[Viewpoint]A Smart way to ease water shortagesThe most serious problems that humans face in the 21st century are shortages of energy and water. The shortage of energy has become a national concern since the government has established and put into force various measures to cope with it. But the water problem has not yet been discussed seriously enough.
Because South Korea is not an oil producing country and imports 98 percent of its energy needs, it is true we need to pay more attention to energy.
On the other hand, many people may ask why we have to worry about water, because the Korean Peninsula is surrounded by water and we have a lot of fresh water resources around us.
However, Korea is one of 20 countries designated by the UN as facing the potential threat of a water shortage.
There are reasons why Korea has this designation.
It is because two-thirds of its annual precipitation comes during the summer season and because the shallow rivers in Korea do not hold enough water.
There are enough water resources to satisfy the world’s population. The problem is that the distribution is not even.
Moreover, the areas where rain or snow falls are limited. Due to this, an enormous amount of land, some 6 million hectares (23,000 square miles) of land, the equivalent of 30 percent of the size of the Korean Peninsula, is turning into desert annually.
Therefore, water shortages and the consequent devastation of land are not limited to certain countries, but are a task that should be solved on a global level.
The first way to prevent desertification is afforestation. But fresh water is necessary for the growth of trees. It is not easy to get enough fresh water.
About 70 percent of the globe is covered with water. But 97.5 percent of that water is sea water, meaning only about 2.5 percent is fresh water. Even worse is that about 70 percent of the areas are not easily accessible to humans.
Therefore, only 0.007 percent of the Earth’s fresh water is within easy access.
In the Middle East, where a large part of the land is desert, people have turned their eyes to the almost limitless sea water.
Thus, large-scale desalination projects are under way.
There are basically three ways to desalinate: a distilling system with the use of heat, a filtering system that uses a special membrane and a freezing system.
The distilling system follows the principle that we can get pure water by evaporating salt water. About 80 percent of desalination facilities in the world now use this system.
The filtering system uses a sort of filtering paper to catch salt and other mineral residues in the water.
The freezing system separates water from salt by using the principle that water crystallizes when saltwater is frozen.
In connection with the development of desalination technology, South Korea has the world’s top science and engineering capabilities, and supplies about 40 percent of world’s desalination facilities.
The desalination of salt water consumes a lot of energy, either heat or electricity, no matter which desalination system is used.
So far, the world has relied mostly on fossil fuel ― such as oil, coal or natural gas ― as the energy source. And most of the desalination facilities in the world are in Middle Eastern countries, where their energy needs are satisfied by the use of fossil fuels.
The total electricity consumption of the desalination plants, which amounts to 20 million kilowatts, is equivalent to the combined generation capacity of about 20 large-scale nuclear power plants.
Even in the Middle Eastern region, where about two-thirds of world’s oil reserves are located, it is difficult to consume oil for continuous water production.
As the world’s oil resources continue to dwindle and the price of oil increases, it becomes more and more difficult even for countries in the Middle East to endlessly use oil for the desalination of salt water.
For this reason, many Middle Eastern countries are paying attention to the Smart nuclear power plant ― a nuclear power plant being developed by South Korean scientists that desalinates salt water ― and inquiring about the possibility of building one in their countries through the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The Smart nuclear power plant that South Korea is going to develop is designed to supply water and electricity at the same time to a town with a population of 100,000 residents.
*The writer is the president of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Park Chang-kue