Just over a year ago, Saudi Arabia turned on the largest water desalination facility in the world. With a price tag of $3.4 billion, the Jubail II desalination plant produces 800,000 cubic meters of water daily. The plant’s opening made it the 28th desalination facility operating in the country. Its output is the lifeblood for Saudi Arabia: Fully 70% of the freshwater used by Saudis is generated by the desalination facilities.

But it comes at a cost. The Saudi government estimates that running all the desalination plants consumes 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, given that the current process of turning seawater into tap water depends heavily on energy. That’s why the oil-rich country is now looking to another natural resource to fuel desalination: the desert sun. Together with IBM, the country is developing solar technology for trial use at a plant serving 100,000 people. This is just one experiment in the region, where increased demand, rising oil prices and dwindling groundwater resources have made finding more efficient and less costly alternative energy sources a priority.

According to the International Desalination Association (IDA), the Middle East and Africa now account for nearly half the world’s global desalination capacity, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone accounting for nearly 30% of installed capacity.

The desalination boom in the Middle East was fueled by growing water demand and the availability of cheap energy. Desalination is an energy-intensive process, with energy accounting for up to 50% of production costs. Countries without access to cheap energy have therefore found it prohibitively expensive. But for the hydrocarbon-rich nations of the Middle East, desalination has been the obvious way to address their lack of freshwater.

Demand aside, Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s largest emirate, can be credited with setting the trend that saw the exponential increase in desalination capacity over the last decade. It was the first country in the region to use private capital to finance the construction of an Independent Water and Power Plant (IWPP) in 1998. The model was based on the BOOT (Build, Own, Operate, Transfer) framework commonly used in project finance and had a simple premise: Instead of buying power and water plants from engineering contractors, utilities agreed to buy a certain amount of water and power from the developer, who in turn got a guaranteed flow of income and minimal risk.

The IWPP model has proved popular across the region because it guarantees the lowest possible cost for power and water production. Christopher Gasson, publisher of Global Water Intelligence (GWI) and long-time advocate of private sector participation in the water industry, recently wrote that in the Middle East, desalination plants that were procured with public finances on a traditional EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) basis have, on average, been 10%-30% more expensive than those that were privately financed.

This new finance model combined with rapid population increase and sustained economic growth in the last 10 years means that global desalination capacity more than doubled between 1999 and 2009, with the Middle East and North Africa leading the charge.

Bigger Every Year

Lisa Henthorne, a director at IDA, says that plants have also become bigger every year: From 300,000 cubic meters of water daily a decade ago, plants have nearly tripled that output. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are home to the world’s 10 largest plants, with Shoaiba 3 currently holding the crown, producing 880,000 cubic meters of water a day.

Even the current economic downturn doesn’t seem to have dampened the region’s appetite for desalination. Many economies remain buoyant, with growing populations and industrial needs. In Water Market Middle East 2010, GWI forecast that the region would double its desalination capacity at a cost of $61.3 billion between 2009 and 2016.

Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at NCB Capital, says the sector only suffered a couple of temporary setbacks — namely a change in the procurement of two flagship IWPPs in Saudi Arabia: Ras Azzour and Yanbu. The government had to rescue the deals after developers struggled to secure funds from shrinking financial markets. But Kotilaine says that if anything, the financial crisis has increased governments’ interest in private sector participation because of their own dwindling resources.

This is particularly true of countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan that don’t have the financial resources of their oil-exporting counterparts. "Desalination has traditionally been a last resort because it is expensive," says Henthorne. "But the sheer lack of alternatives and a greater availability of project finance means that desalination is becoming more accessible."

What is surprising is that despite hosting and facilitating the development of desalination, the Middle East has, by and large, remained an importer rather than a provider of this technology. Most desalination plants have been built by multinational companies like Veolia, Degrémont, Befesa, GE and FCC. "There is so much talk about the knowledge economy, yet here is a concrete regional need that’s not being locally filled," says Kotilaine. "Why not help create supply and possibly export it, too?"

Resolving Water Sustainability

Shannon McCarthy, deputy director of the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), echoes Kotilane’s comments. MEDRC was set up in 1996 as part of the Middle East peace process to resolve water sustainability issues in the region. The institute was a pioneer in desalination research at a time when the technology wasn’t as widespread as it is now. "A lot of facilities are being built, but that’s not to say that there are experts in every country who can operate them or make informed decisions about desalination technology," says McCarthy.

It is to fill this skills gap that MEDRC is planning to build a training center in Aqaba, Jordan. The institute has already provided many hours of training to engineers across the region, but the training center will epitomize its peace mission: Classroom learning will be done in Aqaba, and practical training at the desalination plant in Eilat, Israel, just across the border from Aqaba.

As well as capacity building, MEDRC is focusing on another growing area of interest: the use of renewable energy. This development is particularly important for two reasons: First, renewable energy would provide an alternative to hydrocarbon-poor countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. Second, it would help reduce desalination’s substantial carbon footprint.

Organizations such as MEDRC have dabbled with renewable energy and desalination for years, but efforts have always stumbled across the same problems: Because of its cost, renewable energy would make desalination even more expensive than it is. From a technical point of view, wind power and photovoltaic cells would not be able to produce power continuously (if the wind drops or night falls) or in sufficient quantities to sustain a large desalination plant. They would also fail to produce the single most important element in desalination in the Middle East: heat.

The process of removing dissolved salts from water to produce freshwater is ancient. Aristotle first mentioned it in 320BC, and explorers such as James Cook relied on desalination during long sea voyages. It’s only after WWII, however, that technological breakthroughs allowed the application of desalination on a much larger scale.

There are two main types of desalination processes: thermal and membrane. The thermal process uses heat to generate steam and distill seawater. Membrane processes are mechanical and use ultra-high pressure to filter dissolved salts. Thermal desalination is a more mature technology; it’s also more robust and has traditionally produced better results on the Gulf’s highly saline and turbid waters. Thermal desalination plants, therefore, dominate the field, which also explains why IWPPs proved so popular in the Middle East (the power plant produces heat that can be used in the desalination process).

But with the advent of Concentrated Solar-thermal Power (CSP), a form of solar energy that uses lenses and mirrors to trap the sun’s rays and create heat, renewable energy could become a very serious option for desalination. Franz Trieb, a researcher at the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Technical Thermodynamics, recently told a gathering of 150 experts why: MENA’s CSP potential is huge (sun exposure and terrain conditions are ideal), it could create heat and power on a continuous basis thanks to heat storage and — because the materials required to build it are relatively cheap — its cost is forecast to decrease substantially over the next 10-15 years.

Trying Out Renewable Energy

The conference attended by Trieb was organized in Rabat, Morocco, by Morocco’s bulk water provider Office National de l’Eau Potable (ONEP) and the Observatoire Méditerranéen de l’Energie (OME, Mediterranean Energy Observatory). Morocco has ambitious plans to develop CSP for its electricity production, and ONEP is planning to build a 9,000 m3/d pilot desalination/CSP plant in Tan Tan in the south of the country.

Other countries, too, are trying out renewable energy: Tunisia’s water utility SONEDE is considering solar power for a series of small brackish water desalination plants in its southern provinces, and Saudi Arabia has just announced the launch of a 30,000 m3/d solar-powered desalination plant in the city of Al-Khafji. The plant was developed by IBM and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), and features a new, energy-efficient membrane technology and a new type of photovoltaic cell.

Although the IBM/KACST plant was announced in April, details about when construction will start remain vague. What is clear, however, is that this is part of a broader effort to generate homegrown innovation. "Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world, and we continue to invest in new ways of making access to fresh water more affordable," said Turki Al Saud, vice president for research institutes at KACST, in a statement. "Using these new technologies, we will create energy-efficient systems we believe can be implemented across Saudi Arabia and around the world."

But Henthorne thinks renewable energy will really take off when MENA countries decide to develop it as part of their energy policy. "Most desalination plants in Australia are powered indirectly by renewable energy: They use membrane technology, which just uses electricity from the grid, and Australia has extensive wind power capacity," she says.

Membrane technology is becoming more widespread in MENA because of an energy conundrum: Water demand is more or less constant throughout the year, but electricity demand surges in summer because of air-conditioning. "Electricity demand in winter is about 70% lower than in summer, and producing steam for desalination only is very expensive," Henthorne adds.

The solution has come in the form of hybrid desalination plants where membrane technologies can help fill the gap from thermal units during winter months. Innovative pre-treatment technologies have also helped overcome the water quality problems, which all suggests that membrane processes will become more widespread in the region.

The Middle East is likely to remain a leading player in the desalination market, but Henthorne says there are many thirsty emerging markets, including as China, India or Australia. "I think we could see a shift in where the core developments are happening," she suggests.