The scramble for drinking water turns to the sea
To slake thirsty populations, more countries and businesses are adopting cost-efficient saltwater conversion methods.
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."
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.
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