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This Plant in Dubai Makes Half a Billion Gallons of Fresh Water a Day

2 minute read

It’s in your clothes and your food, the appliances in your home and the electricity that powers them. It’s in television and the Internet and the air. It’s in us—or more precisely, we’re it, given that about 60% of our bodies is made of it. To call water the basis of life doesn’t give credit enough, yet we often treat it like an afterthought. Until it’s gone.

Already 1.2 billion people, nearly a sixth of the world’s population, live in areas afflicted by water scarcity, and that figure could grow to 1.8 billion by 2025. Globally, the rate of water withdrawal—water diverted from an existing surface or underground source—increased at more than twice the rate of global population growth over the past century. Climate change could intensify desertification in already dry parts of the planet. The world is projected to hold 9 billion people or more by 2050—and they’ll all be thirsty.

So in 2015 and beyond, the challenge of water scarcity will only grow, which could lead to global instability. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Efficiency can stretch existing supplies (in the U.S., overall water use has fallen even as the population has grown). And an old technology, ocean desalination, is getting a fresh look as high-tech plants churn out millions of gallons of freshwater a day. The Jebel Ali plant in the United Arab Emirates, shown in this photo essay, can produce 564 million gallons (2.13 billion L) of water a day from the sea, a sign of the sheer scale that may be needed in a drier future. The truth is that we can do anything with water—except go on without it.

This sprawling power and desalination plant on Dubai’s coast produces almost 8,000 megawatts of electricity and over 550 million US gallons of water a day.Spencer Lowell for TIME
One way to desalinate ocean water is reverse osmosis, a process that pushes salt water through a porous membrane. Jebel Ali’s RO plant, shown here, can filter 30 million gallons of water a day. Spencer Lowell for TIME
Jebel Ali also produces electricity. To do this, the plant boils seawater, producing steam. The steam travels through pipes like these to a turbine.Spencer Lowell for TIME
Tubes then carry the steam from the power plant to the evaporation units.Spencer Lowell for TIME
A worker checks the steam flowing from the power plant to an evaporation unit.Spencer Lowell for TIME
Tubes bring steam from the power plant to the evaporation units.Spencer Lowell for TIME
The evaporation units use both heat and low pressure to boil seawater. As the water turns to steam, it leaves behind its salt content and passes through these filters. The steam then condenses onto surfaces and is gathered in clean liquid form. Spencer Lowell for TIME
Evaporation units appear with the Persian Gulf in the distance.Spencer Lowell for TIME
The plant uses chemical agents such as chloride, calcium hardeners and acid mediums to control the quality of the desalinated water.Spencer Lowell for TIME
At the end of the process, the salt that was taken out of the water is released back into the Gulf in a warm, briny mixture.Spencer Lowell for TIME

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