Water scarcity is a frequently discussed probable impact of climate change. As glaciers and snowcaps diminish, less fresh water will accumulate in the mountains during the winter; that increases both flooding (during wet seasons) and drought. Higher temperatures also increase water usage for everything from irrigation to cooling industrial processes. Given the extent to which the world’s aquifers are already depleted (see: Ogallala Aquifer), relatively few additional natural sources exist.
The big alternative to natural sources is the desalination of seawater. This is done in one of two ways: using multistage flash distillation or reverse osmosis. About 1,700 flash distillation plants exist in the Middle East already, processing 5.5 billion gallons of seawater per day (72% of the global total). These plants use superheated steam, a by-product of fossil fuel combustion, to pressurize and heat a series of vessels. As salt water flows into each successively lower pressure vessel, it flash boils. Condensers higher in the vessel cause the fresh water to precipitate out from the hot pressurized air solution. This is a simple process, but an energy intensive one.
Reverse osmosis, by contrast, uses a combination of high pressure pumps and specialized membranes to desalinate water. Essentially, the pressure drives fresh water through the membranes more quickly than the accompanying salts. As such, it is progressively less saline with each membrane crossing. In this process, there are both relatively high energy requirements (for high pressure pumping) and the costs associated with building and maintaining the membranes. Because it can be done at different scales, portable reverse osmosis facilities are the preferred option for combat operations or disaster relief.
Unfortunately, both processes are highly energy intensive. Particularly when that energy is being generated in greenhouse gas intensive ways, this is hardly a sustainable solution. Part of the solution is probably to sharply reduce or eliminate water subsidies – especially for industry and agriculture. More transparent pricing should help ensure that the whole business of desalination is only undertaken in situations where the need for water justifies all the expenses incurred.