Research News

The Sociopolitical Factors Impacting the Adoption and Proliferation of Desalination

January 20, 2021
Ghantoot Seawater Desalination Plant in Abu Dhabi. Credit: Masdar

While desalination technology is becoming increasingly popular as costs come down and demand for water grows, some sociopolitical factors still hamper its adoption.


Water scarcity is a global challenge, with growing populations putting pressure on a finite supply of water. Responding to this challenge is desalination technology, with the cost of desalinated water coming down as technology evolves.


Desalination, however, is plagued by some serious problems, including environmental issues. Often overlooked are the sociopolitical factors impacting the adoption and proliferation of this technology, but a team from Khalifa University has used multiple cases from several countries to identify these factors and their influence on desalination around the world.


Yazan Ibrahim, Research Engineer, Roqaya Ismail, Graduate Student, Dr. Fawzi Banat, Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Dr. Hassan Arafat, Director of Khalifa University’s Center for Membranes and Advanced Water Technology (CMAT), all members of CMAT, with Adetola Ogungbenro, graduate student from the KU Department of Chemical Engineering, and Tom Pankratz from Global Water Intelligence, reviewed the sociopolitical factors involved and published their findings in the Elsevier’s international journal Desalination.


“Historically, water availability has always been considered fundamental for human civilizations to evolve and flourish, from the early Mesopotamian age to the current rapidly growing cities in the Middle East,” explained Ibrahim. “Over time, wasteful water use, mismanagement, and significant environmental challenges have triggered severe depletion and degradation of the available freshwater resources, with adverse effects on human health, living conditions, and social and economic prosperity.”


The UAE has limited natural water resources and uses desalination to make seawater drinkable. Today, most of the country’s potable water comes from over 70 major desalination plants, which account for 42 percent of the country’s water needs and nearly all of its potable water, and around 14 percent of the world’s total production of desalinated water. However, water scarcity is not confined to arid countries.


“Since its inception, the evolution and growth of desalination technologies have made water production appear more sustainable than ever before,” explained Ibrahim. “Scarce freshwater resources in MENA countries have resulted in an upsurge in the number and size of desalination plants. Furthermore, the rapid development of this region has led to higher dependence on desalination to sustain this development.”


Yet, despite the benefits that can be reaped from using desalination to provide such a critical resource, the adoption and proliferation of desalination are impacted by a variety of economic, environmental, and sociopolitical factors.


Much of the resistance to desalination stems from the cost. Energy accounts for around 70 percent of the cost of desalination, with this energy typically derived from fossil fuels. However, the sociopolitical factors must not be overlooked.


“Although the economic and environmental factors have received more attention, there is evidence to suggest that the use of desalination technologies and their associated impacts would most likely exacerbate the existing inequalities in a society,” explained Ibrahim. “This was attributed to the increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased water prices, urban growth motivation, shifting geopolitical relations related to water security, and increased chemical pollution.”


Even building a desalination plant in certain areas can be difficult. One study proposed aesthetic acceptability – the noise and look of a desalination plant – as a barrier.


The research team used a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis as the framework for a critical review of the sociopolitical factors that impact the adoption and proliferation of desalination. A SWOT analysis is typically employed to help gain insights into the strengths and opportunities of an initiative or concept as well as the associated weaknesses and threats.


“We defined ‘sociopolitical’ factors as factors with a significant social dimension, which have either underlying social, economic, or political root causes and consequences within those spheres,” explained Ibrahim. “We identified eight strengths and opportunities, and seven weaknesses and threats.”


The strengths and opportunities include: the decentralization of water supply, fast deployment, and low physical footprint that comes with some desalination technologies with the potential to help remote communities and tourist facilities flourish. Desalination can provide sufficient quantities of water as and when needed, which can significantly enhance the water security of a nation, while also supporting regional stabilities by evading any conflict over water resources. This also means there are a plethora of opportunities for society to benefit from desalination technologies. Local employment opportunities during the construction and operation of desalination plants are one such benefit, but easy access to water also means more work and education opportunities for women.


As for weaknesses, the visual impacts, noise and land use issues were among the most-cited concerns. Beyond this, another weakness of desalination lies in the unintended consequences of excessive reliance on desalination and the potential impacts of poor mineralization of desalinated water on human health. Freshwater contains various minerals which may offer health benefits and it’s not yet understood if desalinated water that has not been re-mineralized could have adverse health effects. Threats to desalination stem from social tension among those who mistrust the technologies as well as the wide range of anthropogenic and natural causes that could halt operation. The latter ranges from cyberattacks to natural disasters and oil spills.


The team’s research makes it clear that integrating desalination into a country’s water supply can yield significant direct and indirect benefits, in terms of political stability, water security and economic growth. Desalination can also provide a boost to tourism, agriculture and education although various threats and weaknesses are also noted.


“We wanted to note that these sociopolitical benefits and challenges can be difficult to quantify and compare across different domains,” explained Ibrahim. “But understanding these factors can help make the adoption and proliferation of desalination technologies much smoother, with more robust engagement among the multiple process stakeholders involved.


“Since its inception, desalination has delivered a range of benefits to societies in arid regions and supported their economic development and political stability. It must be recognized, however, that many factors are at play when it comes to the sociopolitical dimension of desalination. A holistic approach to this subject is essential.”


Jade Sterling
Science Writer
20 January 2021