Environmental impact of desalination technologies: A review

Khaled Elsaid*, Mohammed Kamil, Enas Taha Sayed, Mohammad Ali Abdelkareem, Tabbi Wilberforce, A. Olabi

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Due to the limited availability of freshwater supplies, desalination has become an increasingly reliable process for water supply worldwide, with proved technical and economic feasibility and advantages. Recently, desalination capacity significantly increased from approximately 35 million m3 daily (MCM/day) in 2005 to about 95 MCM/day in 2018. Seawater desalination accounts for about 61% of global desalination capacity, while brackish water desalination accounts for 30%. Membrane desalination, mainly using reverse osmosis (RO), accounts for ¾ of global desalination capacity, with the rest mostly used for thermal desalination using multi-stage flash distillation (MSF), and multi-effect distillation (MED). Despite the undeniable role of desalination for securing water supply in areas where natural freshwater supplies are scarce, desalination impacts the natural environment at different aspects. Environmental impacts (EIs) of the desalination process are different and vary significantly according to the nature of the utilized feedwater, the desalination technology in use, and the management of waste brine generated. In this work, the EIs of each desalination technology were thoroughly investigated, with careful consideration given to different feedwater qualities, and various brine management techniques. Although the different aspects of desalination EIs have been extensively studied in the literature, the literature lacks comprehensive reviews and summaries of all the associated EIs. This article compiles the different EIs associated with the whole desalination process in one-hub, applying an intake-to-outfall approach. The leading desalination technologies of RO, MSF, and MED were analyzed, along with different feedwaters. This article provides a mapping of the different technologies involving feedwater and brine management techniques and a detailed description of their impact on the environment. Finally, recommendations and conclusions were given to minimize the negative impacts of desalination on both the local and global environments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number141528
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date8 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2020


  • Desalination
  • Environmental impact
  • Multi-effect distillation
  • Multi-stage flash distillation
  • Reverse osmosis


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