Globally, more than 2 billion people are living in areas with acute water stress or scarcity. Water use has grown at more than twice the global growth rate for population since 1900. The present and future availability of adequate fresh water supplies across the globe is at risk and the deficit of surface and groundwater resources will further intensify the current water scarcity situation.
As of 2019, 17 countries in the world are reported to be experiencing “extremely high levels of baseline water stress”. 12 out of the 17 countries are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region; Qatar tops the list of 17 countries with Kuwait at the 7th place followed by Saudi Arabia ranked 8th. The other 3 GCC countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman also make it to the list. This situation is expected to only worsen in the next 10 years, as the GCC countries move forward on economic diversification agendas. In this context, finding a reliable alternative source of water supply and addressing the growing requirement is the need of the hour.
Desalination is Globally Preferred to close the Demand Supply Gap
In this context of limited availability of usable water as a natural resource, desalination and water reuse technologies are increasingly becoming the go-to solutions for addressing water scarcity. Within these solutions, Desalination technologies have attained widespread acceptance – which is illustrated in the extent to which these have been implemented - Desalination capacity additions have witnessed an annual average growth of 8% per year in the past 10 years, reaching an installed capacity of 97.4 million cubic meters per day globally (2018).
Currently, of the installed 19,744 desalination plants, approximately 16,000 are in operation and produce around 93 million cubic meters per day of fresh water which can be consumed by over 300 million people across the world. The global capacity for desalination is expected to double by 2030 and is forecast to cross 200 million cubic meters per day.
Desalination technology has achieved a preferred status by allowing countries to tap into non-traditional water resources to provide drought-proof supply of fresh water at large volumes, and with high levels of efficiencies. Many highly concentrated urban areas are near to coastlines, and have limitless access to ocean water – this has been a driving factor for increasing adoption of desalination technology.
Desalination Serves around 50% of the Water Demand in the GCC
Desalination is providing water source in arid places such as MENA and this region accounts for 47% of the total global installed capacity. The GCC is in the process of shifting gears to swiftly change its path of economic growth to sustainability. Fresh water has been traditionally scarce in the region, and the situation is further aggravated by rapid economic development, population growth, urbanisation, scanty rainfall, high evaporation rates and insufficient renewable water resources. These factors have stimulated the growth of Desalination in the GCC.
There are multiple thermal desalination technologies existing globally. Of these, Multi-Stage Flash (MSF) has been typically preferred in the GCC during the 2000’s owing to efficiency in dealing with higher levels of water salinity. Thermal desalination technologies consume high levels of thermal and electrical energy and subsidised energy costs supported the growth of MSF technology in the GCC.
However, Desalination does not come without its share of problems. The desalination process consumes significantly higher energy than conventional water treatment and water re-use technologies. Resultantly, the growth of desalination plants in the GCC has had a serious impact on its energy resources, creating a water energy nexus.
Visible Shift from Thermal to Membrane Desalination in the GCC in the Last Decade
In the initial years membrane desalination was challenged by high CAPEX costs in the GCC. Proven reliability of thermal technologies and the expertise gained by developing and operating large thermal plants too hindered the penetration of membrane desalination. But innovations in pre-treatment, filter design and energy recovery have reduced high pre-treatment costs and energy consumption.
These developments, combined with improvements in operational efficiency, have reduced the cost of desalination water by membrane technology. These factors led to the growth of RO desalination systems in the GCC countries.
As a result, while thermal technologies accounted for 60% of the total desalination capacity in the GCC during 2000 – 2009, they have gradually reduced to only 18% by end of 2016. Of the 61 plants in the ‘under construction’ and ‘planned’ stages since 2016, only 1 project is being developed with Multiple-effect distillation (MED) technology in the GCC.
The shift from thermal to membranes is providing substantial energy savings, consuming around 5% of the total energy as compared to thermal technologies. Though this clear technology shift would result in energy savings, the energy demand is forecast to grow in proportion to the high growth forecast for desalination plants in the GCC.
Rising energy demand in the GCC can expose the countries to issues related to resources sharing, energy insecurity and restrict economic growth. Acting on this, the GCC countries have framed policies to promote demand side energy management and investments in renewable energy technologies. As desalination would be the mainstay water supply source in spite of sustainable measures such as wastewater recycling and re-use, energy efficiency measures and usage of renewables targeting desalination is imperative.
Solar Desalination is Preferred for its Reliability and Cost Effectiveness
Desalination can be coupled with renewable sources such as solar, wind etc. for energy efficiency.
Solar energy is gaining popularity due to its abundant availability and it is also evenly spread over the entire region. The recent success of Masdar’s Renewable Energy Desalination Pilot Program in Ghantoot is expected to speed up the commercialisation of utility/ large scale projects. The Ghantoot pilot project achieved energy efficiency improvements of up to 75% through the 4-year program compared with thermal desalination technologies in the UAE. The major challenge in commercialising large scale plants today is reducing the dependence on grid power as back-up when there is insufficient solar energy.
The GCC has seen increasing project awards for desalination using renewable resources. In 2018, King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) awarded a contract to develop a solar based desalination plant of capacity 30,000 cubic meter per day, and expandable to 60,000 cubic meters per day. Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research in early 2019 stated plans to launch desalination plants with solar energy in the north of Kuwait Bay. Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) in the United Arab Emirates has set a target to save approximately USD 13 billion by 2030 by powering the desalination plants with solar power.
The success of the pilot solar desalination plants is expected to mark the growth of large scale renewable energy based desalination plants. Utilising renewable energy for desalination looks promising and would reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions. When proven successful for large capacities, the GCC region would be the trend-setter in renewable desalination and might exceed global target of 20% of new plants powered by renewables between 2020 and 2025.