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Tue 23 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Washing water

Water is at a premium in the Middle East and water conservation can only help the situation to a certain extent. Peter Ward looks into water treatment in the forms of desalination and water recycling.

Water is at a premium in the Middle East and water conservation can only help the situation to a certain extent. Peter Ward looks into water treatment in the forms of desalination and water recycling.

Living in Dubai, it can be very easy to forget that the city is in the middle of the desert. Golf courses, parks and water attractions give the ultimately false impression that water is easy to come by in this area. Water in the Middle East is a luxury that comes at a high price, but with new technologies that price is being lowered.

There is no denying the most obvious and most important issue involving water in the region; there isn't enough of it. Corodex business development manager Mohanned Awad explains: "Water comes at a premium here, everybody knows it. We don't have fresh water lakes here and we don't have deep water wells that are running at low salinity."

Metito general manager Salah El Ackdad comments further on the situation: "[In the Middle East] you don't have rainfall to speak of; you have around 50mm per annum on average so it is classified as a very arid area. With exception of very small areas in the Middle East, where you have a reasonable amount of precipitation, the area is basically a desert."

Water challenges

Population growth in the Middle East is driving the water demand and challenging companies, governments and individuals to come up with new ways to establish a healthy supply.

Director of operations at Palm Water Dr Mahmoud Al Hindi comments: "The growth in population, that's one of the drivers in the requirements for water. Increasing demand, issues related to agriculture and obviously the scarcity of water in the Middle East. You have got all these issues that are combined and you have got to look at them in my opinion in an integrated way."

This area does not have a great deal of ground water and to add to that problem, it is not a renewable resource and can be poor quality.

With no money inland and seawater so accessible, desalination was a logical choice for governments: "If you don't have precipitation, if you don't have surface water or proper ground water and it is not renewable as well then you are left with no option but to desalinate the sea," reports El Ackdad.

Desalination in simple terms is taking the salt and other unwanted particles out of the water pumped from the ocean. However this is process can consume a lot of energy.

"It is a complex and an energy consuming process. It is very hard to imagine removing suspended matters within the H20 itself but also its very complex to remove something that is already soluble in the water," El Ackdad adds.

Older desalination plants, many of which are still in use today, used a thermal method that involved heating. Newer facilities now use membrane technology to achieve clear water, pressurising the dirty water against a membrane in order to filter out any impurities.

"In other regions of the ME where fresh water rivers are a source of supply, desalination plays a smaller role, but still a significant one to insure sufficient water availability for remote areas and for economic expansion," ITT director of business development Jorg Menningmann comments.

"Major desalination technology applications have their roots in the Middle East. The most significant draw back to desalination has been that it is an energy intensive process.

The first major desalination plants were of the distillation type and these were most often co-located with power plants to take advantage of waste heat from the electrical energy production process.

However, with population growth and the inherent community expansion outside the traditional population centers has occurred, reverse osmosis membrane technology has found its place." Desalination uses

Desalinated water is mainly used for tap water and in some cases bottled water, to be drunk and used in every day situations.

However, there are some cultural and religious objections to drinking desalinated water, as Awad reports: "The potable water production that is happening in Fujeirah or Jebel Ali; a lot of that water production is not actually being used for drinking just because we have that stigma against drinking desalinated water."

It is a viewpoint that Awad disagrees with: "If you test the water from the tap its pretty safe to drink. I drink it. I put a sediment filter in front of it just in case the pipes are dodgy."

Energy consumption is one of the biggest problems with desalination, as El Ackdad stresses: "It is no coincidence that one of the largest plants in the UAE is on the eastern coast where you have a good 20% less salinity as the energy consumption is reduced by the same value.

The challenges come from the technique itself, there are lots of complexities. Of course there are very well known professors that have worked in the industries for many decades but it still comes with the cost of great power consumption."

Desalinating water is a contentious issue, with some people claiming it can be bad for the sea when used extensively. Al Hindi explains: "There are people who are very much against desalination. Last year the WEF issued a pretty damning report on desalination.

I don't think they got their facts correct. There are people who are more objective about their view on desalination. Basically in this part of the world you don't have an option, you've got to have some means of providing water."

Desalinated water has its limitations and although it could be claimed that environmental reasons are the highest on the agenda, it is the cost of the process that has really driven people to look for alternatives. Awad reveals: "Desalinated water is extremely expensive; it costs on average US$1.20 -1.30 per cubic metre to produce."

Menningmann believes these prices are improving however: "Today, the cost to desalinate water has been reduced to the point of being the least cost alternative in many situations. Energy efficiency translates into reduced cost and reduced CO2 emissions as well.

As desalination technology continues to evolve, it will become even more important to the Middle East and to many other regions of the world where it was once thought too expensive." Recycling potential

While desalinated water appears to be the only feasible solution to the drinking water problem, there are other sources of water that can be used for irrigation and industrial use. The UAE government has acknowledged that in order to solve the water problem, more of it must be recycled.

Awad comments: "I know now in Dubai Municipality, an executive order has come down regarding the use of potable water in district cooling facilities. The executive order was regarding using TSE in district cooling applications."

District cooling plants in particular are now being put under pressure to use treated sewage effluent rather than desalinated water straight from DEWA. The district cooling process requires a lot of water and it can be very expensive to provide that amount of desalinated water. Therefore firms are now using technology which enables the plants to use treated water.

The water still needs to be cleaned before entering the district cooling plant as without cleaning it can corrode pipes and bring the system to a standstill. However after the water is put through a membrane and polished it works just as well as desalinated water and is much less expensive.

Recycled water can be used in a number of functions. El Ackdad reports: "For many reasons we do not consider that this water is good for drinking though technically speaking it is. But for some religious and psychological reasons we cannot drink it. We can use it in many water consuming applications such as very safe irrigation for instance."

Awad reveals further uses for recycled water: "I think there are good applications for it, right now I think the technology is improving, say for example you have a TSE plant and then you put after it a filter and membrane technology and another disinfectant then you will have clear water.

And this is great to put into the plants, I'm not saying to drink it, this is the biggest misconception, don't drink it but you can definitely use it for other applications like on a golf course, use it. The water is fine if you drink a little bit, it's not going to kill you and it looks pristine."

Menningmann believes that cultural hurdles must be overcome when considering recycled water: "The technology exists to allow recycled water to be used in day-to-day life. Cultural barriers must be overcome and people need to be educated on the facts rather than perceptions. Even with cultural barriers in place, secondary water can be used for most irrigation, industrial, cooling and sanitary uses."

Psychological and cultural reasons seem to dictate that recycled water may never be used for drinking. This means that the pressure will be on desalination plants to continue to supply drinking-quality water in the Middle East in the future.

However, some of that strain can be taken off desalination with the increased use of recycled water, together with water saving devices and a good attitude towards water conservation. MBR technology is a water treatment that is an integral part of life in the Middle East and one, thankfully, that is helping water head in the right direction.

MBR technology explainedMBR or membrane technology has been in existence since the late 1960s but has only become truly economically viable in the last decade.

MBR provides much purer water than conventional methods of water treatment as it combines the use of biological processes with a membrane usually submerged into the bioreactor.

Billions of microscopic pores on the fibres of the membrane form a barrier for impurities and let pure water molecules pass. A gentle suction is used to draw the water through the membrane.

Water that has gone through the membrane can then be cleaned further using an additional reverse osmosis membrane, the same used in a desalination plant.

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