Most of the drinking water consumed in Middle Eastern countries is desalinated. While desalination—which involves the removal of salt from seawater—may sound like a simple process, it is in fact very complex.
Desalination is an ancient practice that has been tracked as far back as 400 B.C., when it was used by sailors in Greece. The first desalination facility appeared in Abu Dhabi in the 1960s, and the practice of desalination has since become widespread in the Gulf states. More than 70 percent of the world’s desalination plants are located in the Middle East.
Currently, there are two types of desalination technologies that are used most frequently. The first of these is called reverse-osmosis seawater desalination. In this process, which is the more popular of the two, saltwater travels through a series of filters that capture the salt. The second desalination process is called thermal desalination. The process utilizes heat to evaporate saltwater, which then condenses into fresh water, much like the precipitation process in the natural world.
There are three subcategories of thermal desalination: multi-effect distillation (MED), vapor compression distillation (VC), and multi-stage flash distillation (MSF). MED distillation involves boiling the water several times to remove the salt. In VC distillation, the water is evaporated using hot, compressed gas (or vapor). In MSF distillation, seawater is evaporated in a vacuum, which lowers the boiling temperature and saves energy.
Desalination Plants in the Middle East
Now that you understand more about how desalination works, let’s look at some of the most significant desalination plants in the Middle East.
- Sorek Desalination Plant, Israel
The Sorek Desalination plant, which is located south of Israel’s capital city of Tel Aviv, is one of the world’s largest desalination plants, with a production capacity of more than 22 million cubic feet per day. The Sorek plant, which operates on its own power grid, generates 10 percent of Israel’s drinking water. Construction of the Sorek plant, which operates with RO technology, began in 2011 and cost about $400 million. The project was initiated by Israel’s Water Desalination Administration. The plant features two intake locations, each one almost a mile off the country’s shores. The devices used for intake operate slowly, pulling in seawater at less than half a cubic foot per second, in order to reduce the damage to the marine environment. The seawater travels from the intake devices through concrete pipes to a pumping station about 1.5 miles inland. Before the desalination process begins, the seawater is treated with chemicals and filtered of solid debris. The Sorek Desalination Company (SDC), a partnership between IDE Technologies and Hutchison Water, planned and built the facility. It will manage the facility for 25 years from the date that it became operational.
- Fujairah 1 Independent Water and Power Plant, UAE
Fujairah 1 is a desalination plant that produces both power and potable water through RO and MSF technologies. Located on the shores of Oman about 112 miles from Dubai, the facility is contracted to sell its desalinated water to Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company (ADWEC). The plant began operating in 2004, and two years later ownership was transferred to Emirates Sembcorp Water and Power Company (ESC), which agreed to sell the water to ADWEC. When first built, the Fujairah plant generated about 100 million gallons of water daily. Most of it was desalinated using MSF technology. In 2013, Fujairah underwent an expansion that raised the daily water output from 100 million imperial gallons a day to 130 million imperial gallons a day. The project, completed in 2015, also equipped the plant with an improved pre-treatment system and the ability to access the facility’s surplus power.
- Ras Al-Khair Desalination Plant, Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is home to one of the world’s largest desalination plants, Ras Al Khair. The plant provides more than 220 million gallons of water daily to more than 3 billion people in the country’s capital city of Riyadh. The hybrid plant has eight devices that use MSF technology and 17 that use RO technology. The facility also features a plant for wastewater treatment. Seawater is collected from a dredged channel that is almost mile long, and brine is discharged via offshore pipes that are made of reinforced glass.
The Future of Desalination in the Gulf
The plants do not represent a sustainable solution the Middle Eastern water crisis. As the leftover brine from these plants is disposed of back into the Gulf, the water becomes saltier. As a result, the process of operating the plants becomes less efficient and more expensive, which is not viable in the long term.
Some innovative scientists are trying to find a solution. A chemical engineer studying at a university in Qatar has found a way to transform the brine into calcium chloride and baking soda. If this technology became available, it could revolutionize the water market in the Middle East.