, we can't live without clean drinking water.
Jun 5, 2013 5:50PM
Unfortunately at present there is no such thing as a low cost Desalinization Facility, not to mention the challenges associated with what to do with the concentrated Brine. There is no easy or cost effective way to address the brine waste at this time and for the foreseeable future. The best thing and most cost effective thing any municipality can do it take a hard look at Conservation and Reuse options long before trying to embrace Desal. 
Jun 3, 2013 1:22PM
It is about time attention is being turned towards this and I believe you will see more and more desalinization plants being built .This is an area where technology exists to produce fresh water and we can come to more of  a balance with nature.....
Jun 3, 2013 2:46PM
A useless article. Name companies.
Jun 3, 2013 2:16PM
Back in the 90's I was commenting on these boards that since politics will prevent us from doing anything significant about Global Warming, we should be putting money into cheap desalination of water as well as linking municipal water systems so we have a grid like we do for electricity.

We also need to spend money on how to minimize irrigation water evaporation (75% of ALL fresh water use in the USA is for irrigation) and how to best match crops to changing climate and pest conditions.

Jun 3, 2013 11:01AM
Kind of makes you want to staple this article to the forehead of Big Oil, doesn't it? Buy out all of the science actualizing the Greenhouse Gas impact for-profit. Time to END BIG OIL and start looking at all the damage Man as done to the ONLY KNOWN PLANET that can support him.
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