Using unconventional water resources to secure supply

01 March 2023
While a multifaceted approach to managing water scarcity is needed, the role of unconventional water resources, driven by innovative technology, is often wildly underestimated, says Carlos Cosín, CEO of Almar Water Solutions


Water scarcity is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today, and to make matters worse, its effects are compounded by climate change. 

The reduction in terrestrial water storage – or the water held in ice, snow and soil – is one example, while climate change is also increasing the frequency of droughts and storms.

The effects of climate change extend far beyond weather and the environment. Water scarcity provokes migration and tension between populations. It can greatly impact economic development – from environmental deterioration and the loss of agricultural land to tighter business margins, causing firms across the entire supply chain to lose their competitive advantage.

According to Unesco, industry accounts for up to 59 per cent of total water use in high-income nations, highlighting the correlation between consistent access to sustainable and affordable water and economic development.

Indeed, water scarcity is such a pressing global concern that the 6th United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UNSDG) calls for sustainable water management and sanitation for all.

What is rarely highlighted is that many of the remaining 16 UN SDGs, such as ‘zero hunger’ and ‘no poverty’, cannot be achieved unless the sixth is met.

Addressing water scarcity is an even more serious concern for the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. Of the 17 most water-stressed nations on earth, 12 are in the Mena region.

In 2016, the World Bank estimated that Mena would lose 6-14 per cent of its GDP by 2050 because of water scarcity caused by climate change.

Recent advances in membrane technology and brine discharge with mineral extraction will drive affordability and efficiency
Carlos Cosín, Almar Water Solutions

Desalination and water reuse

Unconventional water resources should be considered critical in managing this global crisis. 

An unconventional water resource is defined as a by-product of specialised processes or one that requires suitable pre-use treatment.

Desalination – a process that removes mineral components from seawater and highly brackish groundwater – is one approach.

Desalinated water extends water supplies beyond what is usually available, providing a climate-independent and steady supply of high-quality water. The world’s oceans contain over 97 per cent of the planet’s water resources, providing unlimited raw material for seawater desalination.

Other processes include the microscale capture of rainwater where it otherwise evaporates, atmospheric moisture harvesting using techniques such as cloud seeding and fog water collection, and the collection and treatment of wastewater and storm water. 

Desalination has long been relied upon in the Middle East, but the success of this approach in addressing water scarcity depends on several factors – cost being key. The high price of desalination in the past was a result of the energy required to power reverse osmosis membranes. 

Nowadays, energy consumption has reduced drastically, and coupled with two decades of experience since the technology spread around the globe, allows the industry to optimise the maintenance and replacement costs of membranes, other components and chemical dosing.

Recent advances in membrane technology and brine discharge with mineral extraction will undoubtedly drive affordability and efficiency, leading to more widespread adoption.

A good example of the successful use of unconventional water sources is the Shuqaiq 3 plant, developed by Almar Water Solutions and located on the Red Sea coast in Saudi Arabia.

Shuqaiq 3 is the first large-scale plant in the region to use highly efficient pure reverse osmosis technology. Impressively, it has a nominal production capacity of 450,000 cubic metres a day, equivalent to 180 Olympic-size swimming pools.

The plant not only serves the area’s population but also the agricultural and industrial activities of the provinces of Asir and Jizan, which are home to nearly four million people.

Saudi Arabia’s reuse market, worth more than $4.3bn, will be the third largest in the world
Global Water Intelligence

Given the scale of the water scarcity challenge, no one solution should be used in isolation. For example, combining desalination with water reuse strategies is one way to tackle supply challenges.

Standard water reuse usually includes ultrafiltration (UF), reverse osmosis (RO) and the ultraviolet advanced oxidation process (UV/AOP).

Ozone technology is also promising due to its ability to quickly break down organic matter. When combined with other treatment processes, ozone technology can effectively remove pollutants from water while killing bacteria and viruses. 

The lower costs and immediate availability of reuse water is another factor behind the high projected growth rate of the solution. In the US, states such as Florida and California have harnessed the benefits of reuse to diversify their water supplies.

This approach is growing in other locations such as Texas and Arizona. Few have pioneered the large-scale implementation of the technology, but some have now achieved reuse rates of 90 per cent on their conventional water supply.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has confirmed its commitment to reusing more than 90 per cent of its water by 2040 by upgrading its existing wastewater treatment assets and planning new reuse plants for its industrial sector.

According to Global Water Intelligence estimates, Saudi Arabia’s reuse market, worth more than $4.3bn, will be the third largest in the world.

We can expect to see a continued increase in reuse in the coming years, yet while the trend is gathering momentum, it is still not enough. 

More to be done

While many countries are making huge progress in introducing innovative water management and planning solutions, there has been little coordination at an international level.

Water scarcity affects the entire world and relations between nations. Therefore, there must be enhanced knowledge transfer at a global level around water scarcity and the non-conventional water solutions that aim to tackle it.

While calculating the economic advantages and disadvantages of unconventional water resources is complex, it is an important exercise to guide policymakers towards better decision-making.

More needs to be done to address the perceived high costs of technology for using unconventional water resources. Many current economic analyses do not consider other costs, such as labour, poor health and business losses resulting from reliance on less sustainable supplies.

Planned water management is essential in guaranteeing its sustainable supply and ensuring its affordability to consumers, businesses and government alike.

While there are many approaches to safeguarding against water scarcity, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a one-size approach does not work, and the vital role of technology should not be underestimated.

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