Desalination in the 21st century: A critical review of trends and debates

Joe Williams
Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom; williamsj168@cardiff.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: Desalination – or the creation of 'new' water by removing salt and impurities from saline, brackish or contaminated water – has transformed water resource management in many parts of the world. This technology is likely to continue to reshape the practices, politics and political economy of water throughout the 21st century. Desalination has long been a focus of research in techno-managerial and techno-triumphalist circles, but as global capacity has grown and as new water infrastructures have developed in more diverse and contested contexts, it has increasingly attracted debate in the critical social sciences and humanities. This paper offers a critical review of the current state of the desalination debate. The paper proceeds in three parts. First, it sketches out the contours of desalination’s uneven global emergence as a game changer in water resource management, briefly introducing the reader to its technical aspects and highlighting key trends. Second, the paper examines differing interpretations of the drivers of this phenomenon. The paper challenges dominant and reductionist explanations that tend to highlight water scarcity as an external factor, population growth and industrialisation. Instead, it foregrounds four alternative explanations for the extraordinary growth of desalination as: 1) a tool for fixing insoluble political issues in water management; 2) a technological adaptation that reflects and reinforces processes of decentralisation in water management; 3) a source of reliable long-term revenue for increasingly financialised models of water service provision; and 4) a driver of growth in particular industries and economic sectors. Finally, the paper suggests some future directions for critical desalination research.

KEYWORDS: Desalination, political ecology, water security, hydropolitics, transitions