Saturday, March 30, 2013

De-salting the World’s Water from Topsfield, MA


Pat Burke, center, with IDA colleagues.
By Tala Strauss
Gordon College News Service
March 28, 2013
(This story appeared April 17, 2013, in the print and online editions of the Salem News.)

Topsfield, MA, may be famous for its popular agricultural fair, but what many don’t know is that for almost half a century, it has also been home to a global organization addressing international water scarcity issues. The International Desalination Association (IDA) is the global hub of information on desalination, a process of “de-salting” water to make it usable.

For people living in a part of the world like Topsfield where water is readily accessible, topics like “desalination” might not come up often in everyday conversations. But 300 million people worldwide rely on desalination for their daily water needs, and that number is increasing as population growth, pollution, leaks, and climate change compromises available fresh water supplies in many places across the globe, according to IDA. So why Topsfield?

“Many people do ask, ” said Secretary General Patricia Burke, who has been with the organization since before it was the International Desalination Association. “It’s because this is where I am.”

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, IDA’s offices have been in Topsfield since their beginning. Burke worked out of her home in Topsfield before IDA found offices, and IDA’s seven team members now are all from the area. But their work takes them all over the world.

This year’s IDA World Congress, for instance, will take place in Tianjin, China, where over a thousand experts in the desalination industry will gather for six days in October to exchange knowledge and experience. And during April and May alone, IDA lists desalination-related events in Spain, United Arab Emirates, Western Australia, and Canada.

“Desalination is part of the water strategy for the 21st century, and it has become essential in many places,” said Ann Seamonds, public relations spokesperson for IDA. Currently, there are 16,000 desalination plants across the world. The market for desalination is primarily municipal and industrial users, but includes power stations, agriculture, and the military.




Since seawater desalination is the only renewable source of fresh water available on the planet, many countries are turning to it as a key to their water resource management strategies. After all, only 0.75 percent of the world’s water is fresh groundwater, but 97 percent of the earth’s water is salt water, according to IDA.

“Water becomes a driver for a lot of wars in a lot of parts of the world,” said Burke.
Seamonds said many reports predict that the next major wars will be fought over water, and the United Nations expects that 1.8 billion people will face absolute water scarcity by 2025. But desalination is only a partial solution.

“Water reuse, conservation, fixing leaky pipes – you take all of these things, and then you say, we still don’t have enough water,” said Burke. “Then you look at desalination.” 150 countries practice desalination in some capacity, with a city like Dubai producing around 98 percent of its drinking water through desalination.

“As Pat always says, it’s like the well that won’t run dry because the sea is a very sustainable resource,” Seamonds said.

Though most people believe desalination is more expensive than other systems, Burke and Seamonds say it is not; recent developments of new technologies have lowered energy requirements and achieved greater operational efficiency, making desalination less costly. IDA also has a global Energy Task Force that has challenged the desalination industry to reduce energy requirements for the desalination process by 20 percent by 2015.  

While people driving past the Topsfield offices may not notice them, IDA often hosts delegations from other countries as well as the media, including CNN and Fox News. Proximity to Boston makes IDA’s location convenient, Seamonds said. But being in Topsfield is also convenient for Burke, who lives ten minutes away and can go home at lunch to let her dog out.

As Secretary General of IDA, Seamonds said Burke is well respected in the desalination industry. But Burke’s particular passion is education.

“I would like to teach young kids so they know the value and importance of turning that tap on where they live and how much it took to get that water flow—if they even have a tap,” said Burke. And while Topsfield may not rely on desalination for its water, conservation can still be a daily practice of residents. Fixing old leaky pipes, she said, is a significant way to conserve water.

“The city of Boston loses a lot of water because their pipes are old. And that’s true in a lot of older cities,” said Burke. “It may sound silly, but you know, turn the tap off when you’re brushing your teeth.” 

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