The University of Arizona is recognized nationally and internationally as a leader in the science of adaptation to climate change, and associated research and outreach to understand climate change, its observed and potential impacts, and possible responses.
Desalination and Development: The Technological Transformation of the Gulf of California in the Face of Climate Change
The provision of potable water in urbanizing arid regions, facing a projected reduction in precipitation and reduced water supply due to climate change, is a critical challenge worldwide. The state of Baja California Sur (BCS) is located in Mexico’s most arid region where groundwater supplies are insufficient to meet demands. Desalination—the conversion of saline water into potable water—offers a potentially “limitless” supply and is becoming the preferred augmentation strategy in BCS. While desalination can reduce some vulnerabilities (e.g., future water supply), it may increase others (e.g., equity, affordability, environmental impacts, and energy demands). This project asks: What leads to the adoption of desalination technology as a climate change adaptation and development strategy and how does this technology affect the communities where it is implemented? Research will be carried out over a 9-month period in two research sites in BCS (Los Cabos and La Paz), using semi-structured interviews, focus groups, household surveys, and a time-series analysis of secondary data.
Significance & Broader Impacts
Existing research concludes that while large-scale water infrastructure projects (e.g., dams) have facilitated economic development, they have typically resulted in inequitable social outcomes and negative environmental impacts. This research examines how desalination, a relatively new water infrastructure technology, transforms and is transformed by social and environmental relations. By focusing on the social impacts of desalination and making equity a central evaluation component, this research addresses oft-ignored issues. By framing desalination as an adaptive management strategy for dealing with growth and climate change, this research will illuminate how technology can alleviate or exacerbate vulnerability to water scarcity. It also highlights the decision-making and regulatory processes involved in adaptation actions. The study promises to contribute significantly to the fields of STS, technological risk, and climate change adaptation by addressing an important gap in the understanding of the social and environmental consequences of desalination technology. The policy-oriented approach will develop a set of best management practices
(BMPs) for water managers and decision-makers considering the adoption of desalination technology. BMPs will be available in a bilingual white paper for managers.