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Desalination increasingly popular solution to water shortage problem

March 05, 2013
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Desalination projects are becoming increasingly common globally, as drinkable water reserves are getting scarce and the population increases, causing the demand for clean water to rise accordingly.

Providing fresh water to deprived areas is a serious challenge and the project for delivering water to the Chilean city of Copiapó, located in the Atacama desert, is not an exception. The area is rich in natural ore, attracting a number of huge international mining companies. While it helps boost the economy of the area, mining adds to the water scarcity problem, as the natural resource is required in mining operations. In an attempt to deal with the problem and help the local communities get better access to water, the government of President Sebastián Piñera asked the companies to help in finding a solution to the water crisis by focusing on water from the Pacific Ocean, 60 kilometers away from Copiapó.

One of the largest mining companies in the world, UK-based Anglo American, is investing $107 million in the construction of a desalination plant on the Pacific coast that will bring 120 liters of water per second into its Mantoverde copper mine, an amount that will suffice to meet the entire demand for water at the mine. The facility is scheduled to be completed in the second half of 2013.

But Anglo American is not the only company looking into the possibilities provided by desalination. At least two more businesses are building similar plants in a bid to sustain the boom of the Chilean mining industry and ensure it keeps contributing to Chile's economic growth, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its March edition. Loreto Silva, Chile's minister of public works, told Bloomberg that failing to complete those projects might prove detrimental for the country, so steps are being taken fast.

RELATED: Saudi Arabia to build world's largest desalination plant

Similar water shortage problems are common in other areas of the world, specifically in Asia and Africa. There were about 300 million people living in rural Chinese regions that had no access to drinkable water in 2005, data from China's Water Resources Ministry shows. If the current rates of population growth persist globally, the demand for water is estimated to exceed supplies by 40 percent by 2030, according to the World Bank.

However, desalination is not flawless itself. It is quite expensive and it can damage sea life, but governments around the world are seeking it as the most viable opportunity to provide water supply and are granting permission for construction of desalination plants. Numerous desalination plants are being built in the United States, Australia, China, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Figures from the International Desalination Association (IDA) show that the industrial capacity of desalinated water soared 276 percent to 6.7 billion cubic meters a day between 2001 and 2011 and this is set to grow further.

Worldwide, there are about 16,000 plants operating today, IDA said, with Saudi Arabia being the biggest producer. Overall, the industry is now growing at an annual rate of about 15 percent according to Julio Zorrilla, an international construction director at Acciona Agua, the water division of Spanish renewable energy company Acciona.

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