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Mon 29 Nov 2010 12:00 AM

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Desert challenge

With demand for water soaring, the market for wastewater reuse is on the cusp of unprecedented expansion.

Desert challenge
In the GCC, treated wastewater is mainly used for landscaping or for fountain displays.

In a region in which water seems scarcer than oil,
state-owned utilities have a job at hand to keep the taps running. With precious
little drinkable groundwater available, the region is currently producing an
average of 30 million cubic metres of desalinated water every day. And due to
unabated population and industrial growth, there is little indication that
demand will go anywhere but up.

Water reuse is primarily used for landscaping and
agriculture irrigation, district cooling, and industrial and municipal uses. It
is only natural that more thought is
now given to increase this usage. “The GCC market for water reuse is on the verge
of major expansion,” says Walid Fayad, partner at Booz & Co. “Capital
expenditure on advanced water reuse is expected to increase the capacity by
more than 13 percent per year in the coming five years.”

Saudi Arabia
alone is expected to become the third largest water reuse market in the world
after the United States and China,
estimates the Sustainable Water Alliance. Currently, the Kingdom reuses only
about 22 percent of its wastewater, if the reuse of low quality treated sewage effluent is excluded.

Booz & Co. estimate that between 2010 and 2016, GCC
countries will spend around US$60 billion on expanding wastewater collection
and treatment capacity. While reuse capacity will expand by 13 percent per
year, contracted desalination capacity will grow by only four percent. “Reused
water is expected to play a growing role in curbing supply levels from
non-renewable groundwater,” says Nadim Batri, principal at Booz & Co.

This makes sense, as treated sewage effluent (TSE), the
product of wastewater treatment, is much cheaper than desalination. At present,
around 2 million cubic meters of treated water is used in the GCC every day,
according to Booz & Co, a fraction of the amount of water that is
desalinated on a daily basis. While costs vary according to quality and
transportation expenditure, Booz & Co estimate that a cubic metre of
treated effluent costs $0.66 in Kuwait,
while a cubic meter of desalinated water costs an estimated $2.27.

“Swapping the energy intensive desalination of sea water via
reverse osmosis (RO), and replacing it with upgraded TSE would have a more
positive, profound and lasting impact on resource conservation,” says Mohamed
Hijaz, general manager at Eagle Electromechanical
& Al Hijaz Mechanical Equipment.

The financial case for investing in wastewater treatment
plants is a strong one, as is the case for immediate action. While the
economics are favourable, procrastination will erode the financial health of
the water sector, says Fayad: “The supply-demand gap will widen driven by a fast
growing water demand and depleting renewable water resources while increasing
capital investment requirements will further deteriorate the financial
viability of the sector.”

Gaining acceptance

One of the biggest obstacles to the reuse of wastewater is public
acceptance. Currently, the use of TSE is limited primarily for landscaping, or
for water displays such as the Burj Khalifa fountain display in Dubai. Even farmers are
unwilling to make use of TSE, at a great cost to utilities: The agricultural
sector accounts for 80 percent of water consumption in the GCC, as governments
insist on a degree of food autarky in spite of the region’s limited suitability
for farming.

Changing public perceptions is thus important, as the
wastewater reuse must find acceptance amongst the farming community and the
general public. In addition, a strong emphasis should be placed on those
technologies that produce water fit for irrigation purposes at the best
possible price.

“The region should embrace technologies that produce suitable
reuse water for irrigation purposes rather than polished water for discharge
purposes,” says Jonas Sipaila, head of research, development and innovation at
EPIC Green Solutions. “Agriculture and landscaping needs is the largest volume
consumer of water and if reclaimed water can become a suitable substitute
reducing freshwater demands, and on the flip side tertiary treatment of
wastewater becomes unnecessary for the nitrogen and phosphorus removal
process.”

Fortunately, those technologies already enjoy a high degree
of popularity in the region, says Hijaz: “Extended aeration (EA), sequencing
batch reactors (SBRs) and membrane bioreactor (MBR) plants are popular in the Middle East. All of the afore-mentioned technologies are
applicable to yield water that can be reused for irrigation.”

Those methods are referred to as secondary treatment, which
follow the process of segregating the water from solids. Membrane-based
technologies, such as membrane bioreactor and reverse osmosis processes are
becoming more common in the GCC as tertiary treatment forms, says Hijaz.
Tertiary treatment results in the highest possible water quality, and can
produce potable water from wastewater.

New treatment plants in the region will increasingly rely on
tertiary treatment and use a combination of established technologies such as
chlorination, UV, advanced tertiary filters and biological treatment, believes
Fayad.

The choice of technologies used in tertiary treatment plants
should take into account the particularities of the region in terms of climate
and the end use of treated effluent, he says: “For example, conventional
activated sludge and stabilization ponds which are commonly used in the West
have proven to be environmentally and economically suboptimal in arid GCC regions
leading to high energy consumption, high sludge production and odor pollution
problems. Alternatively, anaerobic digestion is suitable in arid climates and
leads to similar effluent quality at lower costs.”

Bog standard

It is, however, not only technology that has to be
compatible with local conditions. Standards also need to adapt. “Reuse
standards in the Middle East are adopted from
international standards without adjustment to epidemiological, socio-cultural
and environmental local conditions, which end up being either too stringent,
limiting reuse, or lenient, compromising public health,” says Hijaz.
“Regulations need to be tailored to the conditions mentioned previously through
local studies and need to be monitored effectively to ensure enforcement.”

Developing a suitable regulatory landscape is needed to  ensure the growth of the wastewater sector,
says Batri. “Going forward, water laws in the GCC should establish a legal
framework for the adoption of regulations on all matters regarding water treatment,
discharge and reuse.

Much of this type of framework is in existence but is not
adequately administered or has not been adequately developed into workable
regulatory form.”

While governments are clearly driving sector growth, and
state-owned utilities are the predominant owners of wastewater plants, the
number owned by private developers is increasing, says Batri.

This is due in part to the proliferation of mega-projects,
such as Masdar City
in Abu Dhabi, or the King
Abdullah Economic
City in Saudi Arabia. While those projects
are state-owned and funded, they rely on partnerships between developers and
international utility operators to build and operate the cities’
infrastructure.

In addition, GCC governments are starting to encourage
private sector participation in the wastewater sector. Examples include plans
by the Saudi National Water Company to invite private companies to construct
and operate wastewater treatment plants and networks for the reclaimed water.

“With improved treatment technologies waste water can become
feasible for private developments such as the subsequent reuse of treated water
on site. A combined approach from both entities reduces costs and volume for
both entities,” concludes Sipaila.

Size matters

Another emerging trend is for smaller scale plants, which
serve isolated communities or developments. “Going forward, higher
decentralization is required to provide wastewater treatment and reuse services
for smaller communities,” says Fayad.

While large treatment plants process water at a lower cost
than smaller installations, this has to be offset by the costs incurred by
transportation. Apart from the outlay for piping infrastructure or water
trucks, the water lost over longer distances is significant, with estimates
reaching up to 50 percent.  Fayad
believes that the technological progress has made small scale plants
economically and environmentally feasible: “With the available technology,
building local wastewater treatment plants is
feasible with limited environmental risks.”

Should the need arise, smaller plants can be scaled up or
upgraded much easier than their larger counterparts, thinks Sipaila: “Smaller more efficient treatment technologies are by design modular in nature
and as such more easily expandable at a lesser cost. Smaller lower cost
technologies are more adaptable to improvements and changes.”

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Jakion 9 years ago

So basically, we should start to accept the notion that drinking waste water is as healthy as water coming from desalination plants? How strange! Well I think it is better for us to immigrate to countries that are rich in natural water resources rather to be forced to drink and cook with waste water! Looks like after all the water scarcity issue is real!

Mohammed Nassar 9 years ago

I think some good information and education for middle east pepole why to use this type of TSE water
At the same time some steps should be followed by official authirities in using this type of water e.g.(Growing forest trees in desert areas and selected places to make it green ),by this the weather conditiones can be improved ,also the amount of rains through all the year may increase
Anyway experts should go ahead in this type of projects in countiers with low seasonal water income