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Tuesday, March 10

Desalination Mirage

The following passages are from John Vidal's slambang razzledazzle February 19, 2011 report for the Guardian, What does the Arab world do when its water runs out? The report, still as fresh and important as when Vidal gathered data for it, is worth reading in its entirety, although here I'll focus on just those passages relating to desalination. 
Before launching, howevrer, I do want to mention that Vidal was covering so much ground that he couldn't drill down, if you'll pardon the expression, into every situation he outlined without making the report book length. But this means he completely omitted all the bad news related to the following practice he mentioned:
The more drastic response to the [water] crisis is to shift farming elsewhere and to build reserves. Saudi Arabia said in 2008 it would cut domestic wheat output by 12.5% a year to save its water supplies. It is now subsidising traders to buy land in Africa. 
The Saudi government sure as hell is buying up African farming land through proxies. It's called "villagization," which takes a prize for Orwellian language.  Villagization is exactly the opposite of what it sounds like; it's displacing African farmers from their villages to make way for foreign-owned agribusiness.
Saudis aren't the only ones doing this; Indian agribusiness is also engaged in villagization in Africa. This isn't even talking about China's agribusiness scooping up huge chunks of Ukrainian farmland or the Saudis having turned fertile regions in Pakistan into their plantation-- while many Pakistanis go hungry and thirsty.
Villagization is a kind of pussyfooting plantation colonialism made possible by hardscrabble governments corrupt as the day is long being bought up by the foreigners.
But it could be the scandals that started bringing villagization to public attention happened before John Vidal researched for his report.  In a later post I'll look at one of the scandals, which got so stinky it couldn't be covered up any longer. For now, and for readers who think desalination was a viable answer for chronic water shortages:
Meanwhile, says the UN, farm land is becoming unusable as irrigation schemes and intensive farming lead to waterlogging and desalination.
Some oil-rich Arab countries are belatedly beginning to address the problem. Having drained underground aquifers to grow inappropriate crops for many years, they have turned en masse to desalination. More than 1,500 massive plants now line the Gulf and the Mediterranean and provide much of north Africa and the Middle East's drinking water – and two-thirds of the world's desalinated water.
The plants take salty or brackish water, and either warm it, vaporise it and separate off the salts and impurities, or pass it through filters. According to the WWF, it's an "expensive, energy intensive and greenhouse gas-emitting way to get fresh water", but costs are falling and the industry is booming.
 Solar-powered plants are being built for small communities but no way has been found to avoid the concentrated salt stream that the plants produce. The impurities extracted from the water mostly end up back in the sea or in aquifers and kill marine life.
Only now are countries starting to see the downsides of desalination. Salt levels in the Arabian Gulf are eight times higher in some places than they should be, as power-hungry water plants return salt to an already saline sea. The higher salinity of the seawater intake reduces the plant's efficiency and, in some areas, marine life is suffering badly, affecting coral and fishing catches.
Desalination has allowed dictators and elites to continue to waste water on a massive scale. Nearly 20% of all Saudi oil money in the 1970s and 80s was used to provide clean water to grow wheat and other crops in regions that would not naturally be able to do so.
Parks, golf courses, roadside verges and household gardens are all still watered with expensively produced clean drinking water. The energy – and therefore water – needed to keep barely insulated buildings super-cold in Gulf states is astonishing.
Actually desalination has allowed everyone who uses it, not just dictators and elites, to waste water on a massive scale.  It's just that elites created a big mirage in the desert out of desalination.


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