Low water levels reveal dry, crisp banks of the Nile. As one of the world’s longest rivers is threatened by both overexploitation and climate change, so is the water security of the millions of people who depend on it for daily use in Sudan and Egypt. .
As the host country of the COP27 climate conference, Egypt has put water security at the forefront. Monday was “water day” at the summit, and desalination was a hot topic.
Desalination, a costly and energy-intensive way to turn seawater into a drinking source, is one of the cornerstones of the country’s – and the region’s – response to water scarcity.
Egypt is looking to increase its desalination capacity, aiming to quadruple production by building 17 new desalination plants over the next five years. The entire Sharm el-Sheikh Conference Center is run with filtered water using desalination technology.
Although desalination technology is so energy-intensive, experts warn that in many cases its use could further contribute to climate change by increasing emissions. In 2016, for example, desalination accounted for 3% of the Middle East’s water supply, but 5% of its total energy consumption, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.
However, Egypt’s plans for desalination expansion are expected to run entirely on solar power to date.
“Desalination is a very energy-intensive process. Forty percent of the cost is electricity,” said Ayman Soliman, CEO of the Sovereign Fund of Egypt, a sovereign wealth fund established in 2018 by the Egyptian government to manage private investment in the country. .
“The genesis of the idea was: how do you control costs? It was a natural direction towards renewable energy, because renewable energy has become so mainstream, so competitive, that renewable energy is now a source of energy more competitive for desalination.”
“It’s not something you should have a price for”
Egypt is not the only country in North Africa to move towards desalination to secure its water supply. Moroccan Equipment and Water Minister Nizar Baraka spoke on Monday and said that according to his estimates, the country will lose a third of its water supply by 2050.
“Morocco is struggling against a very significant hydrological stress. In the past five years, we have experienced a severe drought episode. This year has been the (worst) drought for more than 40 years,” Baraka said.
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Baraka explained that Morocco has used dams to control its waterways. They have over 150 dams in operation around the country to try and conserve the water supply. “But that’s not enough,” he said.
Some desalination is already in the works in the coastal city of Casablanca, with six new stations due to open in 2023, he said. By 2030, one billion cubic meters of water will be desalinated in Morocco, Baraka said.
“When you’re dealing with water, it’s a very sensitive commodity, it’s an essential ingredient for life. It’s not something you should have a price on,” said Soliman of the ‘Egypt.
The problem is that water, as a necessity, does not benefit private investment because it is undervalued, Soliman explained, particularly because of its importance for survival.
“Water has a cost but not a price,” he said.
Desalination is gaining ground around the world
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is among the institutions that have helped foot the bill for desalination projects. Part of the regulations set for projects to be approved is that they use renewable energy, according to Sue Barrett, the bank’s infrastructure manager for Turkey, the Middle East and Africa.
Egypt’s expansion plan also relies on the sovereign wealth fund which subsidizes the construction of private businesses. The estimated capital cost of desalinating water is around US$1,000 per cubic meter, and Reuters previously reported that the fund plans to reduce that price by 20-25%.
That sweetened the deal to attract investors, Soliman said, with open bidding attracting a lot of attention. Soliman said on Monday that the country is also looking for investors in green hydrogen projects and that those investments will need to come with enough desalination capacity to be self-sufficient.
African nations are far from the only countries turning to desalination technology to adapt to climate change. California rejected a $1.4 billion project in May, only to change tact and approve a smaller project last month as the US state is in the midst of a historic drought. Saudi Arabia and Israel are also heavily dependent on desalination and have invested heavily in the technology over the past decade.
But as desalination becomes more popular, brine disposal will become an environmental issue in itself, along with considerations for how it disrupts marine life. A study found that enough brine is currently being discharged to cover the state of Florida with 30 centimeters of brine per year. It can either be returned to the sea, buried or spread on land.
The United Nations Environment Program warns that for every liter of drinking water produced by desalination, 1.5 times that amount of water is polluted with chlorine and copper from the discharge.
“While switching to low-carbon energy sources to power desalination plants can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the release of toxic brine from desalination plants into the ocean is a bigger problem. difficult,” notes the agency.
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