Credit: Shutterstock

A team from the United Arab Emirates, which has limited natural water resources and uses desalination to make seawater drinkable, looked at cases from several countries to identify these factors and their influence on desalination around the world, publishing their findings in the journal Desalination.

“Although the economic and environmental factors have received more attention, there is evidence to suggest that the use of desalination technologies and their associated impacts would most likely exacerbate the existing inequalities in a society,” says Yazan Ibrahim, a former graduate student and research engineer at Khalifa University who joined New York University, Abu Dhabi, for his Ph.D. in 2021.

RELATED: Solar-powered desalination plants could help achieve global water security

“This was attributed to the increased greenhouse-gas emissions, increased water prices, urban-growth motivation, shifting geopolitical relations related to water security and increased chemical pollution,” he says. The research team used a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis as the framework for a critical review of the sociopolitical factors that impact the adoption and proliferation of desalination.

A SWOT analysis is typically employed to help gain insights into the strengths and opportunities of an initiative or concept as well as the associated weaknesses and threats.

“We defined ‘sociopolitical’ factors as factors with a significant social dimension, which have either underlying social, economic or political root causes and consequences within those spheres,” Ibrahim says. “We identified eight strengths and opportunities, and seven weaknesses and threats.”

The strengths and opportunities include fast deployment and low physical footprint that comes with some desalination technologies with the potential to help remote communities and tourist facilities flourish.

Many factors are at play when it comes to the sociopolitical dimension of desalination. A holistic approach to this subject is essential.

Yazan Ibrahim, researcher

Desalination can significantly enhance the water security of a nation, while also supporting regional stabilities by evading conflict over water resources.

Local employment opportunities during the construction and operation of desalination plants are another benefit, but easy access to water also means more work and education opportunities for women who might otherwise be tasked with the time-consuming work of sourcing and carrying water.

Most-cited weaknesses include the visual impacts, noise and land-use issues. Beyond this: the unintended consequences of excessive reliance on desalination and the potential impacts of poor mineralization of desalinated water on human health.

Freshwater contains minerals that may offer health benefits, and it’s not yet understood if desalinated water that has not been re-mineralized could have adverse health effects.

Threats to desalination also stem from social tension among those who mistrust the technologies as well as the wide range of human and natural threats to operation ranging from cyberattacks to natural disasters and oil spills.

The team’s research makes it clear that aside from political stability, water security and economic growth, desalination can also boost tourism, agriculture and education.

“Since its inception, desalination has delivered a range of benefits to societies in arid regions and supported their economic development and political stability. It must be recognized, however, that many factors are at play when it comes to the sociopolitical dimension of desalination. A holistic approach to this subject is essential,” Ibrahim says.

Join our mailing list

Get the latest articles, news and other updates from Khalifa University Science and Tech Review magazine