Short of fresh water, North Africa is turning to desalination for water security

The low water levels reveal dry, crisp banks of the River Nile. As one of the world’s longest rivers is threatened by both overuse and climate change, so too is the water security of the millions who rely on it for daily use in Sudan and Egypt.

As the host country of the COP27 climate conference, Egypt has kept water security at the center. Monday was “water day” at the summit and desalination was a hot topic.

Desalination, an expensive and energy-intensive way to turn seawater into a potable source for use, is one of the cornerstones of the country and region’s response to water scarcity.

Egypt aims to increase its desalination capacity, with the goal of quadrupling production by building 17 new desalination plants over the next five years. The entire conference center in Sharm el-Sheikh is operated using 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 three percent of the Middle East’s water supply but five percent of its total energy consumption, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

However, Egypt’s plans to expand desalination should, as of today, run entirely on solar energy.

“Desalination is an energy-intensive process. 40% of the cost is electricity,” said Ayman Soliman, CEO of the Sovereign Fund of Egypt, a sovereign fund established in 2018 by the Egyptian government to manage private investments. In the country.

“The genesis of the idea was: how do you control costs? It was a natural direction to move towards renewables because renewables have actually become so traditional, they have become so competitive, that renewables are now a more competitive source of energy for desalination. “

A man walks by a boat moored on the bank of the Nile River in the northern state of Sudan near the Kassinger Islands on October 28, 2022. Climate change, pollution and exploitation are putting unsustainable pressure on the second longest river in the country. world, upon which millions of Africans depend. (Ashraf Shazly / AFP / Getty Images)

“Not something you should have a price on”

Egypt is not the only North African nation moving towards desalination to secure water supplies. Moroccan Minister of Equipment and Water, Nizar Baraka, spoke on Monday and said that according to their estimates the country will lose a third of its water supply by 2050.

“Morocco is battling a very important hydrological stress. In the last five years we have had a severe drought. This year was the (worst) drought in more than 40 years,” said Baraka.

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Baraka explained that Morocco has used dams to control its waterways. They have more than 150 dams in use in the country to try and preserve the water supply. “But that’s not enough,” he said.

Some desalination is already underway in the coastal city of Casablanca, with six new stations slated to open in 2023, he said. By 2030, one billion cubic meters of water will be desalted in Morocco, Baraka said.

“When you are dealing with water, it is a very delicate commodity, it is an essential ingredient for life. It is not something that you should have a price on,” Soliman said in Egypt.

The trouble is that water as a necessity is not good for private investment because it is undervalued, Soliman explained, especially as essential 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) was among the institutions that helped foot the bill for desalination projects. According to Sue Barrett, the bank’s infrastructure manager for Turkey, the Middle East and Africa, part of the rules set for projects to be approved is that they use renewable energy.

Egypt’s expansion plan also depends on the sovereign wealth fund subsidizing the construction of private companies. The estimated capital cost of water desalination is around US $ 1,000 per cubic meter, and Reuters previously reported that the fund plans to lower that price by 20 to 25 percent.

This sweetened the deal to attract investors, Soliman said, with the open offers attracting a lot of attention. Soliman said on Monday that the country is also looking for investors in green hydrogen projects and that such investments will need to have sufficient desalination capacity to be self-sufficient.

Governor Gavin Newsom, center, speaks to reporters during a press conference at the construction site of a water desalination plant in Antioch, California on August 11, 2022. (Godofredo A. Vásquez / The Associated Press)

African nations are far from being the only countries looking to desalination technology to address climate adaptation. California turned down a $ 1.4 billion project in May, only to change its tune and approve a smaller project last month as the US state is in the midst of a historic drought. Saudi Arabia and Israel also rely heavily on desalination and have invested heavily in technology over the past decade.

But as desalination becomes more popular, brine disposal will become an environmental issue in its own right, as will considerations of how it disrupts marine life. One study found that enough brine is currently being discharged to cover the state of Florida with 30 centimeters of brine per year. It can be returned to the sea, placed underground or scattered on land.

The United Nations Environment Program warns that for every liter of drinking water produced through desalination, 1.5 times that amount of water is polluted with chlorine and copper due to the discharge.

“Although switching to low-carbon energy sources to power desalination plants can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the discharge of toxic brine from desalination plants into the ocean is a more challenging problem,” he notes. ‘agency.

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