Dubai’s big stink and the GCC water reuse challenge

20 December 2007

The greatest revolution in human health was precipitated almost 150 years ago when sittings in the British houses of parliament were suspended because of a revolting smell coming from the River Thames.

It was caused by the introduction in London of the flushing water closet which, at a stroke, transformed the life of those who could afford one. The by-product was human waste delivered into the city’s dilapidated sewage system and then, untreated, into the river.

An accumulation settled close to the House of Commons. The smell was so violent in the hot summer of 1858 that parliamentary debates were halted.

The hero of the hour was Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Water Board. He pressed for a publicly-financed project that would involve building huge sewers and a long pipeline to a sewage treatment plant east of the capital. Work started in 1859. The system had so much surplus capacity that it continues to serve the city today.

There was a double impact. The new drainage network ended epidemics that for decades had killed almost as many London residents as the number who arrived each year. Less than half a century later, London was the world’s most populous city.

The second impact was political. Bazalgette’s sewers were the first great public infrastructure scheme of the Victorian era. A year after the Big Stink, the British Liberal Party was created to promote social reform and economic modernisation. They immediately formed a government and held power for a generation.

The moral of the story is that cities can’t work without good sanitation and there are political implications to having a bad one. And this issue is beginning to affect the booming conurbations of the GCC.

Residents of Dubai are becoming aware of an unpleasant smell that appears to have no source. MEED has learned it is the result of the extraordinary growth in Dubai’s population. The flow of effluent into the emirate’s single sewage treatment plant at Al-Awir has grown by up to 25 per cent in a single year. It is now handling almost twice its original design capacity.

The burden is being increased by effluent trucked to Al-Awir from labour camps accommodating construction workers. According to Dubai Municipality, no less than 3,000 trucks carrying untreated sewage arrive in Al-Awir daily.

To deal with the increased volume, Al-Awir is processing sewage faster. The result is a decline in the quality of the treated effluent, about 75 per cent of which is used to irrigate Dubai’s parks and gardens while the rest is pumped into Dubai Creek. It contains more ammonia and other substances that smell. Questions are also now being asked about whether there is a threat to public health.

Across the region, governments are waking up to the implications of inadequate infrastructure investment.

Speaking at MEED’s water reuse conference in Abu Dhabi on 10 December, Saudi Arabia’s deputy water and electricity minister Loay al-Musallam said the kingdom needed to spend $54,000 million on water treatment and reuse in 2008-2020. He also detailed the water treatment privatisation programme which gets under way in January with the creation of the National Water Company, a state firm that will initially take over the sewage system of four of the kingdom’s largest cities. It marks the start of the most world’s most ambitious sewerage privatisation programme.

In Abu Dhabi, the government has authorised the GCC’s first deep-tunnel sewage system. It will be gravity-based and allow the demolition of many of the pumping stations driving the existing network. Two new treatment plants are to be built under a private finance model.
The story is being repeated across the Gulf. Kuwait is implementing a national sewerage progamme. In Doha, one of the world’s most sophisiticated sewage treatment plants is being built.

The goal is modern sewage systems in every major GCC conurbation. The region is also eagerly adopting new technologies that will recycle practically every drop of effluent and dispose of toxic by-products in an environmentally friendly way.

The challenge is in the short-tem. Dubai has a crash programme to deal with the sewage surge. More membrane-based water treatment plants are being built there than in any other place on earth. So the future is bright. But for the moment, the smell is likely to grow. It is a challenge that Joseph Bazalgette might have relished.

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