Sustainable Water Management – What is the Silver Bullet?

"To address the many challenges related to water [namely, the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation]..…we must be open to new ideas and innovation, and be prepared to share the solutions we need for a sustainable future. If we do so, we can end poverty, promote global prosperity and well-­‐being, protect the environment and withstand the threat of climate change."  ~  Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General 2015

Sustainable Water Management in Arid Regions

I’ve recently been reading articles on water resource management and the use of desalination technology in drought-prone regions.  It’s not a new idea.  For many years, Israel has been using this technology to remove salt from Mediterranean seawater to provide towns and cities with potable drinking water supplies.    The use of this technology means that residents no longer face taxes and fines for excessive household water consumption, no longer do they replace their gardens with paving or synthetic grass nor do they have to observe hose-pipe bans and restricted showering times.  For Israel, desalination technology has been the solution to drought management challenges. 

However, environmentalists continue to argue that this may not be the most sustainable water management option. The process is energy intensive, requiring 2 kilowatt hours of energy to produce 1 cubic meter of fresh water.  The resulting brine is a highly concentrated mixture of salts and chemical agents that can be toxic to plants and animals in marine environments, and therefore careful consideration of disposal is required.  Personally, as a passionate educator, my own concern is that by simply using technologies to ‘create’ more fresh water to meet rising demands, we don’t challenge citizens to take responsibility for their own water use and management.  In a world of increasing population, rising resource demands and environmental change, a well- informed public is an essential part of the solution.

As other regions such as the Middle East, California and Greece begin to turn their attention to Desalination Technology to avail themselves of their water supply challenges, is it time to re-examine the case for this technology?

We’ve just launched a new Masters programme in Desalination and Water Technology, because we believe that the next generation of Water Engineers need to be fully equipped with the knowledge, experience and skills to help solve the grand challenges that Ban Ki Moon refers to the opening quote in this article.  Here, we challenge our students to weigh the pro’s and the cons of this technology and we push them to innovate beyond our current capacity - to ‘Future Think’, to prepare themselves for solving real challenges in the most sustainable and responsible way.   It’s attitudes like this that help advance technologies; in fact,  new developments such as chemical-free “plant in a box,” osmosis  produced in Singapore, and hybrid-thermal membrane technology that is energy-efficient enough to run on solar power, developed in Germany, point to a future for this technology that could aid water resource management and meet environmental targets.

There is no doubt about the challenges facing Water Managers in future.  These are merely part of the Food, Energy and Water nexus, where water security will be intricately tied to other resources.  For me however, the silver bullet in water management is the ingenuity, creativity and capacity of our students – the future Water Engineers, who not only offer solutions to challenges, but to do so in ways that are sustainable and socially responsible.  That’s why it is our duty to equip our students to be the creative, innovative and responsible problem solvers of tomorrow.


A short article written for discussion by students in Desalination and Water Technology MSc, Heriot-Watt University