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Exclusive Interview: Dow's Dr Ilham Kadri

GM of Dow's Advanced Materials Division MEA talks water scarcity

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Dr Ilham Kadri presenting at the Park Hyatt, Dubai
Dr Ilham Kadri presenting at the Park Hyatt, Dubai

Water scarcity, as Dow's Dr Ilham Kadri succinctly puts it, is a big issue. The Middle East region holds 5% of the world’s population, but only 0.9% of the planet's water resources. Considering such a frightening statistic, it's no surprise that the region is amongst the most stressed in the world in relation to water availability.

"In the UAE we are consuming 970 litres of water per person, per day, whilst in Singapore the figure is 160 litres. There are many reasons for this – the weather conditions, the construction boom, the substantial population growth – that have fuelled growth in the region and increased consumption. We have a young population, with a substantial number under 30 years old. This population needs homes, drive cars, buys consumer goods. These things drive up demand for electricity; and electricity plants, as well as industry generally, all require water for production."

Water then, is in short supply. The basic nexus, as Dow sees it, is that you need water to produce energy and energy to produce water. Groundwater reserves have been depleted and desalination has expanded to take up the slack. Dr Kadri says that an unfortunate consequence of the Middle East's oil wealth has been that desalination projects still tend to be energy intensive, oil driven plants. This means, in effect, that oil that could be sold is instead being used to provide for the most basic of human needs.

"We are the last generation that has the luxury of making a decision about sustainability. It is better to sell the oil, and better still to save it for future generations. People in other regions automatically look to the energy-saving option because energy is more expensive. The Middle East is in fact pretty unique in the use of oil-intensive desalination plants."

Fortunately, Dr Kadri says, this attitude is changing. Across the region there is a rising interest in sustainability issues and countries are now looking at alternative technologies. Dow claims to have decreased the costs of purified water by 50%, and has given itself a target of further reducing costs by 30% by 2015. This has been achieved through the company's portfolio that includes reverse osmosis and membrane technologies.

"Membrane technology has advanced heavily, with Dow leading on innovation. The technology uses less energy and releases less carbon dioxide. There is less fouling to prevent blockages, and consequently is more durable and the membranes need replacing less often. Membrane technology really has a far better sustainability profile and Dow is calling for people to make the switch."

A particular focus for Dow has been the application of this technology to reuse waste water. The company recently celebrated World Water Day at an event in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Dubai. This hotel is now using Dow's systems to reuse its waste potable water for use in its heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. Within a year, this had saved the hotel enough potable water to fill up to 62 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

"We are currently wasting our waste water, and we really need to understand that if you reuse it, it's no longer waste. The hospitality sector has been a great success story for us and those involved have seen a return on investment in less than a year. In industry too, there are clearly applications for our technologies. With energy costs in the region having tripled in the last decade, everyone needs to look at the money they put into an investment and the operational expenditure to minimise energy costs."

The company also offers ion exchange technology which it uses for water polishing. "For example in Cyrpus, where there is a large agricultural sector growing lots of fruit and vegetables, they have a need for water with a very low boron content. We can use ion exchange to help them achieve this."

This range of technologies has been particularly important for Dow as it researches new solutions for the Middle East. The company recently announced that it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) in Saudi Arabia to pursue joint research activities in desalination technologies. This development is part of a significant investment in Saudi, which Dr Kadri suggests is natural given that the country is the largest desalinated water market in the world.

"In 2003, Saudi Arabia stopped producing wheat and ended their focus on self-sufficiency in food production. They realised that the biggest issue facing the country will be water. The water table was depleted and water was becoming much more precious."

Dow has also invested in a R&D collaboration with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. This sort of local-level development is important, Dr Kadri says, because water and its associated problems are very regionally specific. Middle East salinity levels are different; the temperature is different; the pollutants are different. These differences require local solutions.

"Companies operating in the region used to simply drop technologies used in Europe and the US and make them happen here. But water is not alike. Now we invest in R&D and innovate here according to our end-users specific needs. We now pilot technologies in the region, benchmark the technology and bring in the right innovation."

Looking ahead, Dow's focus to grow the business is also centred around this focus on local innovation and Dr Kadri hopes that this will mean that the next year or two will see the launch of innovations developed specifically for the GCC region. At the same time she emphasises a need to focus on education to grow a solid framework for sustainable technologies in the water space.

"We need to engage with everyone – with the municipalities, regulators, the media, right down to the children in my six-year-old's school class. We need them to understand the value of water conservation and that every drop counts. I would love in the future to see sustainability as a key performance indicator of any technology. If we're serious about sustainability issues, we need to have out-of-the-box thinking about water. It really is too severe an issue to tackle in a limited way."

Happily, the outlook for us all isn't bleak. Dr Kadri says that attitudes are definitely changing, pointing to the UAE's legislation to limit the use of fresh water for irrigation and Dubai municipality's use of treated sewage effluence (TSE) as a resource for agriculture. Clearly sustainability is getting more time in the spotlight.

"It's a step-by-step process. Society needs to be prepared, industry needs to be prepared. If you look at the history of the carbon footprint for example, reductions didn’t happen overnight. But in the two years I've been here, I've seen a lot of change. Dow has shown that limiting water usage can make you more efficient. This really is a win-win for everyone. Sustainability means profitability."

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