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Gulf countries depend on water desalination plants, but not without price

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — “We have water, and this is the most important thing,” says Abdullah Al-Harthi in the port city of Tire in the Sultanate of Oman, the Gulf country that relies heavily on desalination plants.

But for Oman and other Gulf countries, whose deserts occupy vast areas of its territory, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high financial and environmental cost.

In Tire, south of the capital, Muscat, water flows to residents and businesses from a large desalination plant serving about 600,000 people.

“In the past, life was very difficult. We had wells and water was being trucked,” al-Harthi told AFP, but “since the 1990s, water has passed through the pipes and there has been no interruption.”

However, these positives, which use energy-intensive carbon-intensive methods, are not without cost, especially with global temperature increases.

According to the United Nations, 2019 could be one of the three warmest years in history.

And there is another effect: desalination plants produce highly concentrated saltwater, or salt water, that is often returned to the ocean.

The researchers say more than 16,000 desalination plants around the world produce more toxic substances than fresh water.

– Plus salt –

In 2019, a study published in the journal Science said that for every liter of fresh water extracted from the sea or salt water, one and a half liters of salty mud is thrown into the sea or on land.

All this increased salt raises the temperature of coastal waters and reduces the oxygen level that can cause biological “dead zones”.

The super saline is more toxic than the chemicals used in the desalination process.

Oman’s neighbors produce the bulk of the salt water, with more than half coming from only four countries, Saudi Arabia, by 22 percent, and the UAE by 20 percent, and by less than Kuwait and Qatar, according to United Nations data.

According to the UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health, “brine production in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar represents 55 percent of the world’s total production.”

The institute said that new strategies are needed to “reduce the negative environmental impacts and reduce the economic cost”, which would help “to protect the water supply for present and future generations.”

– lower cost –

At Tire, “almost no chemicals” during pre-treatment as water flows naturally through rock crevices, says Mahendran Sinabathi, operations director of the French company, Veolia, which runs the plant alongside an Omani company.

There are other ways to protect freshwater supplies, from encouraging savings, to recycling sewage.

Antoine Frer, CEO of Veolia, said that recycling of wastewater will help solve the problem of water scarcity.

He also noted that “reused water is less expensive”, roughly a third less than desalinated water.

The Omani authorities continue to campaign to urge people to use water in an organized manner, bearing in mind that other demands, especially the energy sector, are pressing for large quantities of water.

Across the bay, huge amounts of water are used not only for homes, gardens and golf courses, but also for the energy sector, which is often the source of the region’s wealth.

– Solar energy –

On the edge of the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsula, the largest sandy area in the world, is a Khazzan gas field operated by BP and Oman Oil.

Stuart Robertson, the site’s director of operations, said the method used to extract gas in this area required massive amounts of water.

Six thousand cubic meters of water will be provided from a groundwater site, 50 km away.

According to Charles Iceland of the World Resources Institute, the more oil or gas is extracted “the more water is needed”.

He stated, “It is expected that the Middle East will need more energy (…) so the situation will only get worse.”

However, he added, “On the other hand, if they were able to produce energy using solar technologies (…) that would reduce the problem.”

“You just need some water to clean the solar panels,” Iceland said.

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