Desalination of seawater has become an absolute necessity in Jordan, as it has become a lifeline

03-06-2024 08:07 PM
Dr. Osama Moh’d Najeeb Gazal

Because of the importance of this topic and the growing interest among Jordan's top leaders in a variety of events and conferences, His Majesty's speech at the recent climate change conference in Dubai (COP28), meetings with the government and relevant authorities, and His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein and his Crown Prince Al Hussein's emphasis on Jordan water security, the effects of climate change, and other water related issues including the diplomacy and the adaptation and the desalination.

The Royal Water Committee in Jordan recommended the importance of accelerating the national carrier project, and His Majesty the King's orders were to instruct the government on the need to prioritize desalination projects, as well as the need to overcome obstacles and move forward to provide water to the governorates of the Kingdom through desalinating seawater. All of this prompted me to write the following article, which will absolutely evaluate the topic of desalination and advise what may be done to speed up Jordan's entry into the world of desalination.

Jordan the second poorest country in terms of water resources, has nearly exhausted all possible solutions to coexist with the critical water situation with its naturally poor dry climate pattern with the scarcity of the available water resources and the rapid unpredictable population growth due to waves of refugees, as well as the negative impact of climate change on precipitation amounts and distribution patterns during the rainy season and according to my recent droughts analyses, the drought occurrence is projected to increase every 25 years, with an average normal drought of 2-3 years and severe drought every 8–11 years, therefore, Climate change reduces further natural resources availability (groundwater, surface water). This led to rapid conventional water resources decline, parallel to a highly overexploited (groundwater use 3* groundwater safe yield) which is decreasing the future exploitability.

The rapid continuous depletion of groundwater levels (SWL) as a result of excessive extraction far surpasses the safe yield, and the serious issues with transboundary aquifers, which even if solved with maximum advantages to our needs, cannot address our water shortage concerns.

As a result, Jordan's water sector leadership has proved in recent years that seawater desalination is the only viable option after prioritizing the reduction of non-revenue water (NRW), unfortunately, this accounts for about half of the water supply due to the need for rehabilitation, changing public attitudes around water, and incorporating water ethics into the educational system (from one of my previous hydro social study in Jordan basin, Gazal 2022).

Far ahead of time desalination technology was discovered in ancient cultures. From 3200 BC to 1100 BC, historians assumed that Minoan sailors, a Bronze Age Aegean society in the Mediterranean, carried out the earliest crude adaptation of the desalination concept in recorded history.

In simple terms, saline water Desalination is the process of eliminating salts from water so that it can be used for drinking, agriculture, or industrial purposes. Desalination began in its most basic form, heating water and then condensing steam, collecting it, and using it for drinking, and its applications were previously limited to maritime transit and naval military forces.

The first documented attempt to use desalination on land to produce drinking water occurred in Al-Kandasa, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1905 (it was said 1907) when a Turkish battleship ran aground off the coast of Jeddah in the Kandasa area, and the desalination unit was taken out and operated, and it remained operational intermittently for two years until it completely stopped.

In Qatar, Desalination was used in the mid-1950s, with limited attempts to tiny units in 1952, but the first feasible desalination unit in the world was operated in 1957 in Kuwait with two MSF flash distillation units. Desalination technologies abound, but reverse osmosis is the most common and today accounts for more than 70% of total production.

Large commercial-scale desalination began in 1965 and had a worldwide capacity of only about 8000 m3/day in 1970. In 2013 desalination produced about 72 million m3/day of desalted water by about 16,000 facilities worldwide. Many researchers suggested that Within 10 years, production is forecasted to triple with an expected investment of around $60 billion. Actually, In 2018, there were more than 17,000 desalination plants worldwide, and globally, more than 200 million m³ of water is currently desalinated and reused daily. According to Straits Research, “The global water desalination market size was valued at USD 19.62 billion in 2022.

According to a report by the United Nations World Water Development, only 1% of the world's water is desalinated. The Ras Al Khair desalination plant in Saudi Arabia produces a staggering 1,036,000 m3/day using RO. The majority of Gulf countries now largely depend on desalinated water for their inhabitants' consumption: in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), 42% of drinking water comes from desalination plants producing more than 7 million cubic meters (m3) per day, in Kuwait it is 90%, in Oman 86%, and in Saudi Arabia 70%.

As freshwater scarcity grows in various regions of the world, desalination is becoming more important in supplementing local water supply. Desalination plants can be a profitable and long-term commercial enterprise with the right investment and management. Looking ahead, desalination technology, particularly RO, will remain a significant source of fresh water for many Middle Eastern countries.

Desalination should be considered a viable method for providing freshwater for municipal and industrial use in many emerging Asian and African countries. Jordan, the world's second poorest country in terms of water resources, is facing rising pressure on its limited scarce supplies due to large refugee flows and climate change effects on the quantity of annual precipitation.

Rainfall fluctuations and distribution changes, subsequently seawater and/or brackish groundwater desalination is the long-term solution to Jordan's water resource challenges, as well as the sustainability of development across all sectors in one of the Middle East's promising economic developing countries.

The Jordan Ministry of Water and Irrigation (MWI) and its water utilities cannot sustain and improve its water supply unless we diversify other nontraditional water sources. Many left brackish groundwater wells are future onsite water resources, especially in the Azraq basin and the eastern part of Jordan. While thinking of local small desalination plants in such areas is better than investing in the construction and exploration of new groundwater wells to solve the increasing salinity of the renewable aquifer due to excessive pumping over the safe yield, and the decrease in natural replenishment due to the region's low annual precipitation of less than 100 mm/year, which is classified as an arid climate.

Currently, Jordan's harvesting of precipitation water has reached its ideal peak. After that, investing in it becomes a cost increase (save for small-scale water harvesting projects or trends, which is always desirable to invest in (For example, the FAO, UNDP, GGGI, and several relevant ministries, public and private institutions, NGOs, and other stakeholders are implementing a 7-year GCF green climate fund project in southern Jordan to increase new water supplies through wastewater recycling and rainwater harvesting).

Following the challenges of constructing the Red Dead Canal project, the Water Desalination and Transmission Project Aqaba-Amman (National Carrier) has recently emerged as the country's most important strategic water project. The first phase of the "National Carrier" project, which desalinates Red Sea water from the city of Aqaba in the south and transports it to the Kingdom's governorates in the north, will cost more than a billion dollars and produce between 250 and 300 million cubic meters of drinking water.

Some have expressed worries regarding the success of seawater desalination in Jordan, citing the cost of carrying water from the source at Aqaba city at the Red Sea, Jordan's only seawater source, to residential regions in the country's north. Furthermore, many speculated that the failure of the red-dead Sea project should have diverted Jordanians' attention away from desalination projects in general and toward other solutions, but the issue of desalination remains the best solution available, which must be developed and expanded to ensure the sustainability of Jordan's water supply.

Jordan's biggest challenge is the high expense of desalinating sea and brackish water. This is also a disadvantage that will impede the long-term convergence of supply and demand. A higher-level steering team, including Jordan water resources management professionals, is needed to help overcome obstacles and achieve project success while also meeting the country's water sustainability goals. Raising the water supply price by the authorities or by the water supplier (utilities) probably with the approval of the authorities (mainly the MWI) may serve three additional goals: 1) to reduce the water demand and encourage saving and 2) to finance current and future desalination projects or research and development (R&D) activities (serve the project sustainability) 3) increase the control on how the water uses in.

My suggestion is to do a comprehensive eco-social investigation study before any decision in this regard and to be aware that the Jordanian water supply standards must be changed to be flexible and towards better management choices of the water supply for different purposes.

To conclude, Desalination among all non-traditional water resources should be properly considered and prioritized in Jordan's future water security plans. As a result, for Jordan, desalination of seawater is the only sustainable means of survival. However, to decrease the cost, which is roughly $3 per meter of water, it is necessary to use renewable energy.

Adopting lower but suitable water quality standards for desalinated water, as seen in Gulf countries, allows for flexible criteria and variability in desalination options and mechanisms. This allows for the use of desalinated water for general purposes, while drinkable water requires higher standards but comes at a higher cost. Adopting this procedure reduces costs and prevents the loss of drinkable water.

Given Jordan's limited experience in seawater desalination and lack of specialized expertise in the field, it is critical to begin updating local universities' study plans for water-related disciplines to include courses dealing with desalination techniques, as well as encouraging scientific development and improvement of desalination techniques, membrane, and reducing energy demand and augmenting traditional energy sources with renewable resources.

The impact of the scientific momentum of specialists and the elite of society who are abundant in the academic sector will help if it is well directed, contacted, involved, and focused on our water's most pressing issues, and thus the water sector's decisions will be on scientific bases and will avoid making mistakes that we must avoid by beginning to exploit the potentiality of seawater desalination.

The hiring of water specialists and professionals, as well as their opinions and inclusion in collaborative research and activities, will aid Jordanian efforts to succeed in this phase of the desalination project toward water security; thus, the involvement of senior water resources experts in the desalination follow up project committee is an added value and a necessary step, not a luxury.

*The writer is Expert in the Hydrogeological and Environmental Applied Engineering/ Head of Environmental and Climate Change Directorate at the Ministry of Water and Irrigation Jordan.

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