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How do you make salty water drinkable? The hunt for fresh solutions to a briny problem

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2024-07-05 13:00:12

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High levels of sodium in drinking water have been linked to increased rates of pre-eclampsia in Bangladesh. Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty

People have been separating salt from water for millennia, harvesting both salt and fresh drinking water from salty seawater. But there are limits to what can be done — sometimes with drastic consequences. When people in ancient Mesopotamia couldn’t work out how to desalinate their irrigation water and prevent salts from accumulating in their soils, their society collapsed. “It’s kind of the world’s oldest, most boring, but serious problem,” says Sujay Kaushal, a hydrologist at the University of Maryland in College Park.

This problem is now growing more pressing, as salinity levels creep up in fresh waters for a slew of reasons. Rising sea levels are pushing salt into coastal groundwaters, while excessive groundwater extraction in other places is drawing deeper, saltier waters up into aquifers. And human activities — from deicing roads to washing clothes and fertilizing fields — are polluting surface waters with many kinds of salt. Last October, Kaushal and his colleagues reported that salt levels in major streams and rivers around the world are booming; some bodies of water are now several times saltier than they were a few decades ago1. Freshwater salinization is a massive global problem, not just a regional one, he says.

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