A Pressing Need

Gulf Countries continue to set ambitious targets for wastewater recycling

The Doha West wastewater plant in Qatar
The Doha West wastewater plant in Qatar

Gulf countries have recognised the importance of wastewater recycling and continue to set ambitious targets

The issue of water scarcity is one that is being felt the world over. Even in the United Kingdom, a land synonymous with umbrellas - droughts and hose pipe bans make surprising headlines almost every summer. A desalination plant has been in operation near London since 2012 and there is talk of more being added in the coming decades to cope with the demands of a fast rising population.

Nowhere is that demand being felt more acutely than in the Middle East, and particularly the Arabian Peninsula, where not a single river flows. Yet somehow human life still manages to thrive in this most inhospitable of environments. Though most of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s water needs are met by desalination plants, the treatment and recycling of wastewater has been moving higher up the agenda of governments.

In countries blessed with sufficient resources, the treated water discharged from wastewater treatment plants, or effluent, is allowed to flow into the sea. In the Middle East there is a more pressing need to recycle that water for reuse, such as irrigation.

Yet, according to a recent research report by Arcadis NV, nearly 40% of treated wastewater across the Middle East is still discharged into the sea rather than stored or reused. This figure could be as high as 60% for some countries in the region.

The development of wastewater treatment in some parts of the Middle East can still be considered to be at a nascent stage when compared to Europe, North America and countries like Singapore and Australia, confirms Kshitij Nilkanth, program manager, energy & environment practice, MENA and South Asia, Frost & Sullivan.

“In most MENA countries, there is a continuing increase in the collection rate of wastewater, especially through sewerage networks that are gradually expanding,” he says.

“The overall coverage of wastewater collection in the region would range between 70-95% for the MENA countries. The actual treatment of collected wastewater is comparatively lower. Up to 55% of total wastewater generated in the Arab region undergoes some kind of treatment.”

The need to recycle wastewater is most pressing in the Gulf states (GCC), where water is not only scarce but consumption levels are around 65% higher per capita than the world average.

As a result, GCC countries have recognised wastewater reclamation and reuse as an integral component of their overall water strategy. Levels of water recycling and reuse are higher in this part of the Middle East and governments continue to set ambitious targets.

Saudi Arabia, for example, plans to reuse 100% of treated wastewater by 2025, according to Frost & Sullivan. In the UAE, Dubai uses 100% of treated wastewater and Abu Dhabi aims to do the same by 2018.

Bahrain plans to invest $4bn in wastewater infrastructure between 2013 and 2030 and Qatar aims to increase wastewater reuse by 30% by 2020. In Oman, Muscat will invest $4.7bn to connect 84% of its population to the wastewater network and reuse all treated effluent by 2020.

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The view from the ground
“This is a very strategic region for us,” says Zakia Bahjou, Regional Commercial Manager of Dow Water & Process Solutions (DWPS), a company that develops and manufactures water treatment and water purification technologies across the board.

DWPS’s commitment to the region is evident in its decision to build a manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia, its second biggest plant after the United States. The company also has the Dow R&D centre in Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

“Water treatment is at the top of government agendas in the Middle East for the very simple reason that water shortage is a very significant challenge that those countries have. It’s still an emerging geography where they have just started putting in place sustainability or efficiency driven agendas.

The Middle East is really at that high peak of development for wastewater and you can see that from the number of projects that utilities have been launching in the last two- three years.

“The GCC governments have communicated a budget of $100bn to be spent between 2011-2016 with the objective of improved water treatment technologies and increased wastewater and recycling contribution.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Pierre Pauliac, Middle East business unit director of French company, Suez Environnement. Its subsidiary, Degremont, has been active in this region for many years and made headlines only last month when it won the contract to expand the Doha West Wastewater plant in Qatar by 105,000 m3 per day to 280,000 m3/d.

After the economic downturn in 2008/2009 there was a reduction in the number of tenders for wastewater projects, Pauliac says, but since 2012 there has been a huge rise in the number of projects.

“Be it in wastewater or reverse osmosis, the level of demand in the region has increased a lot and our revenues along with it. It’s obvious that there is a tremendous water issue and recycling water is much cheaper than desalinating seawater.

“It’s also a more sustainable approach because using groundwater will lead to dry dams, so they really need to find alternative sources of water. That’s why today, all the clients in the Gulf are buying wastewater treatment plants including tertiary treatment to be able to recycle it.”

There has been talk that the recent drop in oil prices could delay or derail some investments in infrastructure in the region. Though it is too soon to tell, Pauliac says there are signs that industry and the oil and gas sector would feel the pinch of potential budget constraints before public utilities.

“Shell and Qatar Petroleum have just cancelled a major petrochemical project. So for industrial clients, lower oil prices could delay demand for wastewater plants, but for public clients we have not felt anything so far. Tenders that were expected in December and January were floated, which is a good sign.

“You cannot live without water. We can’t say for certain that there won’t be any delay or slowdown in demand but I would expect it to remain at a high level compared to most other regions of the world.”

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Cost and efficiency
The cost of building wastewater plants has remained more or less stable because clients demand ever higher quality of treated water, Pauliac says.

More stringent specifications lead to the development of more advanced technologies and that requires greater investment in R&D. Plus, costs can vary from country to country, depending on civil works which can make up roughly half of the cost of a plant.

“There is a big difference in civil works costs between Saudi, which is quite cheap, and Qatar, which is quite expensive,” Pauliac says. “The number of contractors and the level of competition has an impact. With the build up to [the FIFA World Cup in] 2022 and the level of construction in Qatar, there’s a scarcity of resources.”

However, the efficiency of wastewater treatment plants has improved significantly, to the point where they can be energy neutral or could even supply power the grid in the future. That raises the prospect that wastewater treatment plants could eventually contribute to the power needs of a region where demand is skyrocketing.

“You can produce biogas which can then be used to generate power,” Pauliac explains. “For example our Al Samra plant in Jordan is reaching above 95% level of self-sufficiency. But the cost of energy in Jordan is much higher than in Qatar.

“However I’m convinced that in Saudi we will sell this technology eventually,” he adds. “By some estimates, Saudi will become an importer of oil and gas between 2030 and 2040. We think they will become interested in this technology, so they can export their oil and gas reserves rather than using it to generate power. I’m sure Saudi will do it and probably quite soon, in the next few years.”  


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