Guest Column | September 1, 2023

The Rising Tide Of Water Desalination Plants

By Nick Nicholas

Rough north sea-GettyImages-888988878

Desalination plants are making waves in the global effort to combat water scarcity. With a staggering 16,000 facilities across the globe, this technology is increasingly being leveraged to secure fresh water for arid and coastal regions.

These powerhouses pump out an impressive volume of brine daily, 142 million cubic meters (5 billion cubic feet), which surpasses previous estimates by about 50%.

But why such high volumes? The answer lies within desalinated seawater itself, a process that transforms saline ocean waters into process water for industry and potable water for drinking.

In recent times, countries have been tapping into their coastal resources with passion as they seek solutions to freshwater shortages through desalinization processes. Leading this charge are nations like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, countries where freshwater sources can be scarce. These countries account for approximately 55% of total worldwide brine output.

The Role Of Desalination Technology

A surge in technological innovation has accompanied our growing reliance on desalinization techniques. Reverse osmosis, the most prevalent method is lauded not only for its effectiveness but also its efficiency. It serves both the needs of industrial clients requiring purified water along with providing drinkable water for communities, towns, and cities. ACS Publications is a good resource offering comprehensive insights on reverse osmosis applications across industries.

This rising tide comes at a time when climate change threatens traditional freshwater sources like rivers and ground water aquifers. Using this technology, we could tackle this issue head-on by harnessing global seawater, which constitutes over two-thirds of Earth’s surface along with brine aquifers.

To create sustainable solutions ensuring access to clean drinking water even under harsh environmental conditions. John Hopkins Water Institute provides more information regarding these developments in securing fresh drinking-water supplies from the oceans, bays, and seas around us.

The Desalination Process And Its Environmental Impact

Desalination technology is playing a pivotal role in the quest for fresh water, particularly in arid and coastal regions. But how does this process work? A popular approach employed by desalination facilities around the world is reverse osmosis.

This transformation is not without its challenges though. For every unit of potable water produced, an average desalination plant generates 1.5 times more brine — highly salty wastewater that presents significant environmental concerns. Manzoor Qadir, renowned as a global authority on sustainable solutions for wastewater management, provides further insights into these issues.

The Toxic Effects Of Brine

Brine production has escalated due to increasing reliance on desalination processes across countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar, which contribute approximately 55% towards total global brine output annually.

In addition to heightened salinity levels affecting oceanic temperature regulation, potential bioaccumulation within marine organisms can occur due to heavy metals and pollutants found within untreated brines. This may lead to long-term damage at both the individual species level as well as with broader ecosystem dynamics if not managed responsibly.

Ecological Consequences Observable At Coastal Plants

The ecological implications of desalination plants, particularly those located along coastlines, are a pressing concern for environmental consultants and water treatment engineers. One significant issue stems from the waste streams produced during the desalination process. These substances often find their way directly into our global seawater.

This quick dissolution results in an increased concentration of potentially harmful materials within marine ecosystems. It has been noted that these heightened levels can negatively impact various forms of marine life, such as fish larvae, which are especially sensitive due to their early developmental stage.

The Impact On Fish Larvae And Marine Biodiversity

Fish larvae hold a critical role within aquatic food chains, serving both as predators and prey. Exposure to high concentrations of waste streams can disrupt their normal growth patterns, leading to decreased survival rates, according to research conducted by PubMed Central.

Beyond affecting individual species, this disruption ripples through entire ecosystems, causing reduced biodiversity, a key indicator for overall ecosystem health. This can impact human communities reliant on these resources for sustenance or economic activity.

Ecosystem Disruption At Local Levels

In addition to broad-scale impacts on global seawater quality, there exist localized ecological effects observable at coastal plants themselves. The discharge zones around such facilities can become hotspots for saline accumulation, resulting in altered habitats unsuitable for many native species.

  1. These changes not only lead towards diminished local biodiversity but may also promote invasive species able to exploit new conditions better than indigenous ones, thus further destabilizing existing ecological relationships. This is an aspect requiring urgent attention from sustainability professionals worldwide.
  2. To mitigate some toxic effects associated with highly salty wastewater released by coastal plants as it dissolves quickly into surrounding waters, impacting delicate balances held within oceanic environments.
  3. Potential solutions could include more efficient brine dispersal technologies to mitigate the effects of the brine and enhance dilution to reduce the immediate harm caused by direct exposure. If space allows in arid areas, evaporation ponds can be utilized allowing the salt to potentially be used/sold for industrial purposes.

Innovative Solutions For Managing Brine Waste

As the use of desalination plants continues to surge, the production of highly salty wastewater will increase as well. This byproduct poses substantial environmental challenges that need addressing.

However, there are new and imaginative solutions being developed to effectively and sustainably manage this problem. Let’s delve into a couple of these promising approaches.

Hybrid Desalination

The first solution is hybrid desalination. According to National Geographic, this technology could significantly transform farming in arid regions like the Southwest U.S., North Africa, and the Middle East.

This method utilizes a combination of renewable and conventional power as its power source. Such waste-to-energy systems utilization solid waste such as plastics, which can provide both provide power for the desalination process but can also assist in the evaporation/concentration of the brine through the thermal heat generated from the advanced solid-waste gasification treatment process.

Beyond securing sustainable sources of fresh water for thirsty regions globally, operational costs can be reduced over time due to the utilization of these solid-waste plastic resources. Therefore, achieving mitigation of the issues of water resource scarcity but also the issues surrounding solid-waste management and landfilling.

Producing Salts From Brine

Another interesting concept suggests turning brine into salts of various grades, including table salt during desalination processes where seawater gets converted into drinking water.

This dual benefit strategy reduces waste disposal issues associated with salt brine effluents, while providing additional revenue streams through potentially saleable products derived directly from their operations.

Looking forward beyond these two examples lies a wealth of unexplored opportunities waiting for exploration, including reusing brine wastewater for irrigating salt-tolerant crops. By implementing innovative solutions at scale across global operations, we can mitigate ecological impacts and secure future freshwater supplies for both communities, industry, and irrigation.

Hazards Associated With Water Desalination Plants FAQs

What are the hazards of desalination?

The main hazards include excessive energy consumption, production of highly saline brine waste that can harm marine life and ecosystems, and potential release of harmful chemicals used in the treatment process.

What is a major concern about desalination plants?

A significant concern is the disposal of brine waste. This high-salt byproduct can disrupt marine ecosystems if not properly managed.

What are the three biggest concerns with the desalination process?

The three key issues are: high energy use leading to carbon emissions, creation and disposal of toxic brine waste, and possible chemical contamination from plant operations.

What are two negative environmental impacts of desalination plants?

The two primary impacts involve harming marine life due to improper discharge of salty brine waste and contributing to climate change through substantial energy usage.


Desalination plants provide a vital service in arid and coastal areas including island nations, transforming salty ocean water into usable fresh water.

The process, however, is not without its hazards.

Highly salty brine water produced during the process poses significant environmental challenges.

This brine can have toxic effects on marine life and disrupt coastal ecosystems if not treated correctly through innovative brine dispersion technology or if space and environmental conditions allow through evaporation ponds mitigating these impacts.

Continuous innovation holds the key to addressing these challenges.

Hybrid renewable powered desalination and reusing brine management for irrigation tolerant plants are some of the promising solutions continuing to be explored today.

We also see potential in producing viable industrial grade and table salt from brine — a byproduct of the desalinating seawater.

The future looks bright with advances underway to make this technology less energy-intensive and more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable.

Nick Nicholas is the Technical Director for Genesis Water Technologies, Inc, a global leader in integrated solutions for drinking water and wastewater treatment. In this role and previous roles with GWT, he has coordinated and led a global team of technical professionals in designing, engineering, and building treatment system solutions for industrial, commercial, and water utility clients worldwide. Mr. Nicholas holds the distinction of being named one of the top 10 water professionals under 40 by Water & Wastes Digest magazine in 2019.