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Desalination—A Viable, Cost-Effective Solution to South Africa’s Water Scarcity Woes

Thirsty? How about a cool, refreshing glass of seawater? Humans need fresh water to survive, and with a planet composed of 70% water, this should not be hard to achieve, right? But 97% of our planet’s water is saltwater, and only 1% is fresh water. With the increase in population and drought conditions experienced in many areas of the world—especially in South Africa, water supply is running short. 

With population and industrial growth, poor watershed management, the widespread pollution and deterioration of rivers and other freshwater ecosystems, and with the impacts of climate change, South Africa needs a dedicated and efficient long-term solution. The solution is “desalination” and it’s being used more and more around the world to provide people with much needed fresh water.

Often identified as the ‘ultimate limitless resource’ and the ‘only climate-resilient source of water independent of rain’, providing the ‘highest assurance of supply’—desalination is a proven technology that can create high-quality drinking water.

A proven technology that brings many benefits

While there are many desalination methods, the only process that ticks all the boxes in terms of catering for large volumes, environmental impact and cost are Reverse-Osmosis. A proven technology, reverse-osmosis is a process that removes extra sodium from the water. In simplistic terms, seawater or brackish water, containing dissolved salt molecules, is forced through a semipermeable membrane (a filter), in which the larger salt molecules are unable to get through the membrane holes. 

Today, desalination only contributes about 1% of global drinking water, with the Arab Emirates, Israel and Kuwait treating up to 90% of its water. As parts of the world descend into a new era of heat and dryness, desalination will look like a mighty tempting solution. Besides producing water at the level of millions of gallons each day for human consumption, agriculture and industrial needs—desalination brings many additional benefits.

Energy from desalination can create energy

Technology is advancing day by day with an increase in the efficiency of reverse-osmosis, which is its core method for desalination, making it environmentally friendly. When desalination plants pump water into their facility to process the water, it creates water movements that could be useful for turbine rotation. Positioning usable solar and hydropower technologies at these plants could help South Africa generate power while gaining the advantage of more freshwater to use at the same time.

Multiple industries can benefit from desalination side-products

The salt removed from water during the desalination process is highly concentrated and dangerous—but industries can use it in several unique ways. While sodium products are usable as de-icing agents, brine is effective at keeping ice off transportation networks, and further side-products can be useful for dust levels, fracking activities, and the production of salt stone.

Removes chemicals, metals and bacteria from brackish water

The term “desalination” is misleading because the process can remove more than just salt from seawater. The process is useful not only in coastal areas where the groundwater has salt but also inland water sources that are brackish. It can remove harmful chemicals, metals, or bacteria that may have been contaminated by a variety of industrial processes or natural occurrences. Therefore, it’s not necessary to rely on the ocean for desalination to be useful. No matter the location, desalination is a valuable technology that can fit the needs of many.

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Desalination and energy use

There are nearly 20 000 desalination plants worldwide - with 10 desalination plants dotted along the coast from Lambert’s Bay in the West to Richards Bay in the East in South Africa. But if desalination is the answer to the world’s water crisis—you may have wondered why this method is not being utilised more to resolve all our water supply problems. After all, South Africa boasts a coastline of over 2500 kilometres, so we should consider the oceans as an abundant water supply, right?

Converting seawater into a liquid you can drink with confidence costs money

Energy consumption costs are one of the greatest challenges facing water treatment plants, and over the years, these powerful water factories have picked up a bad rap. Desalination requires sophisticated plants that have high capital costs, significant maintenance requirements, and shorter operating life than traditional water treatment plants. 

For seawater desalination, energy use can represent 50-70% of total operating costs—making it a slightly more costly method than conventional methods. However, advancements in reverse-osmosis over the last few years have seen energy usage reduced by 30%.

NuWater has set new benchmarks in performance, productivity and reliability 

Take NuWater, for example, a key player in the South African water waste management sector. NuWater has pioneered several technologies, including the high-flux 16″ Reverse-Osmosis membrane technology with its patented integrated Flow Distributor and Electromagnetic Field technologies that reduce fouling and scaling. The 16″ RO technology can reduce the footprint of a NuWater RO plant to less than half of that of a similar mobile’ water and wastewater treatment and plant-based on conventional 8″ RO technology. 

We design, build, lease, and operate modular and mobile desalination plants

At NuWater, we design, build, own, lease, and operate sustainable next-generation, next-level ‘Modular & Mobile’ water and wastewater treatment and desalination plants that reduce operational costs and environmental impact. Providing highly flexible water treatment solutions aimed at shorter-term planning horizons and more localised requirements, our technologies can build a sustainable and equitable future—for nature and South Africa. 

With only 0,007% of the planet’s water being drinkable, desalination provides a climate-independent source of water for critical human needs and economic development. As an effective way to secure water supplies against the effects of climate change, a growing population and drought—desalination shouldn’t be looked at as a last resort. Instead, we need to look at desalination as a viable, cost-effective solution to South Africa’s water scarcity woes.

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NuWater has evolved from a dynamic new startup challenging the status quo, to an industry leader and pioneer of smart water treatment solutions. Solutions that are sustainable, mobile, adaptable, resourceful and transformational.

Solutions that are changing lives, communities, businesses, ecosystems and environments for the better. Solutions that turn previously unusable water sources into valuable resources for our growing portfolio of clients.

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