What is desalination and why is it a key climate tool?

More and more people in water-scarce countries rely on desalinated water for drinking, cooking and washing. Desalination is a process that involves removing salt from seawater and filtering it to produce drinking quality water. But the fossil fuels normally used in the energy-intensive desalination process contribute to global warming, and the toxic brine it produces pollutes coastal ecosystems.

Globally, around 1% of the world’s drinking water is desalinated, but in Israel, that figure is around 25%. The country desalinizes 585 million cubic meters per year, while overall water consumption – including for industrial and agricultural use – is around 2.5 billion cubic meters.

For years, the freshwater Sea of Galilee was the main source of the country’s fresh water, providing 513 million cubic metres in the year 2001-2. But by 2018–19, that figure had shrunk to just 25 million cubic metres. Now there are plans to top up the rapidly shrinking lake with a pipeline of desalinated water. Israel also signed an agreement in 2022 to provide 200 million cubic metres of desalinated water to Jordan, in exchange for electricity from a new 600MW solar power project being built in the country.


Israel’s success with desalination is a source of climate hope for other water-scarce countries. The technology is expensive, however, and will require huge amounts of electricity in a net-zero future. Big desalination plants do not come cheap. The capital cost of large-capacity plants typically runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars: not surprisingly, most plants built in recent years have been in wealthy countries like the UAE and Israel, or to supply big cities in Australia or the US.

As desalination technology becomes cheaper, an ever-growing reason for the high cost of desalination is the process’s substantial energy demands, which vary from one-third to more than half the cost of producing desalinated water.

Five thing to know about desalination

  1. It’s a booming business. A 2018 United Nations study says there are now almost 16,000 desalination plants operating in 177 countries, producing a volume of freshwater equivalent to almost half the average flow over the Niagara Falls.
  2. Several countries, such as Bahamas, Maldives and Malta, meet all their water needs through the desalination process. Saudi Arabia (population 34 million) gets about 50 per cent of its drinking water from desalination.
  3. In most desalination processes, for every litre of potable water produced, about 1.5 litres of liquid polluted with chlorine and copper are created. This wastewater (“concentrate”) is twice as saline as ocean water. If not properly diluted and dispersed, it may form a dense plume of toxic brine which can degrade coastal and marine ecosystems unless treated.
  4. Unconventional water resources, such as those resulting from desalination, are key to support Sustainable Development Goal 6 (to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all). Seawater desalination can extend water supplies beyond what is available from the hydrological cycle, but innovation in brine management and disposal is required.
  5. The last decade has seen increased academic interest in recovering resources from brine, according to one study. Seawater contains various minerals, some of which are rare and expensive to mine on land. While extracting materials from brine is possible, its high cost restricts commercialization.

Protecting and restoring ecosystems from the impact of water, air and other types of pollution is a key tenet of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

Also read Why all of us should care about ocean communities

Read more news on sustainability and clean energy here.

Universal Group takes great efforts in protecting the environment and ocean communities. Island Power Solutions is our specialized company for island communities, with the goal to find the best alternatives to clean energy production. IPS aims to replace the unsustainable fossil fuel energy, which is both expensive and polluting to the environment leading islands to reach 100% clean power production.

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