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Will the World's Oceans Be Our Next Drinking Tap?

Desalination plants are popping up all over the world, but they may very well make the environmental crisis worse.
 
 
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Stephen Hawking is no dummy. That much has been established.

Yet in 2006, when the acclaimed scientist told an audience of mostly university students and professors in China that he was "very worried about global warming" and that Earth "might end up like Venus, at 250 degrees centigrade and raining sulfuric acid,'' the dystopian prediction nevertheless dropped off the cultural radar after a few short weeks. Which, of course, is a sad commentary on the state of our minds, distracted as they are by horserace punditry possessed with the 2008 election, athletes on HGH, or the latest meltdown of pop tarts like Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse. After all, some might argue, the thought of our verdant Earth metamorphosing into the environmental nightmare that is Venus, whose oceans evaporated millions of years ago, is beyond sci-fi, a transformation so stunning and apocalyptic that it cannot be comprehended, much less be true.

But Hawking is not alone, especially among activists and scientists who have been keeping a sharp eye on our planet's precarious water situation. And that includes Maude Barlow, author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water as well as the founder of the Blue Planet Project and the national chairperson of the advocacy group Council of Canadians.

"I fear that the global water crisis will destroy all life on earth if we do not deal with it soon," she confessed.

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of D.C.-based nongovernmental organization and consumer group Food and Water Watch, took pains to moderate Hawking's more dramatic statement but nevertheless agreed. "We are facing a time of great water scarcity and unpredictable climate change," she added. "It's time for us to take action to protect our planet."

But who are we protecting the planet from, when it comes to water scarcity? The answer, as always, is ourselves. But how to do that is the subject of great debate and controversy, especially as permanent droughts take hold in Australia, America and beyond, causing shortages, famines, social unrest and more. With declining rainfall and snowpack because of global warming, many countries have turned to desalination of the oceans for their water supplies. The process seems simple enough: Over 70 percent of the planet is covered in oceans, so take the salt out of the water and watch the tanks fill up.

And sure enough, desalination plants are popping up all over the world. The British utility Severn Trent, one of 10 water privatization entities in the United Kingdom, is building one for the Maravia Country Club Estates in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

El Paso, Texas, cut the ribbon in August 2007 on the largest inland desalination plant in the world, which mostly benefited the city's Fort Bliss army outpost, which is expanding to accommodate the nation's already depleted military forces. A joint Israeli venture is building a plant for drought-stricken Australia, and Bahrain, awash in oil income and undergoing a construction boom also sweeping other countries in the Middle East, is fielding offers for a massive plant to cope with its rising water needs. India is commissioning General Electric to study the possibility, and the list goes on. "A number of private companies are proposing more than two dozen ocean desalination plants for the coast of California alone," added Hauter. "Most of these proposed plants are near the last remaining open-space corridors where the lack of water has limited development."

In other words, the entire world is gearing up for greater desalination plant construction in the years to come, but it's not just because everyone is getting very thirsty. Rather, it is because there are buckets of money to be made. But whether progress and salvation follows is another question entirely.

"The main desalination technology being proposed in the United States is reverse osmosis, a process by which highly pressurized saltwater is pushed through tiny membrane filters in order to produce drinkable water," Hauter explained. "This technology has yet to work on a large scale in this country. The Tampa Bay plant with a potential capacity of 25 million gallons per day has cost over $139 million and has never produced water as promised. Originally a private-public partnership, now the public agency is left with the burden of finishing the project and making it work. But despite the lack of a full-scale working model, plants double the size of Tampa Bay are being proposed in California and other places in the country."

It is that harried chase for cash that marks most of these projects as questionable, even as they proliferate around the world. It is worth noting that they are proliferating in places where cash is on hand, rather than the most thirsty places.

"Even with current plans to triple global production, including nuclear-powered desalination plants, this technology cannot meet the demand for fresh water in the world," Barlow asserted. "This is partly because desalination is a very expensive technology, which is why these plants are found in Saudi Arabia and Israel but not Africa, and partly because humans are destroying our freshwater heritage faster than any technology can catch. Governments and corporations are embracing desalination as if it is some kind of savior, which is understandable for the private sector: There is a great deal of money to be made from blue gold. But it is a huge problem that governments are not stepping back and looking at this so-called miracle solution with more scrutiny."

It is a problem, but it is understandable, as more scrutiny would doubtlessly take those governments to places they probably would rather not go. Especially in light of recent research, which suggests that global warming is not only drying up the planet's land masses and ice shelves, but it is also exponentially increasing the acidity of its oceans. And that trend may lead directly into Hawking's nightmare.

As Les Blumenthal recently reported for McClatchy Newspapers , "The oceans are already 30 percent more acidic than they were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as they absorb 22 tons of carbon dioxide a day. By the end of the century, they could be 150 percent more acidic." And unlike atmospheric temperature changes, which can be modulated by decreases in carbon emissions and other methods, ocean acidification is for humanity's intents and purposes, a relatively permanent vacation to hell. Sure, acidification can be reversed or repaired, but only after thousands if not millions of years have passed. In other words, not in your lifetime, or your great-great-great grandchildren's lifetimes either.

Which begs the deeper question: Have global desalination efforts, already compromised by technological inefficiencies and overt waste, taken into account the dramatic rise in oceanic acidity? The answer is, not really.

"I do not believe desalination advocates have taken into account the resulting acidification of the ocean that will take place as intensive amounts of salt brine are returned to the seas," Barlow answered. "For every unit of freshwater derived from the process, an equal unit of poisonous salt brine is dumped back into the oceans. Currently, desalination plants produce 5 billion gallons of waste every day. Production of desalination plants is expected to triple by 2015, tripling brine waste dumping and the acidification of the oceans."

And that's just the desalination process itself: Forget about the naturally occurring processes that the climate crisis has introduced into our quickly drying lives. As the planet heats up, the oceans absorb more and more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, causing the seas to summarily heat and expel those gases skyward, creating a destructive feedback loop. When all is said and done, we may be left with not much more than acid after desalinating what we can get our cracked hands on. As Seattle-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer Richard Feely told Blumenthal, "Everything points to dramatic effects. There are suggestions the entire ecosystem could change over time."

"As a serious answer to the global water crisis, desalination is not the answer," Barlow concluded. "The plants are polluting behemoths, use an incredible amount of energy, add to our climate crisis, and produce toxic brine that kills aquatic life for miles."

Hauter agrees. "Rather than solving water scarcity issues, desalination is an expensive technology that has the potential to cause many unintended consequences. Instead, we should be taking the proactive steps to stop polluting, diverting and wasting water." And while conservation and more efficient, conscientious management of the water we have left may not be as sexy an option for capitalists and technologists, it is so far the most inexpensive and least dangerous proposition on the table. "We are actually destroying the hydrologic cycle with our mismanagement" Barlow warned. And you can add desalination, at least in the near term, to that very long list of bad management plans.

Let's just hope the seas stay balanced in time for us to realize it.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.