Iraq and The Desalination Revolution: First Steps, Future Trends

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Image Credit: Wikicommons/James Grellier

In the last article on critical infrastructure, we looked at how new trends in renewable energy can assist resilient development, decentralising power for critical infrastructure to mitigate conflict or environmental shocks, sustainably reusing municipal water and treating sewage.

In the long run, vulnerable Iraqi cities such as Basra will need much more seawater desalination as part of a holistic water strategy that includes reuse, repair and construction of new water lines, water-saving innovations, the complete elimination of illegal tapping, in addition to a functioning and realistic tariff system.

This challenge may seem impossible under current economic conditions, with the obvious implication that living conditions in Basra may become increasingly unbearable. Iraq has at least made some belated moves to join the seawater desalination revolution which has transformed the region.

In 2014, Iraq commissioned the Hartha desalination plant which uses reverse osmosis (RO) membrane technology to process 200,000 m3/day of water from the Shatt al Arab, theoretically being able to provide clean drinking water for up 400,000 people, give or take losses in the distribution system and high per capita water use (the 400,000 figure is higher for example than the figure of 300,000 people given for 190,000 m3/day plants in California). In Iraq, where per capita water use is up to 150 litres above the international average, these figures could vary substantially.

It is important to note that the Hartha plant desalinates brackish, saline river water 20 km north of Basra, not seawater from the Gulf. Soil and water salinity, which occurs naturally at safe levels, can build up inland over time through poor drainage management, while salinity is typically much worse in coastal areas, particularly as freshwater flow rates from the Tigris and Euphrates decline, leading to seawater encroachment in estuary areas.

To desalinate Shatt al Arab water, the $220 million Hartha contract was awarded to a consortium of French company Veolia, Japan’s Hitachi and Egypt’s Arab Contractors (ArabCo) company in January 2014. This would appear to be a very typical cost for a desalination plant at the time, with average capital costs per 100,000 m3 coming in at around $115 million. The story of this plant (completed in 2019) is well documented but worth recounting briefly as an illustration of non-technical challenges infrastructure projects have faced in Iraq.

An initial problem was Iraq’s cluttered institutional framework which ended in recriminations in parliament between the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works, the latter being tasked with planning and development. Projects also have to be approved by the Ministry of Planning with funds allocated by the Ministry of Finance.

Work was intended to be finished in 2016 but the project faced delays including alleged corrupt payment demands for component imports, tribal demands for labour and alleged efforts to extort contractors, as well as delayed payments from the government side.

This plant was long needed; in 2008, JICA reported Basra’s maximum water demand at 914,000 m3/day and it is now likely far more. In other words, Basra may require up to five Hartha-style plants (depending on forecast freshwater availability) costing up to $1 billion but potentially substantially more. For water line work, costs could be equally high: in September, a Kuwait company was reportedly awarded a $117 million contract, funded by JICA, to build 37km of new water lines in the city, with a 200,000 m3/day capacity.

The difficulty of finding an approximate estimate for the total cost of producing desalinated water for Basra is due to the fact that plant location can produce huge variations in capital costs, because of differences in water quality, pipe requirements for different sites etc.

As noted, desalination on such a scale may seem impossible now, given the oil price crisis. But there are some emerging innovations that could soon put more desalination within the reach of countries like Iraq, provided local and national political obstacles can be overcome.

Basra’s choice of RO

Desalination is generally divided into thermal, which includes Multi-Effect Desalination (MED) and Multi-Stage Flash (MSF) methods, temperature controlled heat processes to avoid scaling, generally co-located with thermal power stations to use excess heat. The other main type of desalination is membrane-based or Reverse Osmosis which is now the most common type globally as membrane technology has improved. This trend is likely to continue due to emerging advances in membrane technology, discussed below.

RO has a number of advantages in most regions. It typically uses half the energy of thermal processes. This is important because energy use is around 50% of the cost structure for desalination and Iraq continues efforts to reduce “barrel burn” in thermal power plants to free up oil for export. While the burning of fuel is used for MSF, both MSF and RO have high electricity requirements but even by this metric, RO is more efficient. MSF is generally estimated to use up to 17 KWh/m3 compared to RO’s requirement of 5 KWh/m3. Assuming both processes use oil for electricity and/or evaporative desalination when oil prices recover the operating costs will rise.

Importantly, there may be some disadvantages of RO in certain environments, depending on energy costs. Membranes can be vulnerable to microbiological fouling and for water with high sediment such as in the Shatt al Arab, a lot of pre-treatment is required. For the Hartha plant, upgrades may be needed in future as the Shatt al Arab has suffered rising salinity in recent years and higher salinity means more power is required to force water through membranes. One workaround for this problem could be completely decentralized solar power for the plants, discussed below.

As water flows from the Tigris and Euphrates are forecast to continue declining in the coming decades in addition to facing pressure from rising upriver use as Iraq’s population rapidly rises, salinity levels will worsen. This may not be a serious issue, provided Iraq can ring-fence funds for critical infrastructure: even considering the need to replace or upgrade plants like Hartha, RO could still work out cheaper than maintaining MSF plants and is typically easier to maintain.

In any case, these plants will need Iraq to revise its current water tariff situation. As with electricity, Iraqis will find that despite initial reservations, costs will be cheaper in the long run.

For example, in late 2018 a family in Basra reported buying 2m3 water from a trucked water vendor, particularly high usage. Others reported water vendor requirements of 1m3 per day for both family and livestock (see this Human Rights Watch report). According to a study by Advisian, a “large” desalination plant (over 300,000m3/day) has an average annualized cost of $0.70 cents/m3.

Therefore, the tariff for approaching cost recovery of the capital cost of the plant would be in the region of $21 per month for a conservative user served by a large plant, rising to include recovery of the water network construction and maintenance costs.

On a per-capita basis, Iraqis use between 350392 litres per day. Rounded up to 0.4 m3/day, the tariff to approach capital cost recovery per person would be $0.27 cents per day or $8.10 per month (covering 40% of the cost of 1m3). How does this compare to the existing tariff structure and private sector trucked water vendors?

For the public sector, an ongoing problem in Iraq is that as with electricity, many users are unwilling to pay more for a service they see as unreliable. As a result, many simply do not pay, even with current tariffs which are negligible at 10 IQD/Iraqi Dinars ($0.0086) per cubic meter up to 30m3 per month before rising to the next tariff block. In some areas, drinking this water could lead to hospitalization.

According to the World Bank, in 2013 the average operational cost of water services in Iraq have estimated at IQD 155/m3 or $0.13 cents. This is of course considerably cheaper than the cost for desalinated water and much cheaper than typical potable water treatment. But it is important to note private supplier prices when considering formulating a balanced tariff.

For example, during the Basra water crisis, Human Rights Watch reported water truckers in Basra in 2018 charging between $4 and $21/m3 therefore, for cost recovery for a large plant such as Hartha, clean water rates would be vastly cheaper than trucked water vendors. But there could be even better news on the horizon.

Future plans

Despite some of the advantages of RO, it would be amiss if Iraq did not consider thermal desalination, considering its widespread use in the Middle East and the current low oil price environment.

With this in mind, in December 2018 a delegation from Shanghai Electric Group visited the Ministry of Planning in Iraq to discuss plans for a 2500 MW co-located power and desalination plant at Al Fao; images from an MoP press release suggest the rough outline of the concept was being sketched out at the time, following meetings with the Ministry of Industry and the President of Iraq.

One notable project Shanghai Electric had worked in the region, perhaps similar to the planned Fao plant, was the Yanbu Phase 3 thermal power and desalination plant which generates 2.7 GW of power and 550,000 m3/day of water. Yanbu III was initially worked on by a consortium which included South Korea’s Samgsung engineering and Saudi EPC firm Al Toukhi.

For the desalination component, 200 MW of power requirements were projected. A highly complex megaproject, Yanbu III faced delays typical of projects of such scale involving multiple contractors and consultants and Samsung exited the project in 2017, replaced by Sepco III Electric Power Construction Corp with General Electric supplying equipment.

Talks for a desalination plant at Al Fao have been ongoing. In April 2019, Iraq’s Ministry of Municipalities, Housing and Public Works announced work would begin on a mega plant working with Austrian consultancy ILF to produce up to 1 million m3/day water. A tender announced in April 2020 says the ILF project will use RO technology. If implemented successfully, this will be the largest RO desalination plant in the world, bigger than the Taweelah plant in Abu Dhabi, which is currently under development with a 900,000 m3/day capacity.

Given various plans for an MSF or RO plant at Al Fao, it’s also possible future desalination plants in Iraq could be hybrid, such as the Ras Al Khair plant in Saudi Arabia. In any case, Saudi Arabia is likely to continue to transition to RO, since desalination provides at least 50% of the country’s water supply, resulting in an estimated use of 300,000 bpd for thermal desalination processes, or about 60% of the country’s 2018 barrel burn for power.

Future technology

Considering this problem, in Saudi Arabia, there are trials underway to use temperature-controlled solar-powered desalination at scale. Saudi Arabia is looking at mega plants which lean on renewables to reduce energy costs, such as the 600,000m3 Jubail 3A RO plant which envisions using a nearby solar field. The plant is being constructed by Spain’s Abengoa and China’s SEPCOIII. Solar is often used to boost plant efficiency, for example in Adelaide, Australia a 300,000 m3/day desalination plant will receive half its power supply from solar. But overall, desalination is getting cheaper and cheaper. Costs have fallen 20% between 2010 and 2017 and in the Gulf, mega-plants are seeing costs per cubic meter coming in below $0.50 cents for the first time.

Figure 1: Multistage Flash Distillation Desalination Plants (click to enlarge)

Further afield, one company claims its technology will cost as little as $0.34 cents/m3 to desalinate seawater through glass solar dome technology which speeds up evaporation of seawater 50 times. This is cheaper than the cost of some conventional potable water treatment. UK firm Solar Water PLC hopes this new technology will be successfully used in Saudi Arabia’s planned Neom city. For now, this is completely hypothetical; more will be known when a 1:20 scale version of the project is constructed in Spain.

Membrane technology is also improving, which will likely have a highly disruptive effect on the industry, but this depends on cutting edge research into materials such as graphene and Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOF). The latter, porous man-made compounds with extremely high surface area (up to 7000m2 per gram) could be far more efficient than current membranes. Work is also ongoing to use nanoporous graphene membranes for greater efficiency, although mass production of graphene is still a challenge being worked on by scientists. If any of this technology proves to be a breakthrough, it will be game-changing for countries facing extreme water stress, but it will also likely be some time before the costs of advanced materials come down. In the meantime, very large scale plants such as the one proposed at Al Fao may be a good option for Iraq, perhaps being upgraded in the future as and when new membrane technology becomes available.

As ever in Iraq, these problems are not strictly technical, and political reforms for tariff reform, metering, improved distribution to reduce losses from leakage and reformed institutional arrangements will have to be overcome before more projects can be successful.

Editor, Iraq Energy Institute | + posts

Robert Tollast, is a freelance political risk analyst focused on Iraq who is the editor at the Iraq Energy Institute. His previously worked for the Iraq Advisory Group, CEIS (France) and the Brecon Group.

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