Ground water scarcity exacerbated by increased water demand due to population growth and the effects of climate change – droughts, higher temperatures – is a critical sustainability challenge for many regions of the world. The Middle East & North Africa (MENA) is no exception.
As the gap between water demand and availability in the Arabian Gulf widens, the pressure on desalination technologies to meet water consumption needs inevitably grows.
At the next Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), taking place from January 12-21, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company Masdar will present technical data from an innovative pilot programme that could pave the way for the commercial adoption of seawater desalination powered by clean energy.
The programme, which last month completed one year of operations, was announced at the inaugural International Water Summit (IWS) – one of the co-located exhibitions at ADSW – in January 2013.
It started with four small-scale desalination plants testing innovative energy-efficient desalination technologies; a fifth was launched in October this year, run by the French engineering company Mascara.
“The Mascara project uses reverse osmosis technology and is a showcase of an off-grid solution,” said Dr Alexander Ritschel, Head of Applications Development at Masdar’s Clean Energy division. “It can be operated independently, off-grid; it’s a 100% photovoltaics-powered desalination system. It also works without batteries and chemicals, so it’s a solution for remote locations.”
Mascara’s new plant produces 30 cubic metres of desalinated seawater per day, bringing the combined daily output of all five pilot plants in Ghantoot, Abu Dhabi to 1,500 cubic metres. The other partners in the programme are Abengoa, Suez, Sidem (Veolia) and Trevi Systems.
Altogether, four companies are evaluating reverse osmosis technology, while the fifth is researching forward osmosis. Reverse osmosis is a more energy efficient alternative to the thermal technology currently used for large-scale seawater desalination across the Arabian Gulf.
Forward osmosis is still an emerging technology but could be a viable long-term solution for hard-to-treat water sources such as highly saline water (including certain groundwater sources in the UAE or the brine stream ejected by desalination plants) or water containing significant amounts of organic matter.
“The results of our pilot programme after one year are very encouraging; performance in terms of reliability has been very high,” added Dr Ritschel. “The programme is preparing the ground for the transition expected to take place over the next decade from integrated water-and-power-generation plants to standalone, membrane-based desalination facilities powered only by electricity.”
With many conventional desalination installations nearing the end of their operational life over the next few years, and with potable water consumption in MENA expected to increase from 42 cubic kilometres per year in 2012 today to 200 cubic kilometres by 2050, the opportunities to deploy more energy-efficient alternatives, commercially and at scale, are increasingly coming under the spotlight.
The technologies being tested in Masdar’s Renewable Energy Desalination Programme are up to 40%-less energy intensive than thermal seawater desalination, according to Dr Ritschel.
The practical steps needed to advance clean-energy desalination will be a key topic at the next International Water Summit in January, which will focus on the needs of the MENA region. Other issues on the conference agenda include water project financing, waste water strategies and recycling, smart infrastructure, and water in the urban environment.
In parallel with adopting more sustainable methods to produce drinking water, the UAE is rolling out initiatives to reduce water demand. Unveiled at IWS two years ago, the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi is implementing a “water budget” aimed at the more responsible management of the emirates’ finite water resources.
The “budget” is based on a combination of strategies including reducing waste, increasing the efficiency of irrigation technologies and methods (forestry, agriculture and landscaping alone consume more than 80% of Abu Dhabi’s water supply) and reducing utility subsidies for residential consumers.
“Abu Dhabi’s daily rate of domestic water consumption is about 563 litres per capita, still the highest in the world, and domestic water demand will more than double by 2030,” said Dr Mohammed Abdel Hamyd Dawoud, EAD Advisor for Water Resources, Environment Quality Sector. “The new tariff structure that has been introduced is helping to reduce this rate.”
“EAD is working with TRANSCO [Abu Dhabi Transmission & Despatch Company] in the Liwa strategic water reserve project [a five-billion-gallon aquifer made up of injected desalinated water], which will be completed this month,” added Dr Dawoud, who will address a panel on energy-efficient desalination in the Middle East at IWS 2017.
Today, Abu Dhabi’s available fresh groundwater resources stand at barely 0.5%, and water access is becoming increasingly stretched for around a quarter of the world’s population.
According to a World Bank report, the average person in the MENA region has only 1,000 cubic metres of fresh water available per year, compared with the global average of 7,000 cubic metres.
Concerns over water scarcity and the sustainability challenges associated with conventional seawater desalination methods are motivating greater collaboration to find workable, commercially viable solutions.
Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company Masdar was a co-founder of the Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance (GCWDA) at COP21 in Paris along with the French government and the International Desalination Association. Today, the Alliance has 141 members from dozens of countries.
At the COP22 international climate conference in Morocco last month, the GCWDA signed the Marrakech Declaration of Global Alliances for Water and Climate (GAWC) stipulating cooperation in three strategic areas: stakeholder mobilisation to secure a place for water in climate summits, negotiations and financial mechanisms; the exchange of lessons learned and existing best practices; and the identification and support for new actions.
Marking the one-year anniversary of the Alliance, His Excellency Michel Miraillet, the Ambassador of France to the UAE, said: “The Alliance is a benchmark for effective international cooperation, offering a multilateral platform for both government and the private sector to work together on policy and technical innovation.”
The Alliance will host its next board meeting at ADSW 2017.