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Wed 23 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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Something in the water

World demand for desalination services is projected to rise by nearly 10% annually until 2013. How important is the Middle East's role in this sector? Freedonia Group analyst Mike Richardson takes a look at the regional market.

Something in the water
Freedonia Group analyst Mike Richardson.
Something in the water
Africa/Middle East: Desalination Demand (in million of US$)

World demand for desalination services is projected to rise by nearly 10% annually until 2013. How important is the Middle East's role in this sector? Freedonia Group analyst Mike Richardson takes a look at the regional market.

The desalination market in the Africa/Middle East region is projected to increase 8.9% annually to more than US $9 billion in 2013. The region has long been by far the world's largest market for desalination. Despite substantial increases in desalination activity elsewhere in the world, the unique combination of demographic, hydrological, geological and climatological factors present in MENA guarantee that it will remain the largest market for the foreseeable future.

The region's largest national markets - the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia - accounted for more than half of regional demand in 2008.

While Saudi Arabia currently has the most desalination capacity, the neighbouring UAE is expected to add more through 2013. Although both countries are predicted to register strong growth, a number of smaller markets are expected to post faster gains.

Algeria, which until quite recently was a fairly marginal desalination market, has substantially added to its capacity with plans for much more. Libya, currently not one of the larger desalination markets in the region, is also expected to add capacity, which will boost demand for desalination equipment and services. Although large shares of the countries in Africa and the Middle East have at least some desalination capacity, almost all of it is concentrated in the most arid nations of North Africa, the Arabian Gulf area and the Levant.

Seawater accounts for the great majority of source water for desalination in the Africa/Middle East region, a far higher share than it does elsewhere in the world. Several countries in the region have little or no surface water, and insufficient groundwater to meet domestic water needs, and most such countries have coasts on one or more large bodies of seawater. Brackish water is a more common source water in sub-Saharan Africa, which does not account for a large share of the region's desalination market. A number of countries have begun - or are considering - wastewater desalination, but it continues to account for a small share of the overall market.

Traditionally, thermal desalination techniques - particularly multistage flash (MSF) distillation -- have dominated the desalination landscape in the Africa/Middle East region. MSF is not widely used outside the region due to the intense energy requirements. However, MSF remains a viable desalination technology within the Middle East, and for the region's largest markets in particular.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait all produce oil at a level far above their domestic energy needs. While such energy sources are not "cheap" (although they are often labelled as such), they are abundant and considered readily available to produce fresh water that is much more immediately essential than oil or natural gas. MSF is especially well-suited to produce immense amounts of freshwater, even from seawater with high levels of dissolved solids.

Although MSF is expected to occupy a large and important share of the region's desalination market, other techniques are projected to experience more rapid growth.

Despite the aforementioned abundant energy supplies, domestic energy requirements are generally on the rise in most countries in the region and oil not used to power desalination plants can satisfy domestic demand or be exported. Multiple-effect distillation (MED) plants, which also use thermal techniques but consume less energy than MSF, have gained substantially in the region and are expected to continue to do so.

In the coming years, however, seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) is expected to experience the fastest growth. In Saudi Arabia and other established thermal desalination markets, SWRO techniques are finding greater use due to concerns about energy savings. Elsewhere, in countries without bountiful energy supplies (e.g., Algeria), it will likely be the desalination technology of choice, with the large majority of new capacity using SWRO.

The UAE is one of the world's two largest desalination markets. Demand for desalination products and services in the UAE is projected to increase 7.7% annually to $2.3 billion in 2013. Like many of the nations in the Gulf, the UAE is  very dependent on desal for its water supply. In contrast to many of the countries in the vicinity, many of the water concerns in the UAE are privatised, although that is less true in the desal segment.

Because the UAE market is so large, it is unsurprising that many of the world's leading desalination firms are active there. Such firms include Aqualyng (Norway), BILFAL Heavy Industries (Saudi Arabia), Degremont (France), Doosan Heavy Industries (South Korea), GE Water & Process Technologies (US), Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (Japan), Siemens Water Technologies (US) and Veolia Environnement (France).

This excerpt has been taken from the Freedonia Group's recently published report, entitled World Water desalination. Full copies of the 380-page report may be purchased by contacting the Freedonia Group either by email -

, or by telephone - +1 440 684 9600.

Expert Q + A

Freedonia analyst Mike Richardson speaks to Utilities Middle East about desal techniques and the part that renewable energies will play in this crucial process.

What desalination techniques are most frequently practised by Middle Eastern plants and why are they used?

The Middle East's Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are among the world's largest national markets for desalination. The dominant technique in the region is multi-stage flash (MSF) distillation, although multiple effect distillation (MED) is a growing technology, too.

The main advantages of MSF are that it is capable of turning immense amounts of seawater with high levels of dissolved solids and turning it into pure water with almost no dissolved solids. The largest MSF plants in the world, which are all in the Middle East, are capable of processing several hundred thousand cubic metres of water per day. The main drawback of MSF is that its energy requirements are very high, which makes it expensive even in areas with a lot of oil or gas. MED's energy needs are lower, and recent advances in technology have allowed for plants of greater capacities to be built, making it more competitive with MSF.

Membrane-based technologies, especially reverse osmosis (RO), are growing in the region as well. In the most oil-rich countries, this is less true, but even Saudi Arabia is adding more RO capacity. In the less oil-rich countries, like Algeria, RO is on its way to being the dominant technology, because its energy requirements are so much lower.

How big a part do you think renewable energies will play in the region's long-term desal future?

Well, if we define "renewable" as "not oil and gas", there are already a number of initiatives in the works. Most such initiatives involve nuclear power. Although Saudi Arabia is in the mix with nuclear-powered desal, I think there are prospects for expanding desalination capacity into countries like Jordan and Libya, which have potential as desal markets.

If we define "renewable" in terms of things like wind or solar, it will be a bigger deal - at least in the shorter term - in places like Europe, the US and Australia.

What would you say are the desal project ‘success stories' around the world that the Middle East should look to emulate?

Desalination projucts seem usually to be a mixed bag when it comes to success or failures.  Construction projects don't always go to plan, there are more problems encountered than what was expected, shutdowns are of greater frequency and duration than anticipated.  But ultimately, with a few exceptions, the countries in the Middle East and North Africa seem to be turning to RO and other membrane techniques. Even in countries with ample energy, oil used in hungry MSF systems is oil that could have been sold on the global market.

Do you think there is mileage in mobile desal systems in the Middle East?

It is difficult to say.  Clearly, such systems are more popular right now elsewhere in the world than they are in the Middle East.  Generally, the cost of producing a unit of desalinated water goes down significantly when the quantity produced increases.  This would argue against smaller systems, especially in countries where desalinated water accounts for a large share of the potable water supply.  But in industrial applications, or in resort areas, smaller systems may have a role.

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