Water Desalination: The Answer to the World's Thirst?

By JEFF HULL / Jan 14, 2009 / Fast Company

Randy Truby's wardrobe -- broad, rectangular glasses; a long-sleeve navy blue corduroy shirt; navy slacks; and oxblood cowboy boots on an 80-degree day in Southern California -- does little to minimize his distinct physical presence. But an almost elfin energy animates Truby's big-fella frame when he starts talking about water. "If you consider rainfalls, and you look at rivers and lakes -- all that water is pretty well known," he says. "If you look at the Colorado River, that water is all adjudicated and consumed. In a place like Southern California, people have to look at the sea."

Truby is the CEO of Toray Membrane U.S.A., one of the world's largest makers of the membranes used in a process called "reverse osmosis" (RO), which, among other things, separates salt from seawater. In a world of dwindling freshwater, RO desalination is now the fastest growing new source.

A quick spin through recent headlines reveals just how badly -- and how soon -- we're going to need new supplies of freshwater: Over the past 18 months in the United States alone, the governor of Georgia declared a state of emergency due to water shortages; salmonella contaminated municipal water in Colorado; and eight states ratified the Great Lakes Basin Compact, an agreement designed to ensure that Great Lakes water, nearly 20% of the world's freshwater, won't be shipped beyond those basins -- not even to nearby Minneapolis or Pittsburgh.

Worldwide, the picture is far bleaker. Global water consumption has roughly doubled since World War II, and yet, according to the United Nations, 1.1 billion people still have no access to a clean, reliable supply. Eighty percent of disease and deaths in developing countries -- more than 2.2 million people a year, including 3,900 children each day -- are caused by diseases associated with unsanitary water. The cost of waterborne diseases and associated lost productivity drains 2% of developing countries' GDP each year.

China, meanwhile, is designing massive aqueducts to siphon Himalayan meltwater across thousands of miles of landscape to support its emerging megacities. The mass movement of rural people to urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and much of South America is placing enormous strain on already-tapped-out water supplies. And those shortages irritate already destabilized regions. The Darfur tragedy was aggravated by water shortages. Both the Tigris and Euphrates are dwindling in Iraq, as Turkey builds upstream water storage projects. North and South Korea squabble over the Han River. The Ganges is a source of tension between India and Bangladesh. Water wars have exacerbated the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians for decades.

Global warming won't help. Scientists think much of the Arctic's freshwater ice will melt into saline seas by 2050. On land, snowpack, which feeds reservoirs and critical river systems such as the Colorado, is predicted to decline: California's Department of Water Resources forecasts a 25% reduction by 2050. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that stream volumes across the American West will fall 20% by midcentury, leaving population centers such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Southern California parched -- and crippling U.S. agricultural production. (Worldwide, agriculture accounts for roughly 70% of freshwater consumption.)

And yet global warming will raise sea levels. The Pacific Ocean at the Golden Gate Bridge has climbed 8 inches in the past century. Saltwater already comprises 97.5% of the water resources on the planet, and 60% of the world's population lives within 65 miles of a seacoast. Why not desalinate seawater and slake the thirst of nations?

Randy Truby wasn't the first person to embrace the idea. Forty-eight years ago, John F. Kennedy believed desalination would change the world. In April of 1961, when Truby was a high-school freshman, the president told the Washington press corps that "if we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get freshwater from saltwater, that ... would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments." Three years later, the first modern American desalination plant, built at Point Loma, California, was shipped to Guantánamo Bay after the Cuban government cut off water flow to the U.S. naval base there.

In energy-rich, water-desperate countries in the Middle East and Asia, desalination already fills a vital role. Saudi Arabia currently produces about 18% of the world's desal output, and the Middle East is expected to invest $30 billion in the technology by 2015. Places such as Algeria, Dubai, Libya, and Singapore all depend on desal for drinking water. China's desal investments are expected to increase by an order of magnitude, from about $60 million to more than $600 million in the next 10 years. The worldwide market, now about $11 billion, is expected to explode to $126 billion by 2015.