Water shortage is becoming nowadays one of the biggest challenge facing human life and the global natural system in many areas of the world. The causes of this concern are linked to different human factors as the massive increase of population, needs of water because of the rapid industrialisation, the growth of the tourism industry and obviously for agricultural purpose. (UN,2009)
In the time of climate change, water is essential to achieve sustainable development. Due to this climatic variability, the stress on water resources is becoming higher and in particular in semi-arid or arid countries creating a serious risk for people health and human development..(ipcc,2008)
The access to a sufficient quantity of drinking water, for domestic, commercial and industrial use, is essential point in achieving a good health level for population and for a decent human and economic development. To support the growth in global population that has already overcome the 6 billion and expected to growth till 9.2 billion in 2075 (UN Population Division, 2004) the global water resources could became an international concern. Globally speaking the amount of freshwater present on the earth is enough to accomplish the needs of everyone. However, many countries are suffering of water shortage and by 2025, 1,800 million people will be living in regions with high level of water scarcity and two-third of the global population could face serious water stress condition. (UN World Water Day, 2009)
The city of Almeria is situated in the arid south-east of the autonomous Spanish region of Andalucia. According to the ‘Instituto de Estdistica de Andalucia’ the total population updated at the year 2009 is of 188.810 habitants spread on a surface of 295.1. (Junta de Andalucia,2010.) metti I dati della provincial.
The province of Almeria is characterize by a semi-arid thermo-Mediterranean climate that usually presents dry summer of long duration. The annual average temperature is above 18°C . (Cantòn,2003). The average temperature is about 13°C in January and 24°C in July, while rainfall average is measured in 200-300 mm/year. (Goy,2003).
There are three general natural aspects that helped the Province to achieve the actual level of development, allowing the impervious economic growth. This values needs to be considered when the growth started in the sixties. Firstly, the Mediterranean climate is particularly suitable for horticultural production with an high days of sun per year with generally high temperature. Secondly, there was a considerable reserve of water in the Campo De Dalias subsoil and with the simultaneous development on the extraction system technology, it became accessible for agricultural use. Thirdly, the valley presented a large extension of unused eroded land with low economic value making easier the acquisition of land for cultivation. (Herrera,2005).
In the last two decades of the XX century, the Almerian economy has been change drastically due to the agricultural development that allowed to the area an economic boom that has never been achieved before. This mutation brought from a subsistence agriculture to an intensive high tech model. In consequence of these events, the water resource became first element of matter on maintaining this high level of production that put incredible pressure on the natural groundwater basin of Almerian. (Torrente, 2005)
According to the Andalucian Statistic Institute the last data available for the year 2008, the value of agricultural production is estimated in about 1,87 billion €/year and the value has risen for an 8% compared to the year 2007.
As cited above, the Almeria’s area has been subject to an high level of stress on water resources, firstly for natural characteristics and secondly due to the exploitation of water from agriculture.
The history of Spanish water management has to be briefly considered because it is connected with the solution decided to solve the water shortage problem in the area.
The agricultural production had a large impact on the groundwater basin health in arid and semi-arid land as the Almeria region is. The groundwater has been affected by massive pumping for cultivation and while in inland Spain the pumping is generally organised to serve a large number of operator and consequently subject to an easier control by the governmental authority (depending also because the cultivation in the area are low income generator plants as corps), in Almeria is on the contrary, generally based on individual pumping (because of the more valuable cultivation as vegetables and fruit), and for this reason it has been difficult also for the authorities to control the amount of water extracted that brought to a serious risk on increasing desertification and water degradation. (Albiac,2006).
Water management in Spain has been also subject depending on the national government different policies in matter of water.
The National Water Plan has been approved from the Spanish Government by the Law 10/2001. (MMA,2008).
The plan, also called Ebro project was indented to solve the deficit on water scarcity especially for south-eastern Spain transferring 800 hm3 on a distance of 750 km from the Ebro basin, situated in Catalunya, to the arid region of Jùcar, Segura and Southeastern Spain. (Albiac,2005). The project has several opposition for the cost needed to realise the transfer, for the final uneconomic prize of water and because considered unsustainable to the environment.
The Spanish government is supporting from more then two decades water desalination as a solution to solve the problem of water shortage.
In fact, in 1983 the government starts organising subvention for desalination as a solution to achieve a general prize of water that has to be in line with the national average also for areas suffering of water shortage with the consequence of high public investment that allowed a growth in the desalination capacity and generally increasing the availability of water during the years following. (Gascò,2004)
In 2004 the new government lead by Josè Luiz Zapatero declared on the investiture debate: ” I want to announce a new water policy, a policy that takes into account both the economic value and social value and environmental value of water, with the aim of ensuring the availability and quality, optimizing its use and restoring associated ecosystems.”(mma,2004)
After this declaration the Spanish government moved from the previous National Hydrological Plan to the new Programa Agua that proposed the realisation of 21 new desalination facilities of which five of them scheduled for the region of Almeria.(MMa,2004)
The use of desalination to supply freshwater has risen continuously in the past decades on global scale Water desalination from seawater or brackish water is gaining more and more consideration in country that present a situation of semi-arid or arid climate. In these areas the conventional use of water resources is limited and subject to extreme stress. Water desalination is seen as a solution for areas where we can register a growing demand of water or where water quality deterioration is occurring. (Ida,2009)
Desalination has already given a big contribution on improving the general condition of human life especially for world’s dry areas. Without desalination some of these region would have been still unhabited and desalination is supplying water even to some rich countries that have damaged or overused the groundwater resource giving in this sense his contribute to the global sustainability. Furthermore, desalination institution are massively investing on scientific research in order to develop new techniques that will help on achieve environmental sustainable technology in the close future. (Desware website).
While water desalination is seen as easier solution to solve water shortage deficit, it is important to consider that this process has still high cost of realisation, and many countries are not able to afford this typology of fresh water production. For that reason saving cost and finding new techniques is the first objective for desalination promoters in order to extend the range of plants development to most of the world countries.
Furthermore, the process to produce desalinated water is still presenting several negative effects that are mainly recognised in the massive quantity of energy needed for the workability of the plant with the consequent pollutant emission in the air, a considerable impact on land and marine environment especially regarding the pumping site and the brine discharge. (Letterman,2008)
Desalination is still powered by fossil fuel that is the biggest matter on the increase of greenhouse gasses and consequently influencing climate change. (Guge,2010)
Hence, the purpose of this study can be summed with the question: ” Is the practice of water desalination sustainable on solving the problem of water shortage for the Almeria region?”
The aim of the study is to examine the sustainability of water desalination as a model for the future in the region of Almeria. In order to reach the objective established the three pillar of sustainability (economic, social and environmental) will be taken in consideration.
In order to achieve a sustainable model the objectives of the study are:
examine the sustainability of the water desalination as a solution for water shortage problem with an investigation that takes into account the three pillars of sustainability that regards the economic, social and environmental fields. .
investigation on the possibility of system’s develop in order to reduce the weak parts of the process and integrate with new hi-tech solution to reduce cost and maximize the performance following the concept of ”doing more with less”.
During the history of human mankind water salty water has been treated in order to supply drinking water and for agricultural use. On the whole globe, salted water from oceans represent the 94% of the whole resource while only 6% is present as freshwater. This freshwater can be split in water from glacier (27%) and underground water (72%). As for many technical evolution in human history, the biggest development related to water desalination happened in the 1940s and precisely due to the World War II because of the necessity of supply water to the army trup. Later on, durin the 1960s, the first organisation regarding water desalination has been created wih the name of ”Office of Saline Water” (OSW) and consequently its follower ”Office of Water Research Technology (OWRT) was the leader on pursue the develop of the desalination industry. At the beginning the predominant techniques used was thermal desalination but during the 1970s membrane technology (such as reverse osmosis) started to became the most efficient technique. (Cahill, 2005:262)
The situation is nowadays completely changed and according to the ”Desalination Yearbook 2008-2009” published by the Global Water Intelligence, the worldwide number of planned facilities increased up to 43% in 2007 (6.8 million m³ per day), while in 2006 the amount was 4,7 million m³ per day. The growth is therefore calculated in 2.1 million m³ per day that is equivalent in providing water to a 50 million people. Moreover, the growth has continued during the year 2008 and looking at the first semester of the year, the new planned facilities increased by 39% fixing the planned capacity at 62.8 million m³ per day.
The IDA’s 2008-2009 ”Desalination yearbook” also stated that the worldwide number of planned desalination facilities has totalled 13,869 referring at the period till the 30th of June, while in the same period the year before the number recorded 13,080. (IDA,2009)
According to the Global Water Intelligence preview of the book ”Desalination Market 2010”, between 2006 and 2010 the market passed from the opposite extreme of rapid growth to disastrous collapse. The growth has been driven by the major governmental programmes in Spain, Algeria and Australia, equally to the furious activity in the Gulf area in general and especially in Dubai. The collapse of the market is seen as the completion of these national program and due to the global financial crisis that had huge impact on estate growth worldwide. The forecast made by DesalData for the next year has been done comparing the market value of the past four years (considered till the end of 2009), with the expected market value for the next for years (consided till the end of 2013).
The growth for this period is estimated in about 40% that is correspondent on a 10% growth year that is in line with the average rate market. Furthermore, looking at the future, it seem to be clear that membrane distillation will continue to be the most used technique to the detriment of thermal desalination, although multi-stage flash and multi effect distillation represented around 26% of the market in the period between 2000 and 2009. (Global Water Intelligence, 2010)
Desalination through reverse osmosis (RO)
The most used techniques for desalination are the so called ”reverse osmosis” and ”multistage-flash”. In Almeria, and mostly in the majority of the European plants, RO is the technique that has been chosen for the plant.
A brief explanation of the system’s functioning is following. The idea of a simplified description has the aim to take familiarity with the different parts of the process, because on this research, there will be a part about the combination with new technologies in order to make the system more sustainable maximizing in cost-effective.
The choice of the technique to use is usually done taking into account different condition such as water salinity, the expected quality required from the final product, characteristics and condition of the labour force, availability of land and the cost of energy.
The Reverse Osmosis process have reference to the more generally called membrane process. In fact, membranes are naturally designed with the quality of allow the separation of the salts. The RO process works because of a pressure system process the permit water to move through the membrane separating salts from water.
Reverse osmosis is also based on the property called semi-permeability. This characteristic is that the water level of permeability is high while the level of others substances is low. Applying pressure, water is forced to pass through the membrane but it needs to be feed to reach the osmotic pressure point and to achieve that point an high feed of pressure is required. For seawater desalination the pressure range goes usually from 55 ro 68 bar, while brackish water needs lower pressure due to lower level of osmotic pressure point caused by the lower water salinity.
Main stages of the RO process are: water abstraction, pre-treatment, pumping system, membrane separation unit, energy recover system, post-treatment and control system.
In the Almerian plant, water abstraction comes from the coast water that allow better water quality compared with open-sea water. The pre-treatment stage is done to regulate water’s composition and the PH level. Substances as particulate is taken off and chemicals matters are added in order to avoid poisoning contaminants. The pumping system is needed to vanquish the difference in height between the distribution system and the feed water trough applying pressure. In succession, the membrane separate salt from water in a very high percentage that goes between 98 to 99,5%. The energy recovery system transfer the energy from the concentrate to the feed in order to reduce the amount of energy used. In the post-treatment stage, water is re-mineralised and chlorine is added acting as disinfectant. All the steps in the post-treatment step are meant to give drinking standard level at the water. Finally, after the control-system checked the water, the product is now ready to be delivered. (Fritzman,2007)
According to the European Environmental Agency report of 2005, Spain is recognized as stressed nation to what concern the water resource. In fact, water abstraction growth 3,4% between 1997 and 2002. The elevate percentage on the cited growth in abstraction has to be linked to the economic development and the combined urbanization. However, the biggest part of the abstraction is related to the massive use of water meant for agricultural purpose that is calculated at the 76% of the total water abstracted. (EEA,2005).
Freshwater resources per capita in Spain is about 2775m3 per year; however the distribution in not homogeneous and the Mediterranean area (Almeria), Balearic and Canary islands are suffering the more of the problem of water scarcity then the rest of the country reaching the peak of stress during the summer period due to tourism activity and because of the agriculture pressure.
The current Programa AGUA is the strategy adopted by the Spanish government that changed direction from the previous Ebro project, that had the aim of transferring water from river basin, turning on technological water desalination as optimal solution in order to reduce the present deficit. (Munoz,2008).
To understand the decision of moving from a transfer approach from the river basin to an approach based on the realization of desalination facilities it can be useful to analyze the economic benefit of both methods.
The old National Hydrological Plan was palnned with two main pipes to bring water in deficit areas. The pipe that had to supply water for the Almerian region was definitely the longest and also the bigger with a carrying capacity of 800 hm3 per year and more then 700 km of extention. The pipe had to start close to the city of Cherta and finish just in the area of the Almeria’s city.
The total cost for the realization of these infrastructure was estimated in 4,200 million Euro. (Uche, 2001)
In an examination on understanding the economic sustainability of desalination against the transert of water from river basin, it is observed that the price of water from desalination is estimated in 0,52 €/m3 and with this prize condition the demand of water is abut 280 hm3. This value shows that the cost o water is lower then the cost of transfer that will cost about 0,75 €/hm3 for the Almeria areas of Campo de Dalias and Campo Nijar. (Albiac,2002)
The first Spanish plant for seawater desalination with the ability of providing a considerable freshwater production has been built in the city of Lanzarote in the Canary Island during the year 1965. The contemporary situation in Spain is utterly different and present nowadays more then 700 desalination plants in the whole national territory with a capacity of production calculated in 800,000 m3/day and with a percentage of water derivated from the sea of 47,1%. As it is shown by the Spanish Environmental Minisrty the actions that are going to be taken by the Programa AGUA in the next future will increase the water capacity exceeding by 1100 hm3/year with a total investment estimated in about 3,900 million euro. In the province of Almeria the total performance established by the Royal Decree Law 2/2001 foresee an additional performance of 189 hm3/year with a total investment of 392 million euro. (Ministero de Medio Ambiente, 2009)
The Spanish Government support on water desalination is managed mainly in two different ways: firstly, with a public investment for hydrological works such as infrastructure or constructions of desalination facilities. Secondly, on giving subvention in order to balance the price of drinking water to obtain a prize close to the average of the households water used in the rest of th whole national territory. (Gascò,2004)
The most used techniques to desalinated water is Spain is Reverse Osmosis and the cost coming from this methods are progressively decreased in Spain.
As cited before, water desalination is the dominant solution adopted in semi-arid and arid areas of the world in order to solve water shortage. Furthermore, it is undeniable that water desalination brings several advantages even if the impact on the natural system is still considered high.
The process of desalination from seawater presents some positive aspects on reducing the human impact to the environment. For example, desalination may reduce the need to take additional water from the environment and, in some cases, offers the opportunity to return water to the environment. The most important factor is the real possibility for a potential aquifer recover relieving the pressure of pumping water from the basin and avoiding degradation or depletion that in some cases bring to the salination of groundwater with an high risk of increase the land degradation and desertification process. (pacific institute 2006)
Even though seawater desalination offers different benefits in the social, environmental and economic fields, especially because it can furnish practically and constantly an unlimited quantity of high quality water without damaging the groundwater and its ecosystem, others matter of concerns have to be taken in consideration to determinate the sustainability of the process. Large part of these concern are mainly related on the damaging effects that affect the environment such as discharge of chemical concentrate that can have a consequential effect on the marine environment or air pollutant due to high energy demand needed. (Letterman,2008)
Energy consumption and brine discharge pollutant can be seen as the so called ”direct impacts” derived from water desalination. Others related impacts to take into consideration are also the noise emitted from the plant, the disturb on the landscape visual, the possibility of leaks from the mechanical system and loss of valuable natural public areas. The social impact has to be considered as possible indirect cause of environmental impact linked with water desalination. The scarcity of water is a consequence of the increase of population and growth in consumption that put unsustainable pressure on the water resources increasing the risk of exploitation. Because of these reason, it seem to be time to promote a new approach based on create balance between the request of water and the quantity supplied working on provide water for all the different servicies but using less quantity. In this sense, it has to be established and promoted a ”new water culture” minimizing the needs necessity of additional supplies. (Medeazza,2005)
The impact on the marine environment is caused by two main actions that are the brine discharge into the sea and the extraction pipes installation. In the first case, the discharge is considered harmful because of the easy alteration in value of the ecosystem especially in presence or coal barriers or others fragile species. In the second case the damage can be considered temporary at the time of the pipes installment but even if it is closed in a brief period of time it has to be considered as negative effect on the marine environment. (Einav,2002)
The brine discharge from desalination facilities operatin with reverse osmosis techniques is calculated on twice of the salinity and higher density then the natural seawater value. In the case of the Mediterranean Sea brine is usually discharged in a depth between 5 to 40m and the normal average of salinity is about 37.5 psu with a range of temperature that goes from 15°C to 27°C with a related density measured in between 1027,6 kg/m3 and 1024.5 Kg/m3. In the discharge area, the value is therefore calculated in a salinity level of 62.8 psu, while the density is between 1051 kg/m3 and 1047 kg/m3. Even if the chemical composition of brine and seawater is composed by the same chemical elements, brine still present an higher density. Moreover, the brine coming from the plant could has been treated during the water production and could released dangerous chemical substances into the marine environment. (Palomar,2010)
Solar energy gained credibility in the shift that is going to be realized on the next decades considering the unavoidable passage from fossil fuel economy to renewable energy and the so called ”green economy”.
As cited above, the most used technique to desalinate water is reverse osmosis (RO) and the Spanish case of Almeria is not an exception. RO desalination gain is popularity also because of the lower energy consumption if compared with others methodology. The technical evolution on RO desalination allow during the last four decades a consistent decrease in energy consumption that has changed from the 20 kWh/m3 during the 1970s, through the 3.5 kWh/m3 in the 1990s and the actual level that is inferior 2 kWh/m3. The reduction in energy consumption has to be attribute mainly to the parallel development of new more efficient RO membranes and due to evolved energy recovery devices. (Khayet, 2010)
There are several advantages on RO desalination combined with photovoltaic cells (PV) especially for areas with high level of solar irradiation and close access to the sea. Almeria meets both of these requirements.
The main advantages of RO desalination combined with solar energy powered system can be summed in: 1.Possibility of modular integration if an enlargement of the system is needed in future, 2.The system does not requires high maintenance cost, 3.The noise level of solar panel is none apart from the system that incorporate batteries, 4.Solar panel have long life quality with an average of 20 years service capacity, 5.Is environmental friendly avoiding the CO2 emission that plants working on fossil fuel has even if we still need to consider that an amount of CO2 is needed to the PV panel production. (Helal, 2008)
A brief review on the main points and concepts of sustainable development has to be taken in consideration before to start the examination of all the different issues of the research. This part will allow a better understanding in how it is possible to improve the process of desalination taking into account the whole range of indicators to solve and optimise the weakness that are still present in the realisation of this technique.
The following definition are the most purposeful to give a general idea on sustainable development especially on tracking the political evolution that has affected the subject in a worldwide scale program that has the aim of regulate and plan development in a more efficient and healthy typology, reducing the inconsiderate exploitation of natural resources.
Firstly, it seems to be important to clarify the concept of sustainable development. Many different definitions has been exposed since the phrase ”sustainable development” appeared for the first time in the World Commission on Environment and Development that realised an outgoing report named ”Our Common Future” and also known as ”Burndtland Report” in 1987. (Rogers,2008)
The report’s definition define sustainable development as: ”Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.(Mawhinney,2002)
There has been some critics to this definition especially regarding the concept of ”needs” assuming that the needs of future generation might be different from the contemporary. Furthermore, the needs can be different depending, for example, on the cultural background of a certain civilisation that could have a different level of development and, for this reason, might struggle to reach, at the same time, the pre-arrange goals respecting the sustainability parameters or guidelines. (Redcliff,2005).
One of the most important step in the evolution of sustainable development has been done during the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit Conference in 1992 saying: ”Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. (Huges 2001:230) During the Rio Summit it has also been established the ”Agenda 21” that represent the plan of action with the duty of achieve sustainable development in a ”socially responsible economic development”. (Dernbach, 2002:49).
The Earth Summit, also introduced and defined the importance on finding some indicators and guidelines in order to help the decision making process in measuring the quality of the action that is going to be realised. The control of a granted project is important to understand if it is respecting or going to the right direction on achieving the goal of sustainability. These indicators are also useful to provide alarm and warning at the right time with the consequential possibility of avoid risks for environment or human health. In 1995 the Commission on Sustainable Development approved the Work on Indicators of Sustainable Development with the aim of provide indicators at national level to the decision makers. (UN,2001)
Other important summit focused on sustainable development has been the WSSD ‘World Summit on Sustainable Development’ held in Johannesburg during the year 2002 and again it stated: ”Sustainable Development calls for improve quality of life of the world’s people without increasing the use of our natural resources beyond the earth’s carrying capacity”. (Bechmann,2009)
Sustainable Development has been accused of being a contradictive concept due to the realistic possibility of an opposition between the importance of economic growth and development against the ecological and social sustainability. It is obvious that the dynamicity of the all numerous variables considered in the development process can not be defined and managed as an radical-empiric formula, realising for the different subjects considered only zero-impact actions projects. On the other hand, the main idea should consider to do as much as it is possible to improve the sustainability of society, economy and environment according to the condition and possibility given from every singular situation. (Robinson, 2004)
Different approach from academics has been done about defining the fundamental pillars in which sustainability has to be based. There are two main ways of thinking that differ between who consider as two main pillars of sustainability the ecological and the socio-economic, while others tend to split the socio-economic dimension in two different pillar obtaining as three main pillars the social, economic and environmental. (Gibson, 2002).
In the research the production of fresh water from sea water desalination will take into account considering the three pillars of sustainability approach and a they can be summed in this brief description (Pirages, 1996): firstly, is it consider the economic pillar that is characterised with the concept of economic security and represent the ability and control that individuals of a determinate society have on their economy and the capability to protect them self from economic damage coming from outside. Secondly, it has to be considered the ecological pillar, or also considered as ecological integrity with the main goal of has a lifestyle in affinity with the natural environment paying attention to maintain and preserve the essential natural elements as water, air and land. The third and last pillar’s description regard the social dimension that can be also referred at the modern concept of democracy in the sense if public awareness in participation and information during the decision making process.
Research method is important to understand the dire