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Sat 1 Mar 2008 12:00 AM

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Utilities Middle East catches up with the new president of the IDA, Lisa Henthorne.

Utilities Middle East catches up with the new president of the IDA, Lisa Henthorne.

With 25 years of industry experience behind her, Lisa Henthorne took up the helm at the International Desalination Association (IDA) at the end of October last year.

The public perception is that desalination is harmful.

She hopes to use her two-year presidency to try to dispel some of the myths surrounding the environmental impact of seawater desalination and to improve the public perception of an industry that has long been part of her life.

Henthorne confesses that her connection with the sector began by pure chance: as a chemical engineering student in need of extra cash she won funding to work as an assistant on a US-government sponsored desalination project.

She later worked for a brief spell in the oil and gas sector, but did not take to it. "I came back to water and membranes and desalination because I really enjoy it and I think it is very important for our future," she explains.

"With water there is always an environmental aspect, which for me personally is more rewarding than oil and gas. Less money but more rewarding."

Over the years, she has seen the industry mature and has observed at close hand the evolution of reverse osmosis technology. "When I started 25 years ago, membrane technology was in its infancy," says Henthorne.

"There were only a few plants being built around the world, but now about 60% of the installed capacity is membrane technology. That has been the biggest change, the type of technologies that we are using, and also the overall acceptance of desalination today.

Many, many cities all over the world are either installing desalination or they are evaluating it very seriously.

It is more than just something for the Middle East region now; it is something that the world at large is utilising because of the water shortages, the water contamination problems and general droughts."

Despite growing acceptance that desalting seawater is necessary to meet the world's water needs, the sector still comes in for criticism from environmental campaigners - something Henthorne wants to change.

"One of the three primary areas that I am going to be addressing in my presidency is how we influence the public perception of what our technologies do and ensure that people are aware that these plants can be built with extremely minor environmental impact, and that when it comes to the power component, renewable energies can be used so that there are not even any CO2 emissions," she says.

"It can be done, in Australia, plants as large as 140000 m3 per day are being built that are completely powered by renewable energy.

"The public perception is that desalination is harmful, but the impact from the power plants is greater, they take much vaster quantities of water than desalination plants. They often use ageing infrastructure that is not designed to preserve marine life."

"But we have demonstrated that we can build intake systems that do not present any entrainment and impingement issues. It just costs more."

Henthorne plays down concerns that the industry is raising the salinity of the seas. "If you are on the ocean you have no long-term worries," she insists.

"It would be hundreds and hundreds of years before we impacted the sea as it is such a vast volume of water. When you are in more restricted or contained areas you can see potentially that we could impact the salinity at some point in time, but generally it is on a very localised basis."

The Arabian Gulf is quite contained and all the water comes in through a restricted entrance so you have a slower turnover of the overall volume of water.

"There were studies done years ago, though, where they evaluated the impact of desalination and even for the Arabian Gulf we are a long way away from changing the salinity."

Her other goals as IDA president are to draw up and implement a strategic plan for the future direction of the association and to strengthen ties with its regional affiliates.

She will also look at increasing the backroom staff and bringing a public relations company on board to assist with public awareness campaigns.

"We are a lot of technocrats and sometimes we need outside assistance and influence on how best to shape what the public sees and understands, if we start talking technical stuff we lose people quickly," she says.
For her day job, Henthorne is vice president of engineering, operations and construction firm CH2M HILL. She works out of its Dubai office.

The US-headquartered company has a turnover of US $5-6 billion and is acting as programme manager for the entire Masdar city development in Abu Dhabi.

Being a woman will only get you so far and will only prevent you from going so far.

"It's a wonderful and exciting opportunity and we are honoured to be playing such a leadership role in what we consider to be a world class project that the entire planet will be watching," she enthuses.

"It is an incredibly bold step because there will be things that will be challenging to implement. I encourage people to take their cynic hat off and just be hopeful that as many things as possible will work out and that we can then use them to change the way we live and that in a decade we have a planet that will still be like the one we have today, because if we don't make these changes then there will be a drastic change in our climate that we will not be able to control any longer."

"Unfortunately, it is going to take countries like China, India and the US to embrace the change in policies before there will be a significant impact. You can do one thing in Masdar but the level of visibility needs to be raised so that those countries then implement changes there as well."

Henthorne acknowledges that she is one of few women to rise to the top of what is very much a male-dominated industry, but adds that her gender has largely been an irrelevant factor in her career progression. She attributes her success to her work ethic and balanced outlook on life.

"Being a woman has sometimes made things easier for me," she admits. "It is easy to remember me and in a male world that counts for something, but then once you get the door open you do have to perform."

"No-one is going to allow you to get in the door just because you are a woman. Being a woman will only get you so far and will only prevent you from going so far. At the end of the day it is the substance that matters."

"I don't think that I have had to perform harder than guys, but then I am a workaholic anyway; it is just part of who I am."

"The message I give to the young people that I work with is to always do your best, always strive for perfection in everything that you do, but balance that - you also need to have a personal life."

"I am a mother of four kids. To be a contented person on this planet you need that balance."

THE INTERNATIONAL DESALINATION ASSOCIATION AT A GLANCENon-profit organization

Aims to support the development and appropriate use of desalination technology

More than 1,300 members in 58 countries

28-member board of directors

Organises events and seminars

Offers scholarship funds to students worth up to US $10,000

Hosts a biennial World Congress

Dubai chosen for 2009 World Congress

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

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