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Environment and History

Desert Dreams of Drinking the Sea, Consumed by the Cold War: Transnational Flows of Desalination and Energy from the Pacific to the Persian Gulf

Michael Christopher Low

Environment and History 26 (2020): 145-174. doi: 10.3197/096734018X15254461646549

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During the Cold War, from the early 1950s through the 1970s, the US Office of Saline Water was instrumental in spearheading the basic research and development that incubated the desalting techniques we see today. American technical assistance programs were fundamental to the growth of desalination capacity in the Middle East and its eventual globalisation. However, the federal government's original target for desalination was southern California and the arid Southwest. Desalination was proposed as the emergency backstop in the event that California's unquenchable thirst would inevitably overtax the dams of the Colorado River. And yet, American desalination never fully came to fruition. Instead, the promise of domestic desalination was co-opted and cannibalised by Cold War foreign policy. This essay traces how the Office of Saline Water's domestic desalination plans were repackaged and exported to Israel and Saudi Arabia. This essay considers how and why the United States slipped from the vanguard of desalination research while the Middle East emerged as its global leader. By connecting and comparing the divergent experiences of the American West and the Middle East, it also sheds new light on the nexus between the production of desalinated water and its key ingredient, energy.

KEYWORDS: Desalination, energy, nuclear power, oil, technopolitics, water


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