Innovating to solve global water challenge

Rania Rostom
Rania Rostom

Rania Rostom

By: Rania Rostom

The statistics can be alarming. While we live in a world of water abundance, nearly 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, some 3.6 million people die every year from waterborne diseases and over 780 million live without access to safe drinking water, with their number expected to swell to 1.8 billion by 2025, according to UN estimates.

With salt water in oceans and seas comprising 96.5 percent of our total water resources, in the absence of desalination projects, nearly all 7 billion people on Planet Earth would have had to depend on fresh water that is currently available in lakes, rivers, ground wells, and aquifers.

At the rate at which it is being used, we can hardly meet even a fraction of the nearly 25 trillion liters of water we consume every day.

Due to this overwhelming need, desalination projects are needed to meet the thirst of the world.

However, the process and technology of desalination comes with an integral challenge: it is costly and energy intensive.

According to estimates, energy consumption can account for up to 70 percent of the desalination costs.

Globally, desalinated water plants use around 75.2 terawatt-hours of electricity per year, enough to light up nearly 7 million homes.

Opinion has, thus, been divided on the efficacy of desalination plants with some citing it as a ‘necessary evil,’ while others hasten to defend it as an improvement on the energy-depleting, conventional water treatment plants.

While such debate continues, demand for desalinated water will continue to increase by 9 percent through 2016.

The International Energy Agency estimates that the desalination capacity in the Middle East and North Africa is expected to grow nearly five-fold from about 21 million cubic meters per day in 2007 to over 110 million cubic meters per day in 2030.

With desalination as the most viable alternative to meet the growing demand for water, the challenge then is to identify energy-efficient solutions that will not put undue stress on the power sector.

This is critical for the MENA region, which faces a surge in demand for electricity to meet the needs of growing populations and to support massive ongoing infrastructure development projects.

An increase in demand for electricity also implies rising domestic consumption of oil and gas reserves, which could affect oil exports in the long-term, in turn leading to diminished foreign exchange.

It is a precarious energy cycle and breaking away from it calls for innovative approaches at three fundamental levels: One, at desalination plants through the use of efficient technologies and processes, two, at energy plants by adopting fuel efficiency measures, and three, in the society’s approach to energy management by focusing on renewables.

The MENA region’s current focus on sustainable development indeed comes as a strong opportunity for driving positive change.

Across the region, governments are placing an emphasis on tapping renewable energy sources. – Rania Rostom

Solar parks and wind plants are increasingly being integrated as part of a more diverse, and healthier, energy mix.

Tapping renewable energy sources in desalination projects, therefore, is a logical step to address the issues efficiently.

It also serves as an ideal approach for ensuring a sustainable energy and water future.

However, there is a fourth factor that can be the true game-changer in addressing the ‘desalination energy challenge.’

That is the power of the human mind, the power of bright minds to innovate — not in remote lab settings, but right here, in our midst.

At GE, we call it ‘localized innovation’ because we believe that innovators within our community are best suited to understand local requirements.

The global open innovation challenge unveiled by Aramco Entrepreneurship and GE ecomagination, our commitment to find sustainable alternatives that also contribute to economic returns, strives to identify renewable energy solutions to boost the energy-competitiveness of seawater desalination.

Since its launch in April 2014, the $200,000 challenge has gained tremendous response from across the Arab world and beyond.

Four winners of the challenge will take home $50,000 each for potential commercial development of their ideas.

As we focus on a culture of simplification across everything we do, these ideas underline how focused the region’s R&D community too is keen to invent and promote solutions that stand out for their simplicity and effectiveness.

Our goal was to identify novel ways to lower desalination costs around the world, either through technology advances, process improvements, or both.

Scientists, researchers, students and anyone with a bright idea can submit their proposals online at before August 19, 2014.

The winners will be announced in November 2014.

As an Arabic proverb says, “You can’t cross the sea by staring at it.” Do we sulk at the enormity of a looming water-energy challenge or do we take small, firm steps toward a sustainable future? The choice is ours – and we can make the change by putting our faith in human innovation.

Rania Rostom is the chief innovation officer at GE in Middle East, North Africa and Turkey.



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