The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s six member countries — Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman – are home to more than 60 percent of the world’s water desalination facilities. The majority of clean drinking water in these countries
is sourced through desalination.
Despite this, the GCC currently provides only 90 to 100 cubic meters of freshwater per capita per year. This number continues to rapidly fall below the water poverty threshold of 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year set by the U.N. as the population in the region expands along with industrial development.
There is clearly a water scarcity crisis in the GCC, and new innovations are needed in order to achieve water sustainability for the region in the future.
How Does Desalination Work?
At the moment, two conventional methods are used to remove salt from seawater. These are the thermally-driven multi-effect desalination (MED) method, and the pressure-driven reverse osmosis (RO) method.
MED works by causing seawater to evaporate, separating it into pure water condensation and a highly concentrated brine, the latter of which is ejected. RO, on the other hand, uses a high-pressure feed to pass seawater through semi-permeable membranes. Only the water can pass, leaving salt behind.
Because they are better suited to high temperatures and salinity, MED systems are more common in the GCC, accounting for about 70 percent of installations.
Growing Demand, Increased Capacities — and Increased Emissions
While thermally-driven systems are more effective at desalination, current capacities will not be enough to support a growing Middle Eastern population. As industrialization brings increased development, the GCC’s desalination capacities are expected to rise.
Currently the region’s installations provide 3,400 million cubic meters of water per year. This output needs to double
by 2020 to meet growing demands. This means double the energy cost, and double the current carbon emissions.
In order to meet emission reduction targets set at the U.N.’s 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris
, the GCC needs to develop new desalination innovations and improve the efficiency of current systems.
What Is Being Done?
Currently, the GCC states are overcoming budget deficits due to low oil prices
and working on more efficient economic policies. And the water scarcity crisis has led to $100 billion in increased spending by GCC governments between 2011 and 2016 in an attempt to meet the growing demand for drinking water. An additional $300 billion will fund projects until 2022.
This increased investment spending has paved the way for new studies which reveal the potential for more sustainable, energy-efficient desalination systems in the Gulf region. While RO processes seem more energy-efficient than MEDs, recent research has improved thermally-driven systems.
One system works via nano-filtration, which reduces the need for energy-intensive pre-treatment of water by removing fouling algae and corrosion components from seawater.
Hybrid MED Cycles Are Changing the Game
Solar-powered cycles are another innovation that make MED more viable as the GCC looks toward the future. Since it’s thermal-driven, the system requires heat, generated by power plants in the first stage and by water-cooled condensers in the final stage.
These condensers depend on the conditions in the location of the operation — meaning the temperature outside. This limits the number of evaporators that can be installed.
However, a hybrid solar system can utilize heat generated by the abundance of solar energy available in the Middle East, increasing the number of evaporators and the amount of energy that can be generated.
Such hybrid systems offer the lowest freshwater production cost ever reported, and they can be easily retrofitted to existing thermally-driven plants. The GCC may be in the midst of a crisis, but the innovations that result could change the face of freshwater production forever.