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Exclusive: Smart sustainable solutions and technological intervention can avert depletion

GCC countries are facing the most severe water shortages in the world mostly due to rainfall scarcity coupled with high evaporation rates limiting renewable water capabilities. Is it doing enough to avert total depletion?

The water table of this region has dropped about one meter per year Al Mahsamma agricultural drainage treatment in Egypt is the world’s largest such plant for water recycling and reuse Many aquifers are depleted, the result of the intrusion of seawater and the elimination of sweet water sources

GCC countries are facing the most severe water shortages in the world mostly due to rainfall scarcity coupled with high evaporation rates limiting renewable water capabilities.

According to the Water Project, for the past thirty years, the water table of this region has dropped about one meter per year. At this current rate, the UAE will deplete its natural freshwater resources in about fifty years. 

The total desalinated water production in the Middle East is forecasted to be 13 times larger in 2040 than it was in 2014, according to the latest ACCIONA Sustainability Report. Saudi Arabia, which has a population of about 35 million, is the world’s third-largest per capita consumer of water after the United States and Canada. 

The country announced last year a national program for rationalizing water consumption in the Kingdom and as part of the Vision 2030, setting ambitious targets that include slashing usage by nearly 24% by next year and some 43% by the end of the next decade.

Image source: Water resources Graph

Metito is a global leader and provider of choice for sustainable water management solutions with over 60 years of experience and an iconic portfolio of projects internationally and in the region.

In this exclusive with Rami Ghandour, Metito Managing Director, we dig deeper into water use and reuse challenges and solutions on offer. 

1. Do we have enough freshwater resources to continue sustaining life, at least a healthy one, on earth?

About 70% of the planet is covered by water, but only 2.5% of this supply is fresh. Unfortunately, this supply is not evenly distributed. While some regions enjoy ample fresh flows, others struggle with drought and shortages.  Our growing world population as well as our rising global standard of living places additional strain on this balance. 

We do have sufficient supplies of freshwater resources; but we will need to consume more efficiently and we will need to supplement our natural supplies with additional sources such as desalination, water recycling, and reuse to continue sustaining life.

Globally, we will need to continue to collaborate to achieve Sustainable Development Goal Number 6 (SDG 6) and ensure safe and secure water. 

2. What conservation and awareness efforts are lacking today?

Education ensures people understand the value of this precious resource and are equipped with ways to assess their levels of utilization and ways to better preserve it. 

At an individual level, small steps to conserve water include closing the tap while brushing teeth, while fixing leaky pipes at home can create a significant impact. This will also reduce your water bill.  

At the organizational level, businesses are encouraged to conduct water utilization audits across their processes to understand their level of consumption and to determine where efficiency opportunities exist.  Businesses are also encouraged to educate their staff, customers, and the local community to help promote the effort. 

Metito works closely with the media, schools, and universities to conduct workshops and project site-visits, sharing facts and figures on water scarcity, the latest technologies, and practical tools for preservation, recycling, and reuse. 

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3. Can desalination cause more damage than good?  

For water industry natives, environmental sustainability is a priority.  Hence, Metito takes a series of measures to optimize the desalination process and minimize, if not fully eliminate, the adverse impact.  The first of these measures is an extensive environmental impact assessment that takes place before embarking on any project. This survey not only rigorously assesses all aspects of the project and its compliance with legislation and policies; but it also guides the design, planning and operations of the process.

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During the project itself, we ensure the implementation of the latest technologies to ensure high-quality wastewater output. We also introduce further dilution procedures to reduce the brine placed back to the sea. Importantly, every project is concluded with a rigorous monitoring system. Metito establishes on-site labs that monitor and test the quality of the water around the clock to ensure the highest standards as per local and international benchmarks. 

New technologies are always being developed to further enhance this process. One such technology is the Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) plants which would eliminate brine. Often, however, these technologies do require an extraordinary amount of power, which would deem them uneconomical and create a new set of environmental concerns. However, as renewable energy sources become more efficient and affordable, we do expect the opportunities to grow. 

4. Are water treatment processes today producing enough potable water? Are we collecting surface water fast enough?   

The UN reports that there are currently 2.2 billion people who lack access to safely managed drinking water, and 4.2 billion people, or 55% of the world’s population, who do not have access to safely managed sanitation. 

A significant opportunity exists in recycling and reusing wastewater.  This opportunity has been largely ignored in many regions where there is immense value in treating and leveraging the existing supply rather than leaving it unused and wasted.

The recent launch of the Al Mahsamma agricultural drainage treatment is a good example.  This $100 million recycling and reuse plant launched by Metito and Hassan Allam under the supervision of Egypt’s Armed Forces Engineering Authority was inaugurated in April 2020.  With a capacity of 1 million m3/day, this is the world’s largest agricultural drainage treatment plant for water recycling and reuse. 

The project has the capacity to produce irrigation water for 70,000 acres of land in the Sinai and, by doing so, it creates a sustainable urban environment and jobs for the whole community.  

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5. What are the innovative solutions today available to produce freshwater sources?

Whether it be desalination water recycling and reuse or water treatment, innovative solutions include digital transformation in terms of monitoring and optimizing operations, optimizing controls and the use of chemicals, the use of eco-friendly technologies, and alternative energy solutions. 

Examples of technologies we are currently developing include:

  • Membrane storage tanks – Above ground and underground-engineered geo-membrane storage tanks are made of a soft material that is more cost-effective, quicker to implement, and environmentally friendly compared to concrete or steel tanks.
  • Low-temperature distillation  Next-generation desalination technology that can use waste heat as a source of power to desalinate all types of feed waters including seawater, brine, industrial wastewater, polluted water from oil and gas exploration.
  • Optical biosensor technology – A single optical sensor that can replace 27 different separate testing units to confirm the water is contaminant-free in real-time.
  • ION and OBI AI software – Using artificial intelligence that collects operating data to better plan preventative maintenance, reduce power consumption, and ensure enhanced plant reliability.  

6. If water is our lifeline, what are we not doing to preserve this precious commodity?

On a community level, knowledge is the most effective tool to inspire a change in behavior and habits.

On an industry level, we need to take bolder steps to adapt and integrate new technologies and eco-friendly solutions. Historically the water sector has been slow to adopt new tools and processes, favoring tried and tested solutions. Given our current reality, the extreme impacts of globalization, climate change, pollution, and increased water demand, new solutions are critically needed.  I believe the water and wastewater industry is thus ripe for disruption. 

There is great potential in the water industry from incorporating renewable energy sources, producing energy from waste, implementing zero liquid discharge plants, and optimizing resources by advanced network management technologies to name a few.

7. What is the situation of underground wells and groundwater?  

Groundwater is one of the most valuable sources of drinking water and is used by more than a third of the world’s population.  This water is stored in aquifers, some of which are renewable, but many are not. Most of the aquifers in this region, specifically, are not renewable and hence are a finite resource.  

Unfortunately, we have seen too many of these aquifers depleted, the result is the intrusion of seawater and the elimination of the sweet water source. It is therefore imperative that, if groundwater is to be used, it is monitored and controlled in order to preserve it as a sustainable solution.