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World In the Middle East, countries spend heavily to transform seawater into drinking water

20:02  16 december  2019
20:02  16 december  2019 Source:   azcentral.com

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BARKA, Oman — On the shore of the Arabian Sea, two massive pipes, each more than six feet in diameter, extend from a fenced compound down into the water.

a yellow boat sitting on top of a wooden fence: In the process of producing potable water, Oman's Barka 4 desalination plant also generates highly salty brine.© Ian James/The Arizona Republic In the process of producing potable water, Oman's Barka 4 desalination plant also generates highly salty brine.

The pipes work like powerful straws, sucking in seawater and sending it through a series of tanks and filters.

The Barka 4 desalination plant is Oman’s newest and largest. Powered by natural gas, the plant went online last year and at full capacity can churn out 74 million gallons of potable water in a day — enough to fill 112 Olympic-size swimming pools.

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Oman relies on desalination because its extreme scarcity of water leaves few other options. In this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, there isn’t a single river that flows year-round, and pumping from wells has led to depleted aquifers and allowed saltwater to seep into groundwater along the coast.

a group of people sitting at a dock: Sebastian De la Garde and Estelle Clermont, managers at the Barka 4 desalination plant in Oman, pause to look at one of the tanks during a tour of the facility.© Ian James/The Arizona Republic Sebastian De la Garde and Estelle Clermont, managers at the Barka 4 desalination plant in Oman, pause to look at one of the tanks during a tour of the facility.

The country has a total of nine large desalination plants, plus 47 small plants, which the government says supply about 86% of the country’s potable water.

The technology is expensive and energy-intensive, and the government heavily subsidizes water rates to keep prices low.

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Other countries across the Arabian Peninsula are similarly dependent on government-subsidized desalination plants. In Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, rulers have for years poured oil and gas wealth into plants that transform seawater into a steady supply for their growing populations in cities on the Persian Gulf from Doha to Dubai.

No other region on Earth desalinates so much water. The Middle East, according to experts, accounts for more than 60% of the world’s total desalination capacity.

Other water-stressed countries, such as Morocco and Australia, have also begun to tap the oceans. And in the arid American Southwest, water officials and urban planners are increasingly looking to desalination as a potential partial solution for cities whose water supplies are under pressure due to overuse, years of drought and the effects of climate change.

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Oman’s first desalination plant started operating in 1976, and since then the number of facilities has steadily grown along the shore of the Gulf of Oman.

The $314 million Barka 4 plant was built by a consortium of companies led by Suez, which will operate the facility for 20 years under a contract.

Leading a tour of the plant, managers from the Paris-based company touted the reverse-osmosis technology as state-of-the-art.

"Energy consumption is very low in this plant," said Estelle Clermont, the plant’s operations and maintenance manager.

Compared with other older plants, Barka 4 consumes about a quarter less gas-fired energy per volume of water produced. Clermont said this represents the future of desalination, as costs continue to come down with technological improvements.

a close up of a plane: The newly built Barka 4 desalination plant produces drinking water that's pumped to Muscat and other coastal cities in Oman.© Ian James/The Arizona Republic The newly built Barka 4 desalination plant produces drinking water that's pumped to Muscat and other coastal cities in Oman.

She and other managers in hard hats walked alongside one of the giant beige intake pipes, which snaked from the shore toward the plant. They climbed up stairs to a platform and looked down from a railing into a deep rectangular pool where the seawater was flowing in.

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The plant can pump in as much as 7.1 million gallons of seawater per hour, Clermont said. The salt-free water that emerges from the plant, she said, supplies about one-fifth of the country’s desalinated water.

Looking out over an open tank, where the water welled up and swirled in eddies, fellow manager Sebastian De la Garde explained that the first phase of treatment removes algae and other particles.

Brownish water cascaded down a waterfall-like structure one on side of the treatment platform. Some of what’s filtered out ends up as concentrated sludge, which is sent to a landfill. The process also generates highly salty brine, which pours back into the gulf.

On the other side of the plant, a blue pipe nearly 5 feet wide emerges and arches over the road. It carries potable water toward Muscat, the capital, and other cities on the coast.

The costs of relying on desalination

The country, officially called the Sultanate of Oman, has been ruled since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said. He and his government have dedicated a substantial portion of the country’s natural gas to generating electricity and running desalination plants, while keeping water rates low through large subsidies.

In its latest annual report, the government’s Public Authority for Water listed the equivalent of $404 million in total subsidies for 2018 — about $1.1 million per day.

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Over the years, the government has regularly added more desalination plants to keep up with rising water consumption and the increasing population, now about 5 million as people immigrate from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries.

"Desalinated water is increasing because the government has a supply policy, which means that whenever we need more water, we build new desalination plants," said Slim Zekri, a professor who leads the natural resource economics department at Sultan Qaboos University.

He said low water rates have long meant a lack of "demand management" or financial incentives for people to conserve. The government budget has been squeezed, while per-capita water use has climbed.

"Desalination is quite expensive and energy-dependent," Zekri said, "and we need to think about solutions for the future."

He said that should mean raising water prices substantially while continuing to ensure economical rates for low-income people.

Homeowners and businesses have long paid a water rate of 2 baisa per gallon in Omani currency, which works out to about a dollar for 200 gallons. (That subsidized price, while inexpensive, is still higher than what people pay for water in parts of the United States. For example, an average customer with a single-family home in Phoenix pays about 60 cents for 200 gallons.)

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After many years of keeping the price frozen, Oman's Public Authority for Water announced this year that it's raising rates for customers who use more than 5,000 gallons a month. Above that level, people will be charged 25% more.

Zekri said this marginal increase still won't cover the cost of water service, and won't provide an effective incentive for people to use less.

He said water prices should be increased more to encourage conservation and help drive investments in water-saving technologies. Taking steps to manage the demand for water, he said, would also help limit declines in aquifers, which have fallen due to heavy groundwater pumping, and would help Oman prepare as climate change brings higher temperatures and shifts in rainfall patterns.

"I'm quite confident that water can be managed properly and we can avoid a water crisis," Zekri said, "if we put in place the appropriate management strategies."

Rashid al-Abri, an assistant director of Oman's water ministry, said government officials are seeking to improve on their approaches to water management and are looking at alternatives in addition to desalination, including reusing more treated wastewater — some of which is now used to irrigate roadside vegetation in cities.

Taking advantage of more recycled water, he said, should help address the country's shortage and reduce strains on aquifers.

Farmers struggle as aquifers decline

While desalinated water flows to faucets in cities on the coast, groundwater remains the primary source for farms and many inland towns.

Some Omani farmers in mountainous areas still depend on ancient systems of water tunnels called aflaj. The channels were hand-dug centuries ago to tap underground water sources on mountain slopes. The water runs through the underground passages and into open aqueducts, nourishing crops such as dates and lemons, as wells as grasses that villagers use to feed goats and cows.

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While many of the aflaj are still flowing, some have dwindled and dried up as the wells and pumps of farmers and towns have drawn on the aquifers and lowered the water tables.

a close up of a rock: An ancient aqueduct called a falaj captures groundwater at the base of Oman's Hajar Mountains and snakes through farmlands, nourishing date palms and other crops.© Ian James/The Arizona Republic An ancient aqueduct called a falaj captures groundwater at the base of Oman's Hajar Mountains and snakes through farmlands, nourishing date palms and other crops.

Elsewhere, in the Batinah coastal plain, groundwater pumping for agriculture has also taken a major toll. Over decades, the pumping has drawn seawater into the groundwater, making it too salty for crops.

Zekri and other researchers are working on a government-supported project tracking farm water use in an effort to begin to address the problem, which continues to worsen.

"We have seawater intrusion up to 12 kilometers (7 miles) now inland," Zekri said. "And we have been observing a lot of plantations fading, dying because of salinity."

Along roads near the Barka 4 desalination plant, some farmlands sit dry and abandoned. The intruding seawater ruined the groundwater years ago. The farmers left behind dusty fields and dead palm trees.

Some Omani farmers have been buying their own small-scale desalting units to use brackish groundwater that would otherwise be unsuitable for crops.

But when the hyper-salty brine from the process isn’t disposed of properly, it can further pollute aquifers, said Zaher bin Kahlied al-Sulaimani, president of an organization called the Oman Water Society.

"The problem is, the salinity is increasing year by year," al-Sulaimani said. "And the pumping has increased."

His group has held seminars to explore how farmers can better manage the brine.

Muscat also is home to the Middle East Desalination Research Center, an institution that was established in 1996 as part of the peace process in the Middle East. The center focuses on research and training, promoting desalination as a solution that can help address scarcity and alleviate tensions.

How political aims feed a big business

Desalination has become the "techno-fix" of choice for governments across the Arabian Peninsula because it has provided a way to deal with water scarcity and enable rapid growth, while also serving the political aims of the region’s monarchs, said Laurent Lambert, an assistant professor of public policy at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.

Across the Gulf region, he said, leaders have focused on demonstrating the capacity of their governments through big water infrastructure projects, projecting an image that "large is powerful," while providing water to the public at highly subsidized rates.

In Qatar, which is the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas, domestic water comes entirely from desalination plants, and water is free for citizens.

Other countries, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, also subsidize desalinated water, charging people a share of the cost.

As this system has grown entrenched over the years, governments have found themselves in a cycle of desalinating increasingly more water, while the costs in money and energy have continued to climb.

"It’s very hard to take away subsidies, and it’s very hard to change people’s attitudes towards what they deem to be naturally free. 'That’s water. Why should we pay for it?' That’s the mentality we have here across the region," Lambert said.

The countries are burning increasing amounts of natural gas, and sometimes oil, to run the plants, Lambert said. That translates into more emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases and also reduces the amount of fuel sold internationally, cutting into government revenues.

But the governments continue to take big financial losses, he said, because the idea of reforming the system and cutting subsidies is widely seen as politically unpalatable.

"I call it sustained unsustainability, meaning the government pays nevertheless," Lambert said. "They prefer to make small adjustments but keep the thing as it is, rather than make people unhappy."

a close up of a stone building: Seawater fills a tank at the Barka 4 desalination plant in Oman.© Ian James/The Arizona Republic Seawater fills a tank at the Barka 4 desalination plant in Oman.

And while the plants keep humming, the environmental footprint goes beyond the pollution generated by burning fossil fuels.

The brine has to be disposed of somewhere, and it’s typically released back into the sea.

"You have some places where you make a huge concentration of salt, so you may kill the fisheries, you may kill the wildlife," Lambert said. "You may add stress on local corals, which were a niche for a lot of life."

The Suez managers at the Barka 4 plant said they’ve done monitoring work and believe the brine from the plant isn’t harming the surrounding marine environment.

Suez’s partners on the project include Japan-based Itochu Corp., France’s Engie, and the Omani company WJ Towell.

Across the Gulf region, desalination plants are a lucrative business for a list of foreign companies, among them Japan’s Sumitomo Corp., the French company Veolia, and U.S.-based Bechtel Group.

The desal business is booming in arid and water-stressed regions around the world, with plants proliferating to supply cities in Israel, Jordan and Egypt, as well as Spain, Singapore and South Africa.

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On the California coast, the Claude "Bud" Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County started operating in 2015 and is now the largest plant in the United States, producing about 50 million gallons of drinking water per day. It’s the most expensive water in San Diego’s mix of supplies, and people in the area pay some of the highest water rates in the country.

To the north in Santa Barbara, a long-closed plant started operating in 2017.

The company Poseidon Water has proposed another large plant in Huntington Beach, where the plan has faced controversy over environmental concerns and the projected costs. Other facilities have been proposed along the Pacific Coast in places like Monterey and Dana Point.

Workers walk past one of the buildings at the Barka 4 desalination plant in Oman.© Ian James/The Arizona Republic Workers walk past one of the buildings at the Barka 4 desalination plant in Oman.

Mexico and U.S. eye the Sea of Cortez

Landlocked Arizona has been studying the possibility of working with Mexico to desalinate water from the Sea of Cortez. Efforts to explore the concept got a boost in 2017, when Mexico and the U.S. government pledged as part of a Colorado River accord to jointly study the possibility of building a desalination plant.

The agreement, called Minute 323, listed potential locations for a plant including the Pacific Coast, the sewage-laden New River on the Mexico-California border, and the shore of the Sea of Cortez.

The countries formed a working group with representatives of federal and state agencies.

A team of consultants is now preparing a study assessing the potential for desalinating water from the Sea of Cortez. They're looking at technologies, possible locations along the Sonora coast between Puerto Peñasco and Puerto Libertad, and potential effects on the marine environment.

a close up of a barrel: Oman's Barka 4 desalination plant can pump in as much as 7.1 million gallons of seawater per hour.© Ian James/The Arizona Republic Oman's Barka 4 desalination plant can pump in as much as 7.1 million gallons of seawater per hour.

The study is scheduled to be released next year. A desalination plant theoretically could benefit Arizona though a water exchange, in which some users of Colorado River water in Mexico would instead get desalinated water, freeing up river water for Arizona.

The concept is mentioned prominently as one of multiple options in a new report on "Long-Term Water Augmentation Options for Arizona," which consultants prepared for a group appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey called the Water Augmentation, Innovation and Conservation Council. Along with ocean desalination, the report lists options such as desalinating brackish groundwater within Arizona, or transferring groundwater from outlying rural areas to the state’s fast-growing cities.

Part of the reason there’s no concrete proposal on the table is that there doesn’t yet seem to be enough support for desalination, said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.

"It’s not yet needed. But there’s recognition that it could well be needed in the future," she said.

Estimates of how much water could come from a desalination plant suggest the amount would be, at most, about 100,000 acre-feet a year, Porter said, a relatively small quantity compared with Arizona’s total Colorado River allotment of 2.8 million acre-feet.

Seawater passes through an initial stage of treatment at Oman's Barka 4 desalination plant.© Ian James/The Arizona Republic Seawater passes through an initial stage of treatment at Oman's Barka 4 desalination plant.

"I think ocean desal isn’t the big answer that a lot of people dream of it being," said Porter, who is a member of the governor’s water council. "It’s going to be the most expensive water ever developed for Arizona, and it just isn’t going to yield the supplies that people envision."

In addition to the expense of treating water, she said, there are environmental concerns, and the cross-border agreements to exchange water would also be complex.

Porter traveled to Israel last year with a group from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and they toured the large desalination plant in Ashkelon.

"It’s amazing what they’re doing with ocean desal. And I hope Arizona never has the kind of water stress that Israel faces," Porter said. "It doesn’t make sense to be investing in these in really, really expensive forms of water supply when you have much, much more affordable water available."

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Porter said Arizona still has potential to stretch its existing supplies through conservation and more reuse of reclaimed water. And there are also opportunities for more voluntary water deals, she said, like those negotiated for the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan. As part of the plan, the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes will contribute some of their water in exchange for payments to help Arizona deal with water cutbacks.

The first cutbacks under the Colorado River deal will come next year, with Arizona, Nevada and Mexico leaving some of their allotted water in Lake Mead to reduce the risk of the depleted reservoir falling further.

In the long term, desalinating seawater could help as part of a strategy for adapting to climate change, Porter said, but it isn’t likely to take hold until Arizona has first "plucked off all the lower-hanging fruit, which probably includes desalinating brackish groundwater in some places."

Looking to the future, though, Porter said a seawater desalination partnership seems likely to happen in Mexico eventually.

"If I had to bet, I would bet that it is going to be tried within 30 years," she said. "It is the most reliable supply of municipal water in many ways, so that would be a benefit, and we expect growth."

Ultimately, decisions on whether desalination makes sense — for the desert Southwest and other parts of the world — will depend on considering any other alternatives, and weighing whether the high costs of turning to the sea pencil out.

a sign on the side of a building: Oman's Barka 4 desalination plant was built by a consortium of companies led by Suez, which will operate the facility for 20 years under a contract.© Ian James/The Arizona Republic Oman's Barka 4 desalination plant was built by a consortium of companies led by Suez, which will operate the facility for 20 years under a contract.

Reach reporter Ian James at ian.james@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8246. Follow him on Twitter: @ByIanJames

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Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: In the Middle East, countries spend heavily to transform seawater into drinking water

Struggling dairy farmers building a future with hazelnuts, specialty milk, and creative thinking .
Wisconsin dairy farmers must think differently about the future and try new things if they want to keep farming.He and his father, Ken, milk about 200 cows on land in Trempealeau County that's been in the family since 1873.

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