x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Desalination task force to focus on pollution

As the world's biggest desalination congress convenes in Dubai, a new group to help 'green' the process is announced.

Guests attend the International Desalination Association World Congress in Dubai yesterday.
Guests attend the International Desalination Association World Congress in Dubai yesterday.

DUBAI // Desalination experts yesterday announced the formation of a task force to study the environmental impact of the process, which produces fresh water from salt water. The move came on the opening day of a congress in Dubai organised by the International Desalination Association (IDA).

One of the key questions under consideration at the IDA World Congress, which runs until Thursday at Atlantis, The Palm, and is the industry's biggest annual event, will be how to combat the environmental impact of the process. "It is important for us to be vigilant, and also address the issue from a technological and management perspective so we can make sure we produce desalinated water with little negative environmental consequences," said the IDA's president, Lisa Henthorne. The new task force is likely to have a core membership of 12 people, according to the IDA, and will evaluate current practices, measure environmental impacts and suggest guidelines and monitoring procedures for the authorities. A meeting on the specific make-up of the group will take place during the five-day congress.

Desalination, an energy-intensive process in which salts are removed from seawater to produce potable water, has been instrumental in securing dependable supplies in arid countries. But the technology comes with drawbacks: desalination plants require significant energy, and pollute the marine environment with hot, hyper-saline and chemical-rich outflow that is discharged back into the ocean. The task force initiative was welcomed by the Bahraini minister of electricity and water, Fahmi al Jowder, who, in his opening speech yesterday, extended an invitation to the team to hold its first official meeting in Bahrain next year.

Mr al Jowder also said if Bahrain's demand for power and desalinated water continued to grow at its current rate, natural gas requirements for the sector would almost double within a decade. He added that governments should look more closely at the issues surrounding the pollution caused by desalination. "There is a necessity of having strict legislation on the quality control of effluents into the sea."

Other high-ranking government officials also flagged up the need for better water management. "Global water demand has increased sixfold in the last century," said Abdullah al Hussayen, Saudi Arabia's minister of water and electricity. "Water will be the resource that defines the 21st century." The UAE Minister of Environment and Water, Dr Rashid bin Fahad, said the UAE relies on desalination for 98 per cent of its water needs.

Most of its water and electricity is generated using natural gas. The heat emitted in that process is reused to heat seawater, which in turn is leached of salts through distillation. Another method to desalinate water involves passing seawater under pressure through a series of fine filters. The process, known as "reverse osmosis", requires less energy than thermal methods. The IDA World Congress will feature 26 technical sessions at which 240 papers will be presented. Many will cover issues targeted at the "greening" of the industry, such as the use of solar and renewable energy in desalination plants, marine environment-friendly intake and outflow systems, increased efficiency, and hybrid plants, which feature both thermal and reverse osmosis technologies.

However, the congress heard desalination remains vital for countries where fresh water is scarce. One of the Arab world's most prominent scientists, Dr Farouk el Baz, the director of remote sensing at Boston University, yesterday backed the industry after he was presented with the IDA World Water Masters Award. He has used satellite data to pinpoint underground aquifers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and is now working on a similar project in Darfur, Sudan, where he believes water scarcity is at the heart of the current bitter armed conflict.

"Many of the world's groundwater resources are saline," he said in his acceptance speech. "That is why we emphasise desalination as an important industry for the future." vtodorova@thenational.ae