According to the United Nations, 4 out of every 10 people face water scarcity — and it's getting worse. Water scarcity affects all aspects of life, from basic survival to the economy.

“I have been working in Indonesia, Peru and Brazil,” says Cláudio Bastos, CEO of Cia Siderúrgica do Pecém, a steel manufacturer and mining company, “and I have observed concerns related to water supply and eventual potential social unrest due to disputes about water consumption.”

“Global water demand is estimated to exceed supply by about 40 percent by 2030,” says Douglas R. Brown, chairman and CEO of Seven Seas Water, an AquaVenture Holdings business, which offers water-as-a-service solutions. “And that's driving desalination demand.”

Desalination and reverse osmosis

Desalination transforms seawater into fresh water by removing the salt via two primary techniques: thermal distillation, wherein seawater is boiled and the evaporated fresh water captured, and seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO), where water is forced through a membranous filter that removes salt and contaminants.

“We need to explore desalination as it is one of the few ways to provide a “new” freshwater source,” says Debra Coy of XPV Water Partners, a growth equity investor focused on management of water resources. “In many places, desalination has become a less expensive option than large scale water storage and transmission projects (dams and aqueducts) — and it is drought-proof.”

Seven Seas uses SWRO in conjunction with other purification steps in local water treatment facilities. “Reverse osmosis is more cost effective than thermal technologies,” Coy says. “Electricity costs have traditionally been the largest operating cost for desalination, but advances in membrane and energy recovery technologies have significantly reduced the cost of energy required to operate the plant.”

“The process is very efficient and reliable,” says Bastos, who has used Seven Seas to supply water to a phosphate mine in Northern Peru. “Seven Seas provides the capital and expertise required to design, construct and operate a water treatment facility and we get a risk-free water supply at a guaranteed cost.”

Coy sees desalination as a key way to manage our water resources going forward. “I believe that desalination has the brightest future in regions where there are few other reliable options for freshwater sources to meet the demands resulting from population growth or economic growth,” she says. “Caribbean islands and other resort communities are smaller scale examples of where desalination works well. After rapid growth in the rich Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, it is also likely to become a key part of the solution for other water-starved countries such as Iraq, Iran, Jordan and Syria.”

Brown sees partnerships as key. “Private industry can work in partnership with local, state and federal governments to help supply drinking water,” he notes.

Clearly, such partnerships are crucial. The water crisis is very real — but so are solutions like the reverse osmosis process behind water-as-a-service.