AAs the World Cup approaches, Qatar will need at least 10,000 liters of water per day for each of its stadium grounds. Based in a region with virtually no access to fresh water, it will rely on desalination – the practice of clearing salt water to make it drinkable.
It sounds like an elegant solution – but the problem is that desalination, which is set to explode by 37% in the Gulf region over the next five years, has huge environmental costs, in terms of the fossil fuels used to carry it out. the process, and the marine environment. But without it, how could the arid region quench its thirst?
Forty-three percent of global desalination capacity comes from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Despite water scarcity, CCGs are among the The highest consumers around the world and highly dependent on desalination plants.
The United Arab Emirates has one of the highest per capita water consumption rates in the world, with residents using approximately 500 liters per day – 50% above the world average.
Yet many GCC countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, still want to promote water-rich lifestyles through desalination efforts. Groomed lawns and water parks are commonplace in cities, and at the Dubai Fountains spectacle, every half hour throughout the day, more than 83,000 liters of water gush as high as a 50 floors.
But with the increase in population, the region’s water industry faces increasing pressure. “These factories are mainly crossed by rivers. If you look at the desalination capacity across the whole of the GCC, the volume of water flowing through it is about four times the amount of water flowing into the Thames,” says program director Will Le Quesne. Middle East from the UK Center for Environmental, Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences.
Maryam Rashed Al Shehhi, assistant professor of civil infrastructure and environmental engineering at Khalifa University in the United Arab Emirates, says: “Desalination is our main source of fresh water. It is a very arid region and the annual rainfall has decreased. It is therefore very frightening to think of other sources of water.
Since the 1950s, the GCC has been at the forefront of desalination. The southern Gulf coasts are dotted with more than 300 desalination plants – mostly in Saudi Arabiathe United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain.
Powering the largest desalination plant in the world requires a significant amount of energy. Saudi Arabia, the largest producer, is a fifth of global production, with approximately 30 desalination plants burning through 300,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
In fact, most desalination plants are fueled by oil or gas, operating either with thermal treatment technology, which collects steam from boiling water and condenses it, or with the more modern technology of reverse osmosis, which relies heavily on electricity generated using natural gas to power pumps which force water through very fine membranes, essentially filtering out the salts in the water.
“Anyway, you need a lot of energy. This can come from many sources, including burning fossil fuels,” says Le Quesne.
So, although Qatar maintains that the World Cup will be carbon neutral, climate organizations are already expresses doubts. The water demands alone are mind-boggling. The tournament will have to manage 144 pitches spread over eight stadiums and more than 130 additional training pitches. The delicate and complicated process to create the right turf for football in Qatar’s climate just when the weather is starting to get colder means that gardeners have to mimic winter, blowing cool air onto the grass and watering the pitch with at least 10,000 liters of desalinated water.
And for emergencies, according to Reuters, “a grass reserve of 425,000 square meters – around 40 football pitches – grows on a farm north of Doha”. The water consumption of this patch is not recorded.
And despite the national carbon reduction commitments and meeting net zero targets, the region expects to do more desalination, not less, with capacity projected to increase by 37% by 2027.
This could be devastating to the Gulf’s marine ecosystem, Le Quesne says. Desalination is one of the worst factors of marine pollution in the world, producing brine, a very saline waste generally discharged into the sea because it is saltier, toxic and warmer sea water. It may contain chemicals such as chlorine, heavy metals and anti-foaming agents which are added during the desalination process which may harm coral reefs and small marine organisms that live on the seabed.
In addition to water, smaller organisms are also at risk of being drawn into the system and may be bumped, smashed into intake pipe screens, or entrained, traveling with the water reaching the plant, resulting in serious injury and death.
“The microscopic plants in the sea, things like fish eggs, will all be dragged into the system and experience very high levels of mortality. Most of them are usually destroyed as they pass through the system,” says Le Quesne.
With growing environmental concerns, GCC countries including the United Arab Emirates and Oman are explore methods involving solar energy.
By far the most ambitious plan is that of Saudi Arabia solar dome, the world’s first brine-free desalination plant. Announced in 2020, the project is currently being prototyped as part of Neom, the weird $500bn (£447bn) planned megacity.
In partnership with a London-based company, Solar Waterthe 20 meter high glass and steel dome is proposed to be surrounded by mirrors that will collect sunlight to heat seawater, condense it in a separate chamber and distill it into fresh water.
“The dome itself will be illuminated by this strong sunlight. It will look like a sparkling jewel in the desert,” says Christopher Sansom, Professor of Concentrating Solar Power at the University of Derby and Director of Solar Water.
But although the solar dome is, according to the designers, cheaper to build and operate than conventional power plants, it will also produce significantly less water.
Although Saudi Arabia does not lack sunlight, solar-powered desalination can have its limits, Sansom says. Any interference with clouds or wind can prevent power generation. Dust is another factor that can hamper technology. In a desert environment like Saudi Arabia, solar panels need to be cleaned.
While promising, Al Shehhi states that desalination plants powered entirely by solar energy are not yet practical and that further research is needed to implement more renewable energy in the desalination process.
“It’s a challenge. The amount of water pumped every day from the Gulf to be desalinated is huge,” she says. And that’s before a world Cup is added to the equation.
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