IT was a sign of the UAE’s importance to the desalination business that the International Desalination Association (IDA) chose Abu Dhabi for its 1995 congress. Over 500 delegates turned up to the five-day event in November, to hear about the latest advances in desalination technology, and to check out future opportunities in the multi-million dollar local market. And there was much to note. With UAE water demand growing by an estimated 10 per cent a year, local utilities face the daunting task of installing over 250 million gallons a day (g/d) of additional desalinated water capacity in the next 15 years.

Desalination in the UAE goes back to 1960 when local businessman Ali Bin Abdullab al-Owais shipped a 12,500 g/d multi-stage flash (MSF) unit into Abu Dhabi.

When oil prices shot up in 1973, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah set about creating the foundations of the present-day network. By 1981, the first large units went on stream at Umm al-Nar in Abu Dhabi, Jebel Ali in Dubai and at Layyah in Sharjah.

To cope with the surging demand for water in urban areas, expansion of all three of these MSF complexes became necessary almost from the day they were completed.

Smaller facilities were also set up to serve outlying communities. Abu Dhabi’s Water & Electricity Department (WED) commissioned more than a dozen units during the 1980s in the western region. The first Ministry of Electricity & Water (MEW) plant to use reverse osmosis (RO) went into action in Ras al-Khaimah in 1985 with a capacity of 1.5 million g/d.

Between 1987-90, total installed capacity remained virtually unchanged at 210 million g/d, reflecting the tight squeeze on government spending brought about by the 1985 oil price slump. In 1990, the first of four 7.2 million g/d units started up at the A station in Taweelah. Three years later, Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (DEWA) commissioned the 60 million g/d Jebel Ali G plant.

There will be further additions to the network this year. In Abu Dhabi emirate the 76 million g/d Taweelah B plant and the 16 million g/d Mirfa A station are due to be commissioned, raising total installed capacity to over 400 million g/d, from the current 320 million g/d. The total number of desalination units countrywide will rise to 120.

Desalinated water already meets 60-70 per cent of total water demand and the figure is set to rise in the years ahead. Due to the rapid depletion of renewable water resources there is no alternative to desalination (see page 7). The population is growing by 3.5 per cent a year and living standards are high. Studies carried out by US consultants Kuljian Corporation and Bechtel forecast that desalinated water will have to provide 80 per cent of water requirements by 2005.

Critical shortage The immediate outlook for new expansions varies considerably from one emirate to another. In Dubai, DEWA is believed to have sufficient desalination capacity to see it through to the end of the decade. Its main focus is on boosting power generation through the construction of a 600-MW opencycle power plant at Al-Awir.

In contrast, the situation in the northern emirates is becoming critical. Interruptions to supply are increasingly common. Plans have already been drawn up by MEW to add over 10 million g/d of new capacity at four locations. The ministry has allocated $65 million for the construction of three 2 million-3 million g/d units in Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Ajman. In a separate development, contractors submitted bids in mid-September for a second 1 million-2 million g/d facility in Ras al-Khaimah, which will be financed by Abu Dhabi.

Constraints on federal spending have led governments in the northern emirates to consider private options for adding capacity.

In the first agreement of its type, the government of Ajman signed in late 1995 a memorandum of understanding with the UK’s National Power to build a 60-MW power plant with desalination capacity of 5 million g/d. Under the plan, output from the $120 million facility will be bought by MEW.

Sharjah is also expanding capacity. In early 1995, Italy’s Ansaldo signed a letter of intent to add a 5 million g/d unit to the Layyah station, as part of a medium-term plan to boost capacity at the plant by 20 million g/d. However, work has still to begin on the estimated $54 million project, due to delays in arranging the financing.

The best prospects for new business are in Abu Dhabi. Here, peak water demand is set to triple over the next 15 years to more than 500 million g/d. Despite the imminent completion of the Taweelah B and Mirfa projects, WED is already planning the next generation of desalination projects.

Taweelah A is slated for expansion through the addition of 40 million-50 million g/d.

Plans are also under consideration to double the Mirfa plant.