The French utility services group Veolia has won a contract worth 702 million euros (945 million dollars) to design and build a water desalination plant in Saudi Arabia. The plant is expected to be completed by 2010 and will desalinate 800,000 cubic meters of water per day. Saudi Arabia already produces 24% of the total world capacity of freshwater using desalination.
Desalination refers to a process that removes excess salt from water to make it suitable for consumption by animals and humans or for irrigation. Desalination plants are generally expensive and require heavy infrastructure compared to the costs of filtering or treating freshwater from rivers or wells.
More and more countries facing extreme drought conditions are looking towards desalination as a last hope for a source of freshwater. Australia is in the process of building a $3.1 billion dollar desalination plant which will cost $140 million dollars a year to run and is expected to be completed by 2011. As climate change continues to alter the weather in such a way that it creates extreme drought conditions, desalination plants will be increasingly relied upon in certain parts of the world.
However, the environmental impact of these plants is not inconsiderable. Marine life takes a hit when desalination plants are built due to the ocean water intakes. Desalination plants can potentially destroy 90% of plankton and fish eggs in surrounding water. A great deal of energy is also needed to power the plants
Other methods of water management that have less of an environmental impact need to be prioritized over energy-expensive desalination. Reduced-volume irrigation systems and the use of drought resistance crops, amongst other techniques, could significantly reduce our dependence on desalination technology, helping save both money and the environment.