An employee works at a desalination plant SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

Where the Water Is

Sustainable Development Goal 6 calls for universal access to clean water and sanitation. But if governments do not embrace unconventional water resources, achieving that goal will be as difficult as getting water from a stone – and the consequences for water-scarce regions will be dire.

HAMILTON, CANADA – In many parts of the world, there are simply no more conventional freshwater resources available to meet growing demand. Beyond limiting economic development, the lack of sufficient freshwater resources threatens the wellbeing of billions of people by causing conflict, social unrest, and migration. The only way to address this challenge is by radically rethinking water-resource planning and management in a way that emphasizes the creative exploitation of unconventional water sources.

There is a large and growing number of unconventional sources of fresh water with massive potential, beginning with desalinated seawater or highly brackish groundwater. Already, there are 18,000 desalination facilities in more than 100 countries producing roughly 32 billion cubic meters (8.45 trillion gallons) of fresh water – about one-third of the volume passing over Niagara Falls annually.

Some 44% of global desalinated-water production is taking place in the Middle East and North Africa, and new facilities are being built across Asia, the United States, and Latin America. Annual desalination capacity worldwide is increasing by 7-9%, on average.

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