TOPSFIELD — This town may be famous for its popular agricultural fair, but what many don’t know is that for almost half a century, it has also been home to a global organization addressing international water scarcity issues.
The International Desalination Association is the global hub of information on desalination, a process of “desalting” water to make it usable.
For people living on the North Shore, where water is readily accessible, topics like desalination might not come up very often. But 300 million people worldwide rely on desalination for their daily water needs, and that number is increasing as population growth, pollution, leaks and climate change compromise freshwater supplies, according to IDA.
The nonprofit, professional organization provides expertise, news and information, and professional development for the worldwide desalination industry, according to its literature. It organizes an international conference for professionals every year, a newsletter, educational materials and other services. Members include scientists, engineers and consultants from businesses, governments and academia.
So why Topsfield?
“Many people do ask,” said Secretary General Patricia Burke, who has been with the organization since before it was the International Desalination Association. “It’s because this is where I am.”
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, IDA has been in Topsfield since its beginning. Burke worked out of her home in Topsfield before IDA found offices, and IDA’s seven team members now are all from the area. But their work takes them all over the world.
This year’s IDA World Congress, for instance, will take place in Tianjin, China, where more than a thousand experts in the desalination industry will gather for six days in October to exchange knowledge and experience.
During April and May alone, IDA lists events in Spain, United Arab Emirates, Western Australia and Canada.
“Desalination is part of the water strategy for the 21st century, and it has become essential in many places,” said Ann Seamonds, a spokeswoman for IDA. Currently, there are 16,000 desalination plants around the world. The market for desalination is primarily municipal and industrial users but includes power stations, agriculture and the military.
Since seawater desalination is the only renewable source of fresh water available on the planet, many countries are turning to it as a key to their water resource management strategies. After all, less than 1 percent of the world’s water is fresh groundwater, but 97 percent of Earth’s water is salt water, according to IDA.
“Water becomes a driver for a lot of wars in a lot of parts of the world,” Burke said.
Seamonds said many reports predict that the next major wars will be fought over water, and the United Nations expects that 1.8 billion people will face absolute water scarcity by 2025. But desalination is only a partial solution.
“Water reuse, conservation, fixing leaky pipes — you take all of these things and then you say, we still don’t have enough water,” Burke said. “Then you look at desalination.”
One hundred and fifty countries use desalination in some capacity, with a city like Dubai producing around 98 percent of its drinking water that way.
“As Pat always says, it’s like the well that won’t run dry because the sea is a very sustainable resource,” Seamonds said.
Though most people believe desalination is more expensive than other systems, Burke and Seamonds say it is not; new technologies have lowered energy requirements and achieved greater operational efficiency, making desalination less costly.
While people driving past the Topsfield offices may not notice, IDA often hosts delegations from other countries, as well as the media, including CNN and Fox News. Proximity to Boston makes IDA’s location convenient, Seamonds said. But being in Topsfield is also convenient for Burke, who lives 10 minutes away and can go home at lunch to let her dog out.
As secretary general of IDA, Seamonds said Burke is well-respected in the desalination industry. But Burke’s particular passion is education.
“I would like to teach young kids so they know the value and importance of turning that tap on where they live and how much it took to get that water flow — if they even have a tap,” Burke said.
And while Topsfield may not rely on desalination for its water, conservation can still be a daily practice of residents. Fixing old, leaky pipes, she said, is a significant way to conserve water.
“The city of Boston loses a lot of water because their pipes are old. And that’s true in a lot of older cities,” Burke said. “It may sound silly, but you know, turn the tap off when you’re brushing your teeth.”