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Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, is turning its attention to finding cost-effective ways to remove the salt from seawater, using renewable energy like solar power, The New York Times reports.

There is a huge need for desalination in the Gulf, the world’s driest region and home to a rapidly growing population.

Consider these facts: Middle Eastern and North African countries are home to 6.3 percent of the world’s population, but the region contains only 1.4 percent of the world’s fresh water. The Gulf region in particular has the highest water scarcity levels in the world, according to the World Bank.

In the desert lands of the Gulf and other parts of the Middle East, drinking water is mostly supplied from energy-intensive processes including chemical treatments, thermal distillation and filtration by reverse osmosis. The energy needed for desalination is usually generated by fossil fuels.

The production of drinking water — often to be supplied at subsidised rates — uses 7 percent of global energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. So, in effect, large amounts of oil and gas are being used to generate cheap water supplies instead of earning export revenue.

With limited surface water and depleting ground water resources, desalination is the key to meeting the inexorable rise in demand for water resulting from economic growth and expanding populations.

Yet, in the United Arab Emirates, to take just one example, seawater desalination requires about 10 times more energy than pumping water from wells. Costs are projected to increase by 300 percent between 2010 and 2016 according to Masdar’s estimates.

Because of the steep up-front investments that they have so far required and the high cost per unit of power generated, renewable energy technologies have not been a popular option for producing potable water, in the Gulf or anywhere else.

But advances in the technology and a steady decline in manufacturing costs for solar generating plants may be about to change that picture.

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