If every human being on our planet consumed the same amount of water as is being used by residents and industries in the Middle East, then we would end up needing water worth more than five times Earth’s supply capacity.

Clearly, water management needs to be a priority for all regional stakeholders.

At present, the desalination of seawater remains the most accessible and sustainable upstream source for potable water production to feed an integrated total water management system. The Middle East has been spearheading a technology transition, driving the potable water production industry into the application of new and competitive technologies, such as reverse osmosis. We must not rest there, however.

Seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO), which has an average recovery rate of 45%, is a modern technology adopted for supply to municipalities. Desalination technologies are bound to be continuously improved and become even more competitive. Innovative solutions such as reverse electro dialysis (RED) and ceramic membranes are two considerable highlights in this range, having reached piloting stage already.

However, today, less than 10% of used water is being treated to a level that would allow it to be reused for industrial, agricultural, and governmental applications, in turn recovering 3% of water production into a circular economy.

Integrated Management

For many years, the public-private partnerships (PPP) and build-operate-transfer (BOT) models have been adopted by governments across the region to cope with the immense capital expenditure and operating skills required to supply reliable water services. This is particularly important for their growing population numbers, and economies that are diversifying into non-carbon industrialisation.

The arrival of renewable and nuclear energy sources has allowed us to decouple water and power production. While certain technologies currently used do not allow for independent gearing of production quantities, decoupling is the way forward to allow such flexibility.

Today, this seems to be true also for the status quo of aspirations for an integrated total water management system, whether it be for a city, state, country or co-operative region. Now, the responsibility is upon us to to connect the silos of water production, as well as manage allocation for human and industrial use, and carry out collection and advanced treatment for dedicated reuse.

Together, based on successful cooperation in single projects, both the public and private sectors are ready to replicate an integrated model and mould it to local needs.

The first step is for industrial water consumers to be allocated advanced treated sewage effluent (TSE) sources, allowing a transition period equivalent to a typical PPP project timeline. During this period, consumers would develop and sustainably take advantage of the required water quantity and quality for competitive and controlled industrial development.

The second step is to implement aquifer storage for the seasonal surplus of advanced TSE – such as when irrigation requirements during winter season are lower – thereby reducing the need for expensive SWRO water to be allocated for such strategic use.

These two initiators are to be combined with the progressive and carefully planned decentralisation of advanced TSE stations from the vicinity of sewage production, allowing industrial re-use customers to minimise transmission losses.

Such integration of the total water management needs to come from the top, and is in line with the visions devised by the Executive Council of the UAE, as well as the individual leadership of the emirates. Taking a closer look shows that this is likely to soon be a reality.

Future opportunities

I call on the private sector to proactively participate and implement advanced emerging technologies that can contribute to a sustainable realisation of upstream and downstream efficiencies.

The reduction of power consumption, and increased conversion of water production process by-products into valuable items – such as biogas and industrial salts – offer such opportunities today.

SWRO produces a lot of solid and liquid – and partially toxic – waste, which is widely discharged back into the open sea. This seawater in the Gulf region – which is already challenging to treat efficiently – is suffering from increased pollution that is promoting the development of a raw water bio-chemistry. All of this adversely affects membrane performance, and leads to increases in both the use of chemicals and their replacements.

Water producers are looking beyond their traditional set of technologies to find suitable solutions in other industries, such as water process systems related to the food and beverage or oil and gas sectors. Ceramic membranes are at the forefront of this development, and are earmarked to be the next disruptive game-changer for the water production industry.

Together, we must develop multiple and sustainable services to create value for our future generations while incorporating the evolving expectations of end-users, and building on strong partnerships with all stakeholders. It is our responsibility to act,  and the time to do it is now.