Globally, around 1% of the world’s drinking water is desalinated, but in Israel, that figure is around 25%. The country desalinises 585 million cubic metres per year, while overall water consumption – including for industrial and agricultural use – is around 2.5 billion cubic metres. The combination of desalination – which the country only began in 2005 – and a 90% wastewater recycling rate means that Israel’s water worries are largely a thing of the past.
“Throughout my childhood, early adulthood, and really up until about five years ago, we were all traumatised by television advertising campaigns telling us to conserve water,” said Tamar Zandberg, Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister, to Energy Monitor in an interview. “Now, though, the campaigns have stopped: desalination means that we are not so worried about running out of water.”
For years, the freshwater Sea of Galilee was the main source of the country’s fresh water, providing 513 million cubic metres in the year 2001-2. But by 2018–19, that figure had shrunk to just 25 million cubic metres. Now there are plans to top up the rapidly shrinking lake with a pipeline of desalinated water. Israel also signed an agreement in 2022 to provide 200 million cubic metres of desalinated water to Jordan, in exchange for electricity from a new 600MW solar power project being built in the country.
Israel’s desalinated water comes from five desalination plants along the coast: Soreq (150 million cubic metres annual production), Hadera (127 million), Ashkelon (118 million), Ashdod (100 million) and Palmachim (90 million). Two new plants – Sorek B (200m m3), and Wester Galilee (100 million) – are set to further boost production in the coming years. Upon their completion, the 900 million cubic metres of water provided by the seven plants will supply 85–90% of Israel’s annual municipal and industrial water consumption.
The other major consumer of water beyond buildings and industry is the country’s agricultural sector, much of which is supplied by brackish water from the sea, as well as naturally occurring groundwater. A combination of water management and technology means that around 40% of Israel’s crops are grown in the desert (which makes up 70% of its landmass).
Israel’s success with desalination is a source of climate hope for other water-scarce countries. The technology is expensive, however, and will require huge amounts of electricity in a net-zero future. Can Israel’s model be replicated in the many other places around the world facing growing water supply problems?
Big desalination plants do not come cheap. The capital cost of large-capacity plants typically runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars: not surprisingly, most plants built in recent years have been in wealthy countries like the UAE and Israel, or to supply big cities in Australia or the US.
The latest desalination market report from Global Industry Analysts, a market research company, anticipates the global desalination market to grow by 9.8% annually from $15.2bn in 2022 to $22.5bn in 2026. However, this growth will largely be driven by China and the US, say the authors, rather than the many poorer countries of the world struggling to adapt to climate change.
The operating cost of desalination is also a major burden for countries producing desalinated water. This varies around the world, depending on conditions and technology used: US Department of Energy guidelines suggest that operators should target $1.50 per cubic metre (/m3) for high-salinity water, such as brine from oil and gas operations, and $0.50/m3 for lower-salinity water such as sea water.
In Israel, the Sorek B desalination plant currently under construction is contracted to produce water for $0.41/m3, which the Israeli government suggests offers a “new benchmark for seawater desalination water prices on a global scale”.
Analysis from Christopher Gasson, publisher of the industry magazine Global Water Intelligence, points out that the low cost achieved in Israel may not be replicable in other countries. This is because the cost of project finance is typically much lower in wealthy countries, while Israel also has much lower labour costs than other wealthy countries like Australia and the US.
Gasson adds that for much of the world outside of the Middle East, desalination will be needed as a “temporary solution to getting through droughts”, in which case cheaper and more inefficient plants will be built, which will produce more expensive water.
The hope for low-income countries is that as desalination is rolled out, the price of the technology will decrease. The report from Global Industry Analysts highlights how desalination is “increasingly cost-effective and has emerged as a viable alternative means of sourcing fresh water”.
The clean energy requirement
As desalination technology becomes cheaper, an ever-growing reason for the high cost of desalination is the process’s substantial energy demands, which vary from one-third to more than half the cost of producing desalinated water. Salty water undergoes several energy-intensive steps on its desalinisation journey, typically including transportation via pumping through pipes, and then a series of pre-treatment, micronic-filtering, reverse osmosis and post-treatment procedures.
Desalination is already responsible for 0.4% of the world’s electricity consumption, and around 10% of the electricity consumed in Israel. If the process is to become compatible with a net-zero future, it must be powered by renewables. Unfortunately, this is far from the case in Israel today: more than 90% of the country’s electricity comes from fossil fuels.
Other countries in the Middle East that use desalination to produce a majority of their drinking water do so with high carbon intensity. The UAE, which produces all of its municipal water from desalinated water, does so by producing 15kg of CO2 equivalent per cubic metre of water treated, shows analysis from Asad Sarwar Qureshi, scientist in Irrigation and water management at the UAE-based International Center for Biosaline Agriculture.
All the countries in the Sahara and Arabian Deserts – which typically have both the wealth and dry conditions to make desalination viable – have a renewable electricity share of less than 20%, according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.
If desalination is to offer a viable climate adaptation method for these water-scarce countries, then it must be developed alongside an effective carbon mitigation strategy that involves a rapid scale-up of renewable energy supplies.
Cheap, renewables-powered desalination
Increasing the share of renewables in the electricity supply that powers desalination will also help lower the price of the technology since renewable electricity is now much cheaper than fossil fuel power in much of the world.
A 2020 study led by professor of solar economy Christian Breyer found that the global average levelised cost of drinking water from desalination plants could decline from €2.40/m3 ($2.60/m3) in 2015 to €1.05/m3 by 2050 if solar power and storage systems are used to decarbonise the sector.
Other tactics such as public campaigns to encourage lower water use – which could reduce existing demand by 30–50% in many urban areas – as well as improving water recycling processes and introducing high-tech farming methods like drip irrigation will also decrease the need for desalinated water and the overall cost of maintaining a water supply.
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Even though desalination plants remain expensive, there are some 186 desalination facilities currently under construction or at the pre-construction phase around the world, shows data from GlobaData, Energy Monitor’s parent company.
We will soon see a “mass-proliferation of desalination technologies as all countries begin to seek a guaranteed supply of safe water for its citizens”, say the authors of the latest Global Industry Analysts report. Growing populations and accelerating climate change mean that governments are concluding that the disadvantages of doing nothing outweigh the disadvantages of investing in a desalinated water supply.