The late Richard Smalley, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, compiled a list in 2003 of the top 10 problems that will plague humanity for half a century. On top of the list were energy and water. His rationale for putting energy above all was that most problems could be resolved or alleviated by the availability of affordable clean energy.
He was right. Energy and water pose two of the most pressing challenges for the Middle East. Studies suggest that the average citizen in the region has access to a little more than 1,000 cubic metres of natural fresh water, compared with a global average of more than 7,000 cubic metres.
There is hardly any surprise that 14 of the world’s 20 most water-scarce countries are in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. Experts estimate that domestic water demand will more than triple over the next 30 years as a result of a growing population, rapidly developing urban economy and climate change.
To meet this challenge, governments have turned to large-scale desalination and wastewater treatment. The Mena region accounts for about 38 per cent of global desalination capacity; the UAE is the second largest producer of desalinated water in the world.
There are two main types of desalination technology – thermal desalination, which uses heat to vaporise fresh water, and membrane desalination or reverse osmosis, which makes use of high pressure to purify seawater. The latter is more popular because it is more energy efficient.
However, the desalination process, by nature, is highly energy-intensive.
If this technology is powered by hydrocarbons, as is the case in the Middle East, the opportunity cost will be significant. Additionally, the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels on the scale that desalination and other methods of water treatment require is remarkable. This means that simply relying on conventional energy sources for desalination cannot be a sustainable model.
In the face of this mounting challenge, let’s not forget that this region is fortunate to receive some of the highest levels of solar irradiance on the planet. Therefore, while the Middle East is one of the world’s most water-scarce regions, it also receives more sunlight than most other parts of the world.
It’s not surprising then that a growing number of countries in the region have been exploring the potential of solar energy as a solution to their energy challenge, especially for water desalination.
Since solar energy can reliably complement conventional energy and offset the use of conventional fuels for domestic consumption, it can free hydrocarbons for export, thereby reducing reliance on imports. Additionally, it reduces operational and maintenance costs of plants, because generating solar energy requires minimal water and almost no fuel. Finally, solar power is a clean and renewable energy source, which ensures that greenhouse-gas emissions are kept to a minimum.
Despite the obvious advantages, less than 1 per cent of total desalinated water is produced in the Middle East using renewable sources. Yet, the picture is not bleak.
As economies improve on the back of efficiency and reliability, policymakers across the region are earmarking investment and committing to large-scale renewable desalination projects.
With the rapid advances in technology and the rising number of installations across the region, it is only a matter of time before the sun becomes a significant power source for the region’s energy-intensive industrial activities.
Had Mr Smalley lived a few more years, he would have been heartened to see the shift towards solar energy as a solution to the world’s water challenges.
The Middle East, for its part, has an opportunity to set a global benchmark for solar-powered desalination.
It would serve the region well if the business community would rally in support of the efforts by leaderships in the region to recognise solar’s crucial role in the energy mix for producing potable water.
Ahmed S Nada is vice president and region executive for the Middle East at First Solar, a provider of solar energy solutions