Innovation Can Flow from MENA’s Water Challenges
April 7, 2016
By Myron Van Ert
Regional Vice President, GE Water & Process Technologies, Middle East & Africa
The simple truth of water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa is so obvious that, counter-intuitively, it can cloud the seriousness of the issue. But, consider the following: in Saudi Arabia, desalination consumes more than 15% of its annual oil production, and in UAE, desalination uses more than 10% of the total primary energy generated in the country.
These examples not only illustrate the water challenge, but also the fundamental intersection of energy and water. The relationship between the two is made in the whitepaper: “The Water-Energy Nexus: Business Risks and Rewards.” GE partnered with the World Resources Institute to produce the study.
The report uncovers that whenever we think about water, we must think about its connection to energy. In this region, and particularly the Gulf, the relationship is quite evident due to the significant amount of energy consumed to provide potable water. This water-energy nexus also ties into another key regional priority: environmental stewardship.
These challenges, though, provide tremendous opportunities. As governments, industry and academia work together to address the water supply gap, they also will be helping to reduce pollution, fossil-fuel consumption and the unsustainable withdrawal of water from natural aquifers or surface sources.
The governments in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the rest of the region are proactively taking steps to narrow the supply-demand gap and protect the fragile environment in this arid region.
On the one hand, they are implementing policies to reduce demand through efficient water saving and conservation measures. Secondly, they are working to increase the total supply and efficiency of systems supplying potable and industrial water. This includes desalination and wastewater treatment and reuse. The latter is particularly impactful given that the cost of treating wastewater can be dramatically less than the cost of desalinating seawater.
Across the region, countries are at various stages of developing water reuse plans, therefore, there are opportunities for progress and advancement of relatively cost effective recycling measures. Higher value water reuse can include: agricultural use, utility/industrial water sources, and aquifer recharge to replenish ground water and minimize seawater intrusion. Improved water reuse is a matter of implementation as well as continued research. And, this is why GE is supporting research in the region while being committed to driving advanced solutions in areas such as water reuse and desalination.
Not only can wastewater reuse be less expensive than desalination, it also is an unexploited energy resource. Studies show that the energy content of municipal sewage can be two to four times greater than the energy required to treat it.
In the UAE, GE and Masdar are working together to implement the first energy-neutral wastewater treatment process to employ GE’s portfolio of energy-neutral products in the Middle East. This process begins by reducing the energy consumed in the primary and biological treatment steps, which also generate 20-30% more gas yield by using our advanced anaerobic digestion, compared with conventional anaerobic digestion. Then, we efficiently convert this biogas into electricity and heat.
Also, on the desalination side, in Saudi Arabia, renewable-energy seawater desalination was the focus of the Aramco Entrepreneurship Center and GE ecomagination global technology innovation challenge, which awarded prizes to four teams.
Another futuristic way that we are working to help customers improve the efficiency and performance of water desalination and wastewater treatment plants is through digital industrial software using Predix, GE’s software platform for the Industrial Internet.
These cloud-based solutions integrate industrial equipment with big data and analytics. By giving operators a better understanding of how specific equipment and the entire plant is behaving now and in the future, this software helps operators manage their machines and systems to minimize downtime and maximize efficiencies.
GE Water presented many of these solutions and several others during WETEX 2016, held in Dubai, October 4-6.
MENA governments are working intensely with partners in industry and academia to address the water supply challenge. Though the region has unique water challenges, there is a great opportunity that the region can seize to emerge as a globally recognized hotbed of innovation in the field.