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Green Desalination: An interview with Dr. Nasser Saidi

Clean Energy Business Council

Arab Water Source - 2 January 2014 - Dubai, United Arab Emirates

With only 1.4% of the world’s freshwater resources serving 6.3% of the global population, it is no secret that the MENA region is one of the most water scarce regions in the world. The biggest sufferer of the MENA region is most definitely the GCC region. Increasing water use efficiency, and increasing water supply (mainly through desalination, and to some extent wastewater treatment) have been used to try and solve this dilemma. Although processes such as desalination and wastewater treatment have their positive effects in terms of increasing a country’s water supply, they also have negative impacts on the environment through their intensive carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and aquatic habitat destruction. This has given rise to different methods aimed at reducing such detrimental effects. In fact, a very interesting article by Dr. Nasser al Saidi (founder and president of Nasser Saidi & Associates) about Solving the GCC’s water crisis (http://bit.ly/LA5q1P) has brought focus to a particular way forward: renewables-based desalination. In his article, Dr. Nasser indicates that “green desalination” along with more rational pricing of water utilization should become a clear policy priority for addressing water scarcity in the GCC region. He also states that the GCC should aim to create an ecosystem that is resource efficient, does not contribute to climate change, while addressing not only the region’s severe water scarcity but also the related complications associated with polluting energy technologies. To further expand on Dr. Saidi’s thoughts on this subject, Arab Water source conducted a more detailed interview with the man himself.1. Amir Dakkak (AD): Since using desalination plants powered by renewable energy offers a viable solution to the GCC’s water crisis, why has it taken such a long time for the GCC to construct such projects especially when all the resources seem to be available?

Dr. Nasser Saidi (NS): Using renewable energy such as solar for desalination is still a young and evolving technology, although it is likely to spread rapidly in the GCC, which has some 40% of global desalination capacity. Although costs have substantially declined to make use financially viable, governments and public utilities are not familiar with the application of RE technologies to desalination. Two, there is a lack of established policy frameworks and tools to encourage the use of renewables. For example there are no feed-in tariff policies in place. Three, GCC governments actively promote the use of fossil fuels through large subsidies for the use of oil and gas in power production, which is directly linked to desalination. Without radical reform of strategies and policies, renewables and by extension renewables-based desalination will continue to be a sadly missed opportunity to protect our environment and gradually remove the expensive burden of subsidies, which represent some 4.5% of GDP and eat up more than 25% of government revenues in the MENA oil exporting countries. Removing subsidies will not be a trivial matter since it will be opposed by a strong lobby which has long benefited from subsidies. A good start is to move away from the existing systems of untargeted subsidies which largely benefit the rich and not the intended target of the poor.

2. AD: Does culture play a big part in the acceptance of renewable desalination?

NS: There is no cultural issue related to accepting renewables-based desalination. There may be a lack of information and awareness of the technological possibilities. Diffusion of new technologies takes times this happens at the margin and in new investments.  If anything, there is a global lack of awareness of the benefits of adopting renewable technologies in general, and in their applicability to desalination.  But the power of supply and demand will impose itself: growing populations facing diminishing water supplies will create the economic and financial incentives to adopt renewable technologies for improved water resource management efficiency.  The problems are more of political-economy and of vested interests that actively work against the introduction of new technologies that threaten their economic interests. This is true both in developed as well as emerging economies.

3. AD: What kind of impacts would such projects have on a country’s economy given their heavy financial costs?

NS: This is a false issue.  The GCC and other countries will have to invest to produce power, provide water & transport and other utilities for their young and rapidly growing populations. Such infrastructure investments can either rely on traditional, fossil fuel, high carbon generating technologies or adopt renewable technology solutions which would help decarbonise their economies. Increasingly renewable technologies are competitive. More R&D, increased diffusion and utilization of renewable technologies will lead to more innovation and discoveries that will lower cost curves of activities using renewable technologies. Eventually they will become dominant in much the same way that fossil fuel technologies drove out and replaced human and animal power based technologies. Importantly for the GCC and other countries that have the comparative advantage, given their location, to harness solar, wind and other power, the cost of adoption of renewable technologies will be lower. A household investing in solar panels or a solar power plant investment in the GCC has an absolute advantage over a household or public utility in, say, Germany that would undertake similar investments. The problem is that the incentives are highly skewed in the opposite direction in the GCC as a result of access to cheap, subsidized fossil fuel based technologies. Why would I invest in solar panels if I have access to cheap, fossil fuel based power?

4. AD: Desalination plants powered by renewable energy seem to provide a future solution to the water crisis. Is there a more immediate solution that would be as effective?

NS: The answer is yes. The most immediate solution is through infrastructure investment in “intelligent” water management and to provide incentives to encourage households, business, the public sector and the general public to use less water. The incentives should be through the efficient pricing of water resources and their utilization, as well as non-price mechanisms such as the imposition of quotas or fines. The point is that water is a scarce resource and should be priced accordingly. Many countries of the GCC and the Middle East do not even monitor or meter water usage. But the MENA region is one of the most water scarce regions of the world. Although home to 6.3% of the world’s population (and growing), the region has access to only 1.4 % of the world’s renewable fresh water (and declining). To make matters worse, the region currently exploits over 75% of its available renewable water resources due to its burgeoning population, increased urbanization, mispricing of water and rapid economic growth. Saudi Arabia in an ill-fated drive to increase food production has –over a 15 year period- largely depleted its water aquifer that had taken millions of years to accumulate! It will be forced to stop its wheat production by 2016. Yemen is already a hydrological basket case and Gaza is an ecological disaster.

Better ecosystem and water management systems, improved water use efficiency and pricing, and investment in water infrastructure are all part of the answer. Water is a shared resource and must be managed on a local, basin and national basis.

5. AD: Is it possible to use renewable energy on wastewater treatment plants in the same way as they are used in desalination plants? Would using renewable wastewater treatment provide a more sustainable option to renewable desalination?

NS: Yes, of course. Solar panels have already been installed to provide power for wastewater treatment plants in the US, Germany and China. It could easily have wide applicability in the GCC. Furthermore, energy derived from wastewater treatment can even be used as a renewable energy resource itself. Such recovery processes can produce electrical energy from the utilization of methane rich digester gas, from thermal conversion of biomass, from bio-solid products used by other entities and more. The cheap availability of fossil fuel-based energy & technologies has meant that renewable energy R&D and RE technologies and applications has been limited. This is now changing as RE is becoming cost and financially competitive and there is growing political conviction of the need to address climate change and decarbonise our economies and environment. I believe the coming decade will witness a rapid advancement in RE R&D and wide application and use.

Note: The Arab Water Source team would like to express its thanks and gratitude to Dr. Nasser Saidi for sharing his time and insights on water scarcity in the GCC with us.