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Desalination plant in Kenya’s coast is a case study in addressing the looming water crisis

In a bid to provide safe and drinkable water a non-governmental organization in Kenya has built a large-scale solar-powered desalination plant on the Eastern coast of the country. Such desalination projects address the rise in water scarcity due to climate change and contamination.

‘Give Power’, a non-governmental organization, has built a Solar Water Farm by the Indian Ocean in the Kiunga region of Kenya to transform saltwater into drinkable water for the residents.

Kiunga has seen extreme drought for many years and residents have been forced to drink, cook and bathe in contaminated, brackish water for years. This situation is not unique to the area, reports indicate that as sea levels rise, scientists expect saltwater to infiltrate more fresh water sources in coastal areas.

This together with rising water demands associated with population growth, increased water consumption per capita and economic growth and diminishing water supplies due to climate change and contamination, are exacerbating water scarcity in many regions.

Additionally, The World Health Organization reports that 844 million people across the globe lack access to clean drinking water and among them are more than 300,000 children who die every year due to water-borne diseases. Two billion people currently live in water-scarce regions and as many as 3.5 billion could experience water scarcity by 2025.

A 2018 United Nations study says there are now almost 16,000 desalination plants operating in 177 countries, producing a volume of freshwater equivalent to almost half the average flow over the Niagara Falls. The study also explained that unconventional water resources, such as those resulting from desalination, are key to ensuring availability and sustainable management of water: seawater desalination can extend water supplies beyond what is available from the hydro-logical cycle.

Lifesaving drinking water. Julien Harneis/Flickr

The Solar Water Farm harvests solar energy which are able to produce 50 kilowatts of energy and power two water pumps that run 24 hours a day and it turns salty water safely into potable water.

With $20 (Approx. 2,040 shillings) per person, the farm provides 20 years of access to clean water and it is reportedly helping the local economy.

“You have to find a way to pull water out of the ocean in a sustainable way,” the president of GivePower, Hayes Barnard said.

“Humanity needs to take swift action to address the increasingly severe global water crisis that faces the developing world,” he said. “With our background in off-grid clean energy, GivePower can immediately help by deploying solar water farm solutions to save lives in areas throughout the world that suffer from prolonged water scarcity.”

Read: Aïda Muluneh’s ‘Water Life’ highlights water scarcity and its burden on women

Environmental impact of desalination

Turning salty ocean water into fresh water is important to benefit poverty-stricken populations, desalination however has a very damaging ecological footprint. More to the point the amount of fresh water produced by desalination is predicted to double within the next decade to meet global demand.

Dr Philip Davies, Reader in Mechanical Engineering and Design, told the Science Daily that, “Lowering the energy required to de-water brine prior to decomposition would be a major environmental benefit.  If we could find better ways to de-water the brine this would become very energy efficient as a means of avoiding carbon dioxide.”

Davies notes that the rapid growth in desalination technology is also spurring developments that could make the de-watering process easier. “There are a lot of new ideas in desalination coming along… Since desalination is essentially about separating salt from water, perhaps these developments could eventually be used to remove water from the corrosive brine coming out of the desalination plant at relatively low energy cost.”

Solar desalination is however primarily a zero-carbon emission process and the advancements in solar technology enables overcoming previously existing problems like dust and high temperatures, which affected the efficiency of previously used solar panels. The negative impact of desalination process on the environment as well as the cost of producing water can be reduced using the solar desalination technology; making it the most viable option currently.

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