Desalination Industry Enjoys Growth Spurt as Water Scarcity Starts to Bite

Sept. 28, 2012
UN expects 14% of world’s population to meet water scarcity by 2025, according to GWI

The past five years have seen a 57% increase in the capacity of desalination plants on line, according to the latest data published by the International Desalination Assn. (IDA) and Global Water Intelligence (GWI). The installed base of desalination plants around the world now has a capacity of 78.4 million cu meters per day (19.8 billion gal) compared to 47.6 million cu meters per day (12.6 billion gal) at the end of 2008, according to the latest edition of the IDA/GWI Worldwide Desalting Plant Inventory.

The growth of the market for desalination reflects the fact that coastal communities are increasingly turning to the sea to meet their drinking water needs, while inland there is a tendency for groundwater to become increasingly brackish over time. Around 60% of desalination capacity treats seawater; the remainder treats brackish and less saline feedwater.

Historically, large-scale desalination has mainly been built in the Gulf region where there is no alternative for public water supply. The combination of lower cost membrane desalination and increased water scarcity means that big desalination plants are now being built outside the Gulf. The largest membrane desalination plant in the world—the 444,000 cu meters per day Victoria Desalination Plant in Melbourne, Australia—came on line last month, but it will be soon surpassed by the 500,000 cu meters per day Magtaa plant in Algeria, and the 510,000 cu meters per day Soreq plant in Israel.

The largest thermal desalination plant in the world is the 880,000 cu meters per day Shoaiba 3 desalination plant in Saudi Arabia, although this will be displaced in 2014 as the largest desalination plant in the world by the 1,025,000 cu meters per day Ras Al Khair project in Saudi Arabia, which uses both membrane and thermal technology.

Christopher Gasson, publisher of Global Water Intelligence said, “At the moment, around 1% of the world’s population are dependent on desalinated water to meet their daily needs, but by 2025, the UN expects 14% of the world’s population to be encountering water scarcity. Unless people get radically better at water conservation, the desalination industry has a very strong future indeed. Seawater desalination is the only additional renewable source of freshwater available on this planet.

“In the short term, however, it is likely that there will be a lull in the market because it will take a bit of time for demand to catch up with the amazing build-out of desalination plants we have seen over the past five years,” he added.

“Growth in desalination is not linear, and it is tied to many other factors including the cost of oil, prices of certain commodities, and availability of financing. However, the underlying factors that have driven the growth of desalination remain in place, including population growth, industrial development, pollution of traditional water resources, and climate change. At the same time, the desalination industry has done much to lower the cost of desalination by developing technologies that lower energy requirements, implementing practices that achieve greater operational efficiency, and adopting measures to enhance environmental stewardship,” said Patricia A. Burke, secretary general for the IDA.

Desalination is now practiced in 150 countries, from Australia to China and Japan, the United States, Spain and other European countries, the Middle East and North Africa.

Source: International Desalination Assn.