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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Desalination for disaster management

97.5% of the world’s water is saline and unfit for human consumption. Almost 1 billion people do not have clean water to drink. This is projected to increase to 2.5 billion by 2030. Around 4 billion people (half the planet’s population) are affected by water shortage for at least 1 month every ear. There are nearly 80 million who have been forcibly displaced due to conflict or lack of resources. Water consumption globally has reached unsustainable levels. In comparatively wealthy nations, such as the US and those in the Middle East, desalination has become a source of freshwater, often powered unsustainably. In the developed world, proper water management and managed consumption are vital in order to avoid drastic water shortages. In the developing world and in crisis zones, such forward planning with readily available resources are generally out of reach.

Where disaster has struck or where potable water is scarce but saline water exists, water is often trucked to these locations rather than local saline water being desalinated. The aim of this paper is to understand why this is the case. It investigates the limitations of desalination and attempts to understand the wider system of water delivery where water is scarce. It then assesses circumstances where desalination would be useful.

An examination of previous uses of desalination, within a humanitarian crisis context, is undertaken and also more widely in the developing world. Following this comparison, the creation of a decision tree for use quickly and effectively by those attempting to deliver water is explored. This will assist in circumstances where desalination could be a solution. Then the creation of a rollout framework is explored. This framework ensures all factors are considered, from stakeholder acceptance to proper brine water management and the adherence to regulatory obstacles.

A design considered within the paper which is a desalination system utilising components more readily available in the developing world and utilising the lowest price components where possible. Such a system is less complicated to maintain than systems already in place. This design reduces efficiency but lowers possible downtime and is therefore of more utility to the developing world and also within disasters. The open-source nature of this system attempts to begin democratising desalination for communities that may lack the means to source systems with more high-tech and expensive components. A case study of the Mavrovouni refugee camp is undertaken where a desalination design is explored for this water scarce situation, where the camp's proximity to the ocean lends itself to desalination use.

Contained within this document is a non-exhaustive guide for those wishing to make informed decisions about water delivery, considering desalination’s utility where humanitarian crises may be unfolding and potable water delivery is required.



Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.