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Turning salt water into gold

It’s a goal that’s as tricky as it is tempting: turning salt water into fresh at a cost that makes it practical, writes MSNBC’s Miguel Llanos.
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It’s a goal that’s as tricky as it is tempting: turning salt water into drinking water at a cost that makes it practical. Engineers around the world, from Oman to Illinois, have been wracking their brains trying to make the technology cheaper — and to get governments to fund more research. The stakes are enormous, but so far, advocates say, the investment in science and technology hasn’t reflected that fact.

One focal point is the Middle East Desalination Research Center, which brings together engineers, scientists, policymakers and water system operators from the region, including Israel.

Paul Simon, a former U.S. senator and author of “Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water,” sees the three-year-old center as a positive step but one that also reflects water’s weight in geopolitics.

“Israelis and Arab countries are working together and that’s a positive thing,” he said, because “water is either going to be catalyst for war or a catalyst for peace in the Middle East.”

Process still 'very inefficient'
The desalination research center, located in Oman, acknowledges the importance as well. “The economy of the Middle East is inextricably tied to desalination of seawater and brackish ground water,” reads a statement on its Web site. “In order to sustain the economic growth of the region, desalination will have to play an increasing role” in increasing the supply of fresh water.

But the center also notes that Research and development on desalination really hasn’t changed much over the past 30 years. Calling desalination still “very inefficient,” the center is seeking “innovative” research proposals that might be completely new approaches or attempts to re-engineer failed approaches.

One hopeful tool has been the Internet. In a speech to members, the head of the International Desalination Association noted its role in the “broad new interest in desalting technology.”

“No doubt aided by the numerous Internet sites which now exist,” David Furakawa said earlier this year, “more questions are now raised and more information is now transferred than ever in our short desalting history.”

Pitch for more money
In the United States, Simon has become a leading advocate for more government funding of desalination research and development.

He authored legislation in 1996 that led to a U.S. desalination research program, but notes that it and other federal desalination projects total just $2 million a year. Compare that, he says, to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, which each year spent the equivalent of $400 million in today’s dollars.

“If we spent five percent as much each year on desalination research as we spend on weapons research,” Simon writes in “Tapped Out”, “we could enrich the lives of all humanity far beyond anything anyone has conceived.”

Adding up numbers
Simon now heads the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and last month hosted a desalination conference bringing together experts from around the world.

The key conclusion, he says, was the need for more research and more cooperation among nations.

Simon feels that while short-term steps to protect water supplies should include conservation and anti-pollution measures, the long-term answers will be desalination and population control.

The numbers, he adds, make desalination an obvious policy choice: 97 percent of Earth’s water is seawater, and two-thirds of the three percent left as fresh water is tied up in icebergs and snow.

On top of that, 70 percent of the world’s population lives on coastlines, so desalination plants could be located nearby.

The numbers also reveal how little desalination is contributing now: Just one-quarter of one percent of Earth’s freshwater needs is served by desalting systems.

Homes, farms, industry
Desalinized water is now as cheap as fresh water for household use in many parts of the world. And in the United States, Tampa is building what will be the nation’s largest desalination plant to serve households.

Simon predicts most people living along coastlines will someday use desalinized water. Southern California, he notes as an example, expects its existing water supply to be enough for just 43 percent of its projected population in 2010.

A bigger challenge is the fact that home use is just 15 percent of total consumption. The rest is used by farms and industry, which often use huge volumes at subsidized rates.

“I recognize the political reality of that,” Simon says, referring to the fact that cheap water means happy farmers. “But it’s also a problem.”

Costs falling
Desalting costs have come down by a factor of 15 in the industry’s 50-year history, and Simon is optimistic that “small, incremental breakthroughs” will bring the cost down further in the near future.

“How soon,” he adds, “depends on how soon we recognize the problem.” A war over water might force us to focus on the issue, he says. But in general “we’re not good at long-term policy,” he says of policymakers.

And, referring to the political realities in the United States, he adds: “We tend to think about as far as November.”

Miguel Llanos is environmental editor for MSNBC on the Internet.