It's Time for a Breakthrough in Desalination

AMID the massive coverage of the Gulf war and the lesser coverage of California's drought, an unfamiliar word began to enter the American lexicon: desalination - the process of extracting fresh water from sea water. When Saddam Hussein resorted to oil spillage as a weapon of war, the public learned that Saudi Arabia relies on desalination plants for much of its fresh water. As California's drought has worsened, some are touting desalination as an option to assure adequate water supplies. And on our other coast, Florida is having its own water-supply problems.

Lack of fresh water increasingly is a brake on economic development and a source of friction between nations and between states and regions here at home. On a recent trip I made with Senate colleagues through the Middle East, both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak talked passionately of water needs.

Just as today oil drives the energy engine for much of the industrialized world and thus causes international friction, tomorrow water will be a cause of intense competition and conflict as nations vie over a fundamental life-sustaining resource.

Saudi Arabia relies on desalination technologies that convert salt water to fresh water. Out of necessity, the Saudis have employed a technology that will become increasingly important in the future in the arid nations of the Middle East, but also in much of the rest of the world, including the United States.

Saudi Arabia can convert salt water to fresh water because the Saudis have the economic resources to afford using the present technologies. The US armed forces there did the same during the war, again because we could afford it.

But Egypt, with its mushrooming population, is able to use only 4 percent of its land, mostly along the Nile. And as its population grows, less and less of that land can be used to produce food. Egypt is right on the Mediterranean, with an abundance of water at hand - but water Egypt cannot afford to use because it doesn't have the money to use present desalination techniques.

Likewise, Mauritania is desperately poor in large part because of lack of water, yet it is right on the ocean. When I visited Mauritania a few years ago the people were growing only 10 percent of their own food. If the Mauritanians could use the water at their doorstep, they could dramatically improve their quality of life - and be food exporters.

According to a report by the Office of Technology Assessment, American industry was at the forefront of desalination technology throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, thanks to President Kennedy's special interest in the subject. Our efforts peaked in 1967, when federal funding reached $119 million in 1990 dollars.

Because today's process of distillation is energy-intensive, the oil crisis of the early 1970s brought a dramatic drop in interest and research. By the late 1980s, US-funded research had dwindled to a few hundred thousand dollars a year. When we ended most government sponsorship for desalination research during the early 1970s, Japanese and European firms, some of which were and still are government-supported, began securing contracts that earlier would have gone to American firms.

A measure I introduced last year, calling for renewed research funding, has been included in the president's budget. But it is a long way from being effective. This year I have introduced bipartisan legislation that would charter a long-term commitment for the US to reenter the desalination research field. The early signs of support for the bill are encouraging.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are doing research. The Soviets are interested because they have great arid lands. Interest is growing in California, the Southwest, and Florida.

The major technical obstacle at the moment is energy efficiency. State-of-the-art desalination technologies require enormous amounts of energy to create relatively modest amounts of potable water.

While this problem is not insurmountable for a cash-rich and energy-rich nation like Saudi Arabia, it keeps the technology out of reach for most nations facing dire water shortages.

One positive side effect of the tragic conflict in the Persian Gulf is that it might enable us to focus world resources and attention on the need to accelerate work on desalination technologies. We should seize the chance to make sure we are prepared to deal with the inevitable situation of massive and dire water shortages in many parts of the world.

This is an issue that could cause future wars if we do not vigorously pursue research. Renewing US leadership on desalination technology will yield untold benefits later, in strengthened prospects for peace in the Middle East, in economic security here at home, and in helping to end hunger around the world.

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