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Rethinking the GCC water conundrum

The dire pollution situation in the Gulf is in need of drastic action.

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The alternative to desalination could be even more detrimental to pollution levels in the Gulf.
The alternative to desalination could be even more detrimental to pollution levels in the Gulf.
Christopher Gasson, Global Water Intelligence.
Christopher Gasson, Global Water Intelligence.
Former IDA president Lisa Henthorne.
Former IDA president Lisa Henthorne.

The dire pollution situation in the Gulf is in need of drastic action. One global association - IDA - is trying hard to achieve local change.

As one of the world’s fastest evolving industries, desalination has seen unprecedented capacity brought online in the last five years. But with growth comes added recognition, and added responsibilities.

As the spotlight fell on the industry during the recent International Desalination Association (IDA) World Congress held in Dubai, experts at the event were keen to stress the sector’s green credentials.

According to Christopher Gasson, the publisher of Global Water Intelligence, the average additional amount of capacity brought online for seawater desalination has risen from around 1 million cubic metres a year to an extra 4.3 million cubic metres in 2009 alone.

“Whereas completion of plants has reached a peak this year, there’s naturally a lag between the time when plants are contracted and completed, and the peak year for contracting was in 2007,” Gasson stated.

“There’s been a fall this year, partly due to the crisis – certainly in Dubai – and partly due to the fact that other countries, such as Australia, which had steeply escalating plans, are now plateauing.”

Gasson believes that the next cyclical burst of growth will probably occur around 2014-16, where the additional amount of capacity being brought online will start rising to around 6-8 million cubic metres a year.

“The comparison I make is that the River Thames discharges around 5.7 million cubic metres a year into the English Channel – after 2014, the seawater desalination industry will be adding a new River Thames to the world’s freshwater supply. Except, of course, that this is a river flowing backwards,” Gasson added.

All this added capacity should in theory provide a renewable water supply that should take the pressure of non-renewable groundwater resources. There is, of course, a vast discrepancy between the amount of rainfall that visits the Arabian Peninsula and the amount that is being used by the local population.

Historically, the shortfall has been made up by fossil groundwater, and that resource is being swiftly exhausted.

“In Saudi Arabia, total precipitation is 2 cubic kilometres a year, with actual use running to 22 cubic kilometres a year,” indicated Gasson. “The country has now reached peak water due to over-exploitation of its own groundwater resources.”

What’s worse is that the quality of the water now available to the Kingdom from aquifers is more expensive to obtain – it is necessary to dig deeper – and the higher salinity means that it can’t be used for agricultural purposes.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, has come in for heavy criticism following its decision to become self-sufficient in wheat, and in the process allowing agriculture to consume around 90% of its annual water supply. By 2002, the Kingdom was exporting around twice as much wheat as it was consuming.

“Saudi Arabia’s recent decision [to cut back the wheat subsidy] has been absolutely essential,” Gasson said. “The exports have ended, and the subsidy is now going as well. But other crops are still being grown.”

Desalination will play a key part in redressing the balance. And the industry’s renewed responsibilities have been crystallised in the formation of a new task force to help combat the effects of pollution in the Gulf caused by the desalination industry, as reported in the December issue of Utilities Middle East.

An inaugural meeting has already taken place, and a steering committee has been formed that will decide the make-up of the taskforce.

“We anticipate that it will be composed of representatives from UNESCO, universities and experts in environmental issues that are specific to the region,” said Lisa Henthorne, the now-former president of IDA.

“Its objective is primarily to facilitate discussion, and it’s likely that there will be a conference to consider the topic in the near future .”

So far, it seems, the initiative has been well-received. “We’ve only had positive feedback,” Henthorne added.

“Our sponsor, TechnoPark, held an invitation-only workshop that consisted of government representatives and stakeholders in the industry. But the only thing we can change is what we can impact. I can’t predict how or if those impacts will be mitigated – but that’s all we can do.”

The other factor that will help the push towards renewable water resources is water reuse, an area in which the Middle East has traditionally been lacking.

“The biggest area of investment today is not desalination, but wastewater collection, treatment and reuse,” claimed Gasson. “There are huge programmes to build new WTPs in Saudi Arabia and a $4 billion national water reuse programme in Oman.”

Gasson is clear that the environmental issue should be seen from the perspective of the whole water sector, and that the alternative to desalination is often much more detrimental. “When the Ilusu dam in Turkey is completed, its affect on the salinity of the Gulf will be greater than the impact of all the desalination plants based in that area,” he indicated.

“Irrigation schemes in West Asia leach salts and pick up pesticides, which become a hazardous dust when the water reaches the Aral Sea. You have to view the impact on the plant in context; creating renewable water resources is a vital way of protecting our environment.”

Fast facts

  • 2 Amount of annual precipitation, in cubic kilometres, falling on Saudi Arabia.
  • 22 Amount of water, in cubic kilometres, actually consumed by Saudi Arabia annually.
  • 4.3 Amount of extra capacity, in milions of cubic metres, added to the global desalination market in 2009.

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