• 07/13/2023

The Economics of Desalination: Is It a Viable Solution to Water Scarcity?

The Economics of Desalination: Is It a Viable Solution to Water Scarcity?

The Economics of Desalination: Is It a Viable Solution to Water Scarcity?

The Economics of Desalination: Is It a Viable Solution to Water Scarcity? 1024 517 Waterwise Innovations
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Water scarcity is a pressing issue that affects millions of people worldwide. As the global population continues to grow, the demand for fresh water is increasing, putting a strain on existing water resources. One solution that has been proposed to address this problem is desalination, the process of removing salt and other impurities from seawater or brackish water to make it suitable for human consumption and irrigation. However, the economic viability of desalination is a topic of ongoing debate. This article explores the economics of desalination and its potential as a solution to water scarcity.

What is Desalination?

Desalination is a process that removes salts and other minerals from saline water to make it suitable for human consumption and use in agriculture. The need for desalination arises in regions where fresh water resources are scarce but seawater or brackish water is readily available.

The process of desalination can be applied to various types of saline water, including seawater, brackish water, and even wastewater. The goal is to produce water that meets the quality standards for drinking water or irrigation.

There are several methods of desalination, but the most commonly used are reverse osmosis and distillation:

  1. Reverse Osmosis (RO): This is the most common method of desalination and involves forcing saline water under pressure through a semi-permeable membrane. The membrane allows water molecules to pass through but blocks the salts and other impurities, resulting in fresh water on the other side.
  2. Distillation: This is one of the oldest methods of desalination and involves heating saline water to create steam, which is then condensed to produce fresh water. The salts and other impurities are left behind in the boiling process.

Other methods of desalination include electrodialysis, where electric fields are used to separate salts from water, and forward osmosis, which uses a semi-permeable membrane and a specific draw solution to extract water from the saline source.

Desalination technology has advanced significantly over the years, making it a more efficient and viable option for addressing water scarcity in many parts of the world. However, it’s important to note that the process does come with its own set of challenges, including high energy consumption and the disposal of the concentrated brine byproduct.

The History of Desalination

The concept of desalination has been known to humanity for millennia.

The practice of removing salt from seawater to make it potable has been documented in various forms throughout history, from the ancient Greeks to the modern era.

Ancient Times

Some of the earliest appearances of desalination in history date back to experiments by Aristotle and other intellectuals in ancient Greece. Greek sailors used to boil water to evaporate fresh water away from the salt, a rudimentary form of distillation. The Romans, on the other hand, used clay filters to trap salt, an early form of filtration.

Middle Ages to Early Modern Period

Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, desalination remained a largely theoretical concept, with few practical applications due to the high cost and energy requirements. However, the need for fresh water in arid regions and aboard ships kept the idea alive.

Industrial Revolution

The commercial use of desalination plants started around 1869 in England to supply drinking water for ships.

This marked a significant milestone in the history of desalination, as it represented one of the first practical applications of the technology on a commercial scale.

20th Century

The 20th century saw significant advancements in desalination technology.

Large-scale, land-based thermal distillation began in 1928 when a 60 m3/day plant using multiple-effect distillation (MED) was installed. The first Multi Effect Distillation plant was built in 1930 in Saudi Arabia, marking the beginning of the widespread use of desalination in the Middle East.

Modern Era

Today, desalination technology has advanced significantly, with methods like reverse osmosis becoming commonplace.

The increasing severity of water scarcity worldwide has led to a surge in interest in desalination, making it a key area of research and development in the quest for sustainable water sources.

The Cost of Desalination

The cost of desalination is influenced by several factors, including the salinity of the water, the design features of the desalination plant, and the energy sources used. High salinity water, such as seawater, consumes more energy and is therefore more costly to desalinate. From a water source perspective, desalination of brackish groundwater is the least costly.

The economic analysis of a desalination plant is based on a number of technical and economic determining factors such as capital, energy, labor, and chemicals. The lifetime of desalination systems and operating and capital costs markedly determine the economic possibility of desalination technology.

Desalination and the Environment

Desalination, while a promising solution to water scarcity, does come with its own set of environmental challenges. These primarily revolve around the disposal of byproducts and the energy consumption associated with the process.

Desalination and Brine Disposal

One of the main environmental concerns associated with desalination is the disposal of brine, a highly concentrated salt solution that is a byproduct of the process. Brine is typically twice as salty as the seawater it came from and often contains other chemicals used in the desalination process.

When released back into the ocean, the high salinity and chemical content of brine can be harmful to marine life. The increased salinity can affect the osmoregulation process of marine organisms, while the chemicals can lead to toxicity and changes in the ocean’s pH levels.

To mitigate these impacts, some desalination plants mix brine with other wastewater or seawater to dilute it before disposal. Others are exploring innovative uses for brine, such as in aquaculture, agriculture, or even as a source of minerals.

Desalination and Energy Consumption

Desalination is an energy-intensive process, particularly for methods like reverse osmosis.

This high energy consumption not only contributes to the cost of desalination but also has environmental implications.

If the energy used in desalination comes from fossil fuels, it can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. This has led to a push for more energy-efficient desalination methods and the use of renewable energy sources in desalination plants.

Water Footprint of Desalination

The water footprint of desalination refers to the amount of freshwater or ‘blue water’ consumed per cubic meter of water generated through the desalination process. This water consumption includes both direct and indirect water utilization.

Direct Water Utilization

Direct water utilization in desalination refers to the water that is physically used in the process.

This includes the saline water that is treated and the freshwater that is produced. In the case of seawater desalination, for example, a significant volume of seawater is needed to produce a smaller volume of freshwater.

Indirect Water Utilization

Indirect water utilization refers to the water consumed in the energy production process required to power the desalination plant. Desalination is an energy-intensive process, and if the energy used is derived from conventional sources like fossil fuels, a significant amount of water is consumed in the energy production process. This ‘hidden’ water consumption contributes to the overall water footprint of desalination.

The water footprint of desalination can vary significantly depending on the specific technology used and the energy source. For instance, thermal desalination techniques like multi-stage flash (MSF) and multi-effect distillation (MED) typically have a higher energy and water footprint than membrane-based techniques like reverse osmosis.

It’s important to note that while desalination can provide a solution to water scarcity, its water footprint is a critical factor to consider in evaluating its sustainability. Efforts are ongoing to reduce the water footprint of desalination, including the development of more energy-efficient desalination technologies and the use of renewable energy sources to power desalination plants.

Is Desalination Economically Viable?

The economic viability of desalination is a complex issue.

On one hand, the technology can provide a reliable source of fresh water, which is particularly valuable in regions where water scarcity is a significant problem. On the other hand, the high costs associated with desalination, particularly for seawater, can make it an expensive option compared to other water sources.

However, cost reductions resulting from improved seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) technology have made seawater desalination a more economical and viable solution in some cases. Furthermore, the value of desalination must also be considered in the context of the cost of water scarcity, which can have significant economic, social, and environmental impacts.


In conclusion, while desalination has the potential to provide a solution to water scarcity, its economic viability is dependent on a range of factors, including the cost of the technology, the availability of other water sources, and the environmental impacts of the process. As technology continues to advance and the impacts of water scarcity become more severe, the economics of desalination will continue to be an important area of research and discussion.