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How wastewater reuse can cease dependency on desalination

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Public awareness of water reuse is a job for both the government and private sector.
Public awareness of water reuse is a job for both the government and private sector.

The technology to treat water for reuse is not new, so why hasn’t it been widely adopted in a region where expensive and power-hungry desalination is the only alternative?

Every month in the back of this magazine, we run details of the latest utility infrastructure projects in the region. It’s not unusual for new desalination plants to make up more than 20 per cent of these projects, and you can understand why.

Thanks to a huge boom in population and industry in the last 40 years, the Middle East now has massive water scarcity issues. Many regions have destroyed their aquifers leaving few options open, and desalination – that is, turning seawater into potable drinking water – has been the solution of choice for decades.

But it’s an expensive process. The plants cost big money to both build and run, and there’s a hidden cost, too. The gas or fuel oil powering these behemoths comes from the region’s natural reserves; the reserves it relies on to keep the petrodollars rolling in. Profitable commodity is literally going up in smoke to keep the desert adequately watered, and things look set to stay that way.

But they don’t have to. Wastewater reuse is not something that’s ever properly caught on in the Middle East – not in the way Europe and the USA have embraced it.

“It is apparent that hurdles to incorporate water reuse into integrated water management portfolios exist,” says Dan McCarthy, President and CEO of Black & Veatch’s Global Water Business. “It is also equally apparent that many communities will have to understand and clear those hurdles to meet future water demands.”

Black & Veatch recently conducted a series of roundtable discussions on the subject, with participants from Middle East, Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas, representing governments, utilities, non-profit agencies, trade associations and academia.

“Four principle recommendations emerged from the discussions, including the need for leaders to work together to overcome existing public misconceptions through clear, consistent and continuous communication about water reuse and its place within an integrated water portfolio,” says McCarthy.

“The importance of proactive public outreach was a common theme. Participants agreed that public trust is of paramount importance in implementing a water reuse programme so transparent, open and evidence-based communications are essential.”

One panelist, who didn’t want to be named, said: “We made a decision very early on that we weren’t going to sugar-coat this; we were going to tell it like it is. We were up front with people because we felt that if we didn’t get their buy-in early, we weren’t going to be able to make the investment we needed to make reuse work.”

For a Middle Eastern perspective, we spoke to Bassem Halabi, the Group Business Development Director at water treatment giant Metito. The company was the first to introduce membrane bioreactor technology to the region, and has consistently pushed the water treatment industry forward.

“We’re probably recycling quite a lot of water in the Gulf,” he says, “but in 2009 we were only using one per cent of that. Now it’s maybe up to two per cent, but that’s way below any standard anywhere else in the world.”

“You could easily go up to 25 per cent reuse, and in an arid zone like the Gulf it could be even more. Think of the possibilities for agriculture, instead of using well water or desalinated water; you could use this water to make the desert green.”

In investment terms, Halabi says money has been put into projects, but so far they’ve yet to go beyond a basic level.

“The expenditure so far has been concentrated on meeting the basic needs. Water is being treated just enough to be able to dispose of it, but not to reuse it. For potable purposes we still rely on wells and desalinated water, although it has been proved on many occasions that using wastewater treated to a potable degree is far less costly than desalinated water.”

Also aware of the psychological issues surrounding wastewater, Halabi suggests that using it to refresh the aquifer would serve to distance the water from its origins.

“The idea of injecting water into the aquifers is an excellent one, but instead of injecting desalinated water, we should be injecting reused water. At least it will break the barrier – people will not think that it is dirty water. It will come from the ground, which will do what nature has been doing for hundreds of millions of years; it will produce fresh water. It’s already potable when it goes in, but it would break
the barrier.”

Black & Veatch’s panel concluded that the water industry needs to present a united front to consumers about the environmental benefits of reused water, and its place within the integrated water portfolio.

“Perceptions of reuse must shift from being merely prudent to being an absolutely critical part of an integrated portfolio, to meet demand in areas of scarcity,” says McCarthy, quoting one panel participant as saying: “We need to have the mindset that there is no wastewater, only wasted water.”

The negative perception of treated wastewater is, however, difficult to get away from, with participants in the panel saying that the focus needs to be less on recycled water as a way to get rid of wastewater, and more on its value as a sustainable resource in a wider water portfolio.

“Robust scenario planning should be used to paint a longer-term picture of water needs, and to demonstrate for consumers the variability and unpredictability of factors that influence the supply of water,” says McCarthy.

“Unfortunately, it’s difficult to convince some communities to make a decision a decade or more in advance, especially if the data isn’t always available. The public needs to be educated about how limited the supply really is, and how changes in behavior today are necessary to make a difference tomorrow.”

So what else is keeping treated water from becoming a larger part of the Middle East’s water portfolio?

“One of the biggest issues is public awareness,” says Halabi. “They need to know that this water can be reused, that it can be treated to a safe level and that its long-term cost will be lower.’

“But it’s a job for both the government and the private sector. It has to be initiated by the government; as private sector we can definitely participate and do our job, but it has to be initiated by the government.”

Currently, the trend is to continue with the development of desalination plants to achieve enough potable water capacity to sustain growing populations and industry. But is it a viable long-term solution?

“It’s not sustainable. It could be in a few countries, but in the Gulf they’ve been concentrating on the economics, and how to bring the cost of desalination down. Nobody has really thought of giving enough attention to treating recycled water to make it safer for use.

There have been a few private initiatives, but nothing on a wide scale.”
Cost is a major issue – Halabi estimates that while a cubic metre from desalination costs around a dollar, treating wastewater to the same standard will cost half of that, while also bringing environmental benefits.

The use of gas and oil as a feedstock for desalination plants is also depleting profitable domestic reserves, but McCarthy says that the general consensus is that a portfolio mix is the right way forward.

“Leaders should take a more integrated and open-minded approach to portfolio management as they develop water resources for their customers,” says McCarthy.

“Water portfolio options should not be viewed as mutually exclusive; for example, it shouldn’t be desalination vs reuse, but desalination and reuse. Leaders need to decide when water reuse is acceptable, and then look at how to build it into the infrastructure for those situations.”

Despite the region only reusing around two per cent of its wastewater, Halabi is confident that, given the right policy environment, it wouldn’t take long before this could be grown to a significant proportion.

“Take the UAE as an example. It’s a relatively small country, and the treatment plants are concentrated in large-size volumes. For example, Dubai has Jebel Ali and Awir, and between them the two plants could treat basically all the sewage of Dubai. So once you decide to

implement reuse, and you implement it in two plants, you’re basically treating all the water. Getting to 25 per cent would be no problem at all, and would be doable over a period of five years. If you have the will, you can do it.”

Implementing the right policy environment for this to happen though, could be something of a struggle.

“Issues arise when separate agencies are responsible for different elements of the water treatment process; the industry needs a cooperative approach to water management if reuse is going to find its place within the portfolio,” says McCarthy.

“Utility leaders also need to work in partnership with local, regional, state and federal agencies to develop appropriate guidelines for water reuse that will work in their local areas.”

As technology advances, the ability to measure levels of microconstituents increases. McCarthy says that leaders need to make decisions on what level is acceptable and affordable, with politicians and regulators working together to build a bank of credible, robust data to demonstrate that reused water is safe for public use.

“Participants acknowledged that the body of knowledge available about reuse isn’t mature or fully peer reviewed, so water-related organisations need to make more of that information available.

A more robust database that includes rigorous cost-benefit analysis would help decision-makers objectively assess where reuse fits with other alternatives in their own water portfolio.”

Much of the technology is however, well-proven and already in use in seawater treatment facilities.

“It’s very simple,” says Halabi. “Effectively what you need is low pressure membrane treatment plus disinfection. Because most of the water quality coming out is good enough to be put through membrane filtration, it’s not a complicated process. It’s the same principle as seawater filtration, but the pressure is different – you can operate at six bar as opposed to 60 bar.”

This pressure difference translates into energy savings. “You need far less power for recycled water than for desalination,” Halabi says.

“For a new desalination plant, you’re talking about four kilowatt hours per cubic metre of water, and I would say water recycling would use a quarter of that, because you don’t have anything that requires high pressure – it’s high pressure pumps that consume all the power.”

McCarthy sums up: “The participants in the roundtables agreed that adequate future water supply hinges on intelligent recovery and reuse, but that advancing the option of water reuse will require new ways of thinking and new paradigms.

Better controls, data monitoring, public education and portfolio management should all help overcome potential barriers to water reuse.”

Industry Insight
Imran M. Jaferey, SVP Water and Wastewater at Koch Membrane Systems

How is business at the moment?
The market for membranes is growing at double digit annual rates worldwide. For companies like KMS, committed to
providing a technically and economically superior solution, business is good.

Why do you think wastewater reuse is taking so long to be widely implemented in the Middle East?
Wastewater reuse is still in early stages of development in Middle East and will take time to get accepted as a suitable technology. Even though there have been a lot of
technological advancements made in this field, it still has to overcome the socio-economic challenges posed by local
government bodies.

What are the main applications for treated wastewater?
In Middle East, treated wastewater is used mainly for irrigation, landscaping and other non potable purposes.

The use of this technology is now beginning to spread in industrial sectors, like in the preparation of ready-mix concrete and as a feed for district cooling. Outside the region reuse is much more significant, especially in arid regions. The most significant reuse applications are for industrial water requirements, and there have also been several projects for indirect potable reuse.

What new technology can we expect to see in the treatment business?
UF membrane (submerged and pressurised) based wastewater treatment systems are still new and popular in the Middle East. Not only do they produce a consistent and better quality of effluent for reuse applications but also help to upgrade the capacity of existing WWTP. The focus of the technology suppliers is on reducing the life-cycle cost of systems for these applications. Significant advancements have been made to reduce energy consumption and extend membrane life.

Where in the Middle East is wastewater reuse the
most prevalent?
In the Middle East, wastewater reuse is most prevalent in Oman, Qatar and UAE followed by other GCC countries primarily due to the challenge they face to develop future infrastructure with limitations on space availability and existing groundwater resources.

Where do you see the biggest expansion areas in the Middle East?
Saudi Arabia will lead GCC countries in the expansion of wastewater reuse industry due to their existing in-built capacity of WWTP and future requirements arising out of
industrialisation and population growth.

Industry Insight
Frost and Sullivan’s Sasidhar Chidanamarri, Industry Manager Environmental Practice, Middle East and North Africa, analyses the UAE’s wastewater opportunities

In the last two decades, the United Arab Emirates has witnessed rapid economic and population growth that has created immense pressure on its water resources. The UAE’s water and wastewater sector presents copious opportunities, with population growing at 3.5 per cent.

Currently, there are many projects in the pipeline to construct water and wastewater treatment and desalination plants in the UAE. The country is also planning for smart cities and green projects.

Additionally, in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, UAE is one of the countries that has successfully implemented Independent Water and Power Producer (IWPP) projects. Strategic growth opportunities in the UAE water sector encompasses sustainable technologies like desalination, Membrane Bio Reactors (MBR) for recycle and reuse, sludge to energy and polishing of treated sewage.

All of these factors will ultimately lead to up-gradation of the existing treatment capacities and lot of new capacity addition. Most of these projects are expected to be executed by the private sector under Build Own Operate Transfer (BOOT) and Build Operate Transfer (BOT) models.

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