Global water stress and desalination as a means of survival
Although the desalination process is highly energy-intensive and environmentally toxic, producing high-salinity brine effluents and greenhouse gases, the extraction of fresh water in this way is currently essential for human survival in arid regions of the world. More than 20 000 desalination plants are currently operating in more than 170 countries. Approx. 47% of the world’s desalinated water is produced in the Middle East and North Africa.
In these parts of the world, water stress, which occurs when water resources are scarce or water quality does not meet basic requirements, more than doubled between 1987 and 2017. Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan and Qatar are in the worst situation. According to UNESCO, “10% of the world’s population lives in countries with high or critical water scarcity”. The estimated cost of providing all people with access to clean water and sanitation by 2030 will be between $600 billion and $1 trillion per year.
Anthropogenic pressures and climate change are reshaping global water flow cycles. Consequences include catastrophic flooding in Pakistan in 2022 and five rain-poor rainy seasons in a row, leaving more than 20 million people in the Horn of Africa hungry. Over 2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, one child dies every 17 s from water-borne diseases, and 3 billion people face food insecurity due to water scarcity. New economic thinking and an international governance framework are needed to prevent a global water catastrophe.