Mar 172010

According to a 2002 United Nations study, more than 1.1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and more than three million people die from water-borne illness annually.

Seawater desalination technology has emerged as potential solution to fresh water depletion; however, it comes with steep economic and environmental costs. In December 2008, I examined seawater desalination as a solution to freshwater depletion.

Desalination is a process that removes solids and salts from seawater while adjusting the water’s pH levels for human consumption.  There are more than 13,000 desalination plants in operation.

There are two primary problems with desalination technology.  First, plants are expensive to construct and maintain.   Smaller facilities range between $70 and $100 million to construct while larger facilities can exceed $400 million.  This places the technology out of reach for developing nations and requires a significant investment for private companies in developed countries.

Environmentally, desalination plants require significant energy to operate, and the technology is credited with raising seawater temperatures and killing larvae, plankton, fish, and other marine life.  Chemicals and brine waste can also be pumped into waterways further damaging sea life.

The World Health Organization has created draft guidelines to monitor the environmental impact of desalination plants.   Draft guidelines were completed in 2007 and address technological and environmental concerns.

Domestically, the United States Department of Interior has encouraged the technology through modest grants.   Desalination plants require significant approval.  The California legislature has studied the effect of desalination, and plant construction requires approval from several state and federal agencies.

If desalination will help avoid international conflict, the international community must further invest in desalination technology.  In short, international organizations such as the UN or WHO must encourage investment in the technology to make it more available in arid regions.  Second, there must firm guidelines enacted ensuring that the environmental consequences will not destroy a society’s natural resources and heritage.

For more information or a copy of my December 2008 paper, Global Drought, The Legal Framework for Seawater Desalination as a Viable Solution to the International Water Crisis, including sources to information cited above, please email