event 20 Sep 2021

Review // Is the development of desalination compatible with sustainable development of the Arabian Gulf?

W.J.F. Le Quesne, L. Fernand, T.S. Ali, O. Andresa, M. Antonpoulou, J.A. Burt, W.W. Dougherty, P.J. Edson, J. El Kharraz, J. Glavan, R.J. Mamiit, K.D. Reid, A. Sajwani, D. Sheahan. The environmental status of the Gulf has wide importance to Gulf Cooperation Council states. However, desalination is known to pose adverse risks to the marine environment and large increases in the desalination capacity in the Gulf are predicted; therefore, this paper asks whether the development of desalination capacity in the Gulf is compatible with sustainable development of the Gulf region. To address this, this paper draws together scenarios for the development of desalination in the Gulf, with knowledge of the Gulf marine environment and the environmental impacts of desalination, to consider the potential nature and extent of desalination impacts on the Gulf marine ecosystem in relation to sustainable development.


Graphical abstract. © The authors


  • Desalination in the Arabian Gulf both supports and threatens sustainable development.
  • The impacts of individual desalination plants will combine to cause regional impact.
  • Desalination will adversely impact biodiversity, fisheries, and coastal communities.
  • Desalination will magnify the impact of climate change on the Gulf.
  • Minimising impacts requires behavioural, regulatory, and technological development.


The development of desalination has been essential to the rapid economic development of the countries bordering the Arabian Gulf. The current production capacity of seawater desalination plants drawing water from the Gulf is over 20 million m3 day−1, which may rise to 80 million m3 day−1 by 2050. Whilst supporting aspects of sustainable development related to water and sanitation, desalination impacts the marine environment through impingement and entrainment of organisms in intakes, and through thermal, brine and chemical discharges. This may compromise other objectives for sustainable development related to the sustainable use of the oceans. Under business as usual scenarios, by 2050, the impact of individual desalination plants will combine causing a regional scale impact. Without mitigating actions to avoid the business as usual scenario, by 2050, desalination in combination with climate change, will elevate coastal water temperatures across more than 50% of the Gulf by at least 3 °C, and a volume of water equivalent to more than a third of the total volume of water between 0 and 10 m deep will pass through desalination plants each year. This will adversely impact the coastal ecosystem of the Gulf, with impacts on biodiversity, fisheries and coastal communities and may cause potential loss of species and habitats from the Gulf. Given the significant implications of these preliminary findings, and in light of the precautionary approach to management, it is recommended that mitigating options addressing behavioural, regulatory and technological change are rapidly evaluated and implemented to avoid the development of desalination in the region along with a business as usual pathway, and multidisciplinary research studies should be conducted to reduce uncertainty in predictions of future impacts.


Desalination; Arabian Gulf; Sustainable development; Marine ecosystems; Coral reefs


September 2021


Marine Pollution Bulletin


Le Quesne, W. J. F., Fernand, L., Ali, T. S., Andres, O., Antonpoulou, M., Burt, J. A., Dougherty, W. W., Edson, P. J., El Kharraz, J., Glavan, J., Mamiit, R. J., Reid, K. D., Sajwani, A., & Sheahan, D. (2021). Is the development of desalination compatible with the sustainable development of the Arabian Gulf? Marine Pollution Bulletin, 173, 112940. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2021.112940


Is the development of desalination compatible with sustainable development of the Arabian Gulf?

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