Desalination: Clean Water for a Thirsty World

Case studies of two of the largest desalination plants in the world

The two desalination plants featured in this article; one in Carlsbad, California (north coastal San Diego county – featured image), and one in Tel Aviv, Israel, represent two pioneering large-scale desalination plants using reverse osmosis. Desalination represents an important potential source of clean water, and is one of several major solutions to the world water crisis. Worldwide, only 1 in 9 people have access to clean drinking water — that’s over 780 million people living without access to clean drinking water today.

The desalination plant in Tel Aviv provides 20% of the clean water of the people in the country of Israel, and the Carlsbad desalination plant provides 10% of the clean water of San Diego county residents.

Although Carlsbad and Tel Aviv don’t specifically represent the struggles with water scarcity in the third world, they do represent solutions to the growing need for clean water in the world as a whole. Both plants use a technology called reverse osmosis as part of the process. Here are a few articles about the desalination plants in Carlsbad and Tel Aviv, and desalination in general:

Global desalination output has tripled since 2000: 16,000 [large and small-scale] desalination plants are up and running around the world [as of 2015], and the pace of construction is expected to increase while the technology continues to improve. Desalination is ripe for technological improvement. A combination of sensor-driven optimization and automation, energy-efficient technology that is said to nearly halve energy consumptionplus new types of membranes, could eventually allow for desalination plants that are half the size and use commensurately less energy. Among other benefits, small, mobile desalination units could be used in agricultural regions hundreds of miles away from the ocean, where demand for water is great and growing. Already, some 700 million people worldwide suffer from water scarcity, but that number is expected to swell to 1.8 billion in just 10 years. Some countries, like Israel, already rely heavily on desalination; more will follow suit.

The largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere [as of 2016] is open in Carlsbad, San Diego, heralding what may be a new era in U.S. water use.

10 miles south of Tel Aviv, Israel, a vast new industrial facility hums around the clock. [The Sorek desalination plant in Tel Aviv] provides 20% of the water consumed by the country’s households. Thanks to a series of engineering and materials advances, however, it produces clean water from the sea cheaply and at a scale never before achieved, demonstrating that seawater desalination can cost-effectively provide a substantial portion of a nation’s water supply.

Desalination across the world

The desalination plant in Carlsbad served as a pioneering project for large-scale desalination projects in the United States, of which there are now dozens. There are also hundreds of smaller desalination projects in the United States and across the world. In the entire world there are over 120 countries with both large and small-scale desalination plants.

The largest desalination projects are generally found in Saudi Arabia, with a comparatively large-scale plant in the United Arab Emirates. The Ras Al Khair and al-Jubail desalination plants in Saudi Arabia are 2 of the world’s largest desalination plants. However, the Carlsbad and Tel Aviv desalination plants also represent major, large-scale projects, demonstrating that large-scale desalination is potentially viable in many places globally.

There are over 20,000 desalination plants worldwide (as of 2020, up from 16,000 in 2015) under various stages of planning and development, or currently operational; with over half of large-scale global desalination plants located in the Middle East. The Carlsbad desalination plant now has company, with other desalination plants in California.

California and Israel are among the many parts of the world that have large-scale operational desalination plants, as seen in the following global map of desalination plants (with the size of the colored bubble roughly indicating the size of the plant, and the color of the bubble indicating whether the plant treats seawater, brackish water, wastewater, or another type of water)>>>

Desalination Clean Water For A Thirsty World
Global map of major desalination plants


Please also see:

Recycling: global report card

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