How Desalination Can Prevent a World Water Crisis

A study from NASA and the University of California – Irvine shows that the Middle East is losing its fresh water reserves. From 2003 to 2009, around 144 cubic kilometers of water have been lost from the Middle East. The study utilized observations from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission to evaluate trends of freshwater storage in the Middle East. The “lost water” comes from water resources below the Earth’s surface that are drilled for and relied on in times of drought. This recent news reminds us that water, like oil, is a finite resource. However, Qatar seems to have found a way to manage through this water crisis.

In a TED talk earlier this year in Doha, Qatar, Fahad Al-Attiya, Chairman of Qatar’s National Food Security Programme, delivered a talk on his job, maintaining food security in a country that has no water and imports 90% of its food. Qatar is a country that is rich in oil, boasts strong economic growth, and has a rapidly expanding population. And with a rapidly expanding population comes rising levels of water consumption. The population of Qatar has grown to 1.7 million in less than 60 years. Water consumption levels are at 430 liters a day, the highest in the world. Qatar has gone from having no water to consuming water to the highest degree. Regardless, the country has maintained consistent growth of 15% every year for the past five years without water. This, Al-Attiya says, is “historic.”

The answer to the question of how this was possible is desalination. The process of desalination consists of removing salt from seawater, allowing for Qatar to compensate for depleting water levels in the aquifers. This is a revolutionary change, leaving Qatar in a state of “structurally-induced water abundance.” Utilizing reverse osmosis and solar desalination technologies, desalination presents a very sustainable solution to a country that receives less than 74 millimeters of rain a year. Through desalination, Qatar is able to produce 3.5 million cubic meters of water. This water will go to farmers that will be able to supply the country with food. Al-Attiya calls it “the best technology that this region could ever have.” For the next year, this will be Al-Attiya’s work. His goal is for Qatar to become a millennium city.

March 22 marks World Water Day and the International Year of Water Cooperation. Around the world, many will participate in World Walks for Water and Sanitation, a global event aimed at addressing the world’s water crisis. More than 780 million lack access to clean water. More than 3 million die every year due to the scarcity of this resource. Qatar, along with the UAW and Saudi Arabia, are working on large-scale desalination projects. In India, farmers are looking into System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to reap record breaking harvests of rice. Through investing in projects and innovations like desalination and SRI, we can more efficiently and more effectively manage the world’s most important resource.

– Rafael Panlilio