Revived impetus in Kuwait to invest in water utilities

08 November 2010

Basic infrastructure has been neglected in Kuwait over the past five years, but an improvement in the relationship between government and parliament means much-needed investment looks forthcoming

Water in numbers

8 per cent: Rate at which demand for water in Kuwait is increasing each year

1952:Year the country’s first desalination plant was commissioned

Source: MEED

The opening of Kuwait’s Sulaibiya wastewater treatment facility in 2004 was a landmark event in more ways than one. It was the country’s first privately owned sewage treatment plant and the first in the Middle East to be built on a build-own-operate basis. With its design capacity of 425,000 cubic metres a day (cm/d), it was also the largest wastewater treatment and reclamation project in the world.

Within a few years, however, the plant was operating in excess of its capacity, with a daily throughput of more than 500,000 cm/d. This example reflects the wider problems affecting the country’s water sector. After leading the region in installing the latest technology, Kuwait has failed to follow this up with a rolling programme of investment and decommissioning to keep pace with demand. This has left it with ageing networks and inadequate wastewater treatment and desalination capacity.

Wastewater plants under pressure in Kuwait

About 60 per cent of the country’s domestic wastewater is treated at the Sulaibiya plant, which was developed, and is now operated, by local and US joint venture Utilities Development Company under a 30-year concession.

It is not just the Sulaibiya plant that is working under immense strain. Kuwait has three other treatment facilities running at overcapacity. The four plants have a combined design capacity of little more than 600,000 cm/d. But, in 2008, the facilities received some 734,000 cm/d of waste.

Kuwait desalination and wastewater projects, 2010-17
DesalinationCapacity (million gallons a day)Status
Shuwaikh (reverse osmosis)30Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction is the contractor. Completion scheduled for end of 2010
Al-Zour North 2102Project approved by cabinet
Al-Zour North 351Planned
Al-Zour North (reverse osmosis)25Planned
Al-Zour IWPP100Developers to submit requests for qualification by November 2010
Shuaiba South51Planned
Doha East100Planned
Al-Zour South30Bids to be submitted in November 2010
WastewaterCapacity (cubic metres a day)Status
Umm al-Hayman300,000PTB selecting advisers
Kabad345,000Mushrif Trading & Contracting Company selected to build project. Completion scheduled for end of 2010
Sulaibiya facility expansion225,000 increase Consultant selected. EPC award due in 2011
EPC=Engineering, procurement and construction; IWPP=Independent water and power project; PTB=Partnerships Technical Bureau. Source: MEED Projects

When it comes to water supply, Kuwait has one of the oldest desalination sectors in the GCC; its first plant was commissioned in 1952 and most of its desalination facilities date from the 1980s and 1990s. The sector has seen little investment in the past five years, despite the fact that demand for water is increasing at about 8 per cent a year. Peak consumption is expected to rise from 400 million gallons a day (g/d) in 2010 to more than 500 million g/d in 2014.

With the population expanding at about 3.5 per cent a year, huge investment needs to be made to prevent the neglect of Kuwait’s water and wastewater infrastructure from becoming critical. It is estimated that installed desalination capacity will have to rise to 621 million g/d by 2015 and 819 million g/d by 2020. The country currently has about 423 million g/d of capacity. 

The reason so little new infrastructure has been built in recent years is simply that the country has struggled to implement projects. Schemes have been planned, but the absence of strong decision-making bodies has prevented the country from bringing new projects online. It has not just been a problem for the water sector; industrial projects and energy schemes have also struggled to move forward.

The sheer number of players involved in Kuwait’s contract award processes has served to derail projects. Under the conventional public procurement model, the ministry responsible first evaluates contractors’ technical bids. The Central Tenders Committee (CTC) then opens bidders’ financial offers and recommends a winner to the client, which decides whether or not to follow the recommendation. The final hurdle is represented by the State Audit Bureau, which must formally approve an award.

New confidence for infrastructure projects in Kuwait

But since elections were held in 2009, a new confidence has enveloped Kuwait, amid an improvement in the relationship between the country’s government and members of its parliament. For the first time in years, there is now a strong consensus between the legislative and executive to support much-needed infrastructure developments.

A series of new desalination projects have been announced, along with a handful of wastewater treatment plants. The next project expected to come online is the Shuwaikh reverse osmosis plant, which will add 30 million g/d of capacity. A desalination project at Al-Zour South is being tendered, although it has already faced delays since it was launched in June. Tenders for desalination projects at Al-Zour North, Shuaiba South and Doha East are expected to follow. There are also plans to expand the Sulaibiya wastewater treatment facility to 600,000 cm/d. Austria-based consultancy firm ILF Consulting Engineers is advising on the project.

In a further effort to overcome the obstacles to executing projects in Kuwait and to help attract private capital, a new body, the Partnerships Technical Bureau (PTB), was formed in May 2009. It sits within the finance ministry and has a mandate to facilitate a series of major infrastructure projects, including the country’s first independent water and power project (IWPP) at Al-Zour North and an extension of the Umm al-Hayman wastewater project. The schemes form part of a KD30bn ($102bn) four-year development plan that also includes the construction of a $7bn metro, a refinery and a causeway.

Changes to desalination projects in Kuwait

The IWPP will have a capacity of 1,500MW of power and 100 million g/d of desalinated water. The PTB is currently prequalifying developers to build the project. The Al-Zour North site was originally earmarked for a government-procured power project.

The evolution of the scheme exemplifies the problems faced by private companies looking to participate in projects in Kuwait. The project was first mooted in the mid-1980s, but the ministry only invited bidders to prequalify for a 3,000MW steam project at Al-Zour North in 2004. Just one of the seven prequalifiers ended up bidding in 2006. The ministry approved the selection of the US’ Washington Group, South Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction and Athens-based CCC, but the CTC overruled the decision. In March 2010, the ministry issued a new tender for the revised project, before the PTB announced that it would be building its IWPP at the site instead.

Meanwhile, at Umm al-Hayman, the PTB is selecting consultants to work on the expansion of the existing wastewater plant, from its current treatment capacity of 27,000 cm/d to about 600,000 cm/d.

The project will be carried out in two phases. The first phase will see about 400,000-450,000 cm/d of capacity brought online by 2015. The extended facility will also treat raw sewage diverted from an ageing plant at Riqqa, which has a capacity of 180,000 cm/d and is to be decommissioned. The expansion, located on the coast some 50 kilometres south of Kuwait City, was originally to be developed as a design and construct project by the Public Works Ministry, before the PTB stepped in. The ministry had appointed Lebanon-based Dar al-Handasah (Shair and Partners) in January 2009 as the consultant for the design, construction supervision and environmental study.

“This project is needed because in the south area of Kuwait, we have several cities being built,” says a source at the PTB. “According to estimates, [the cities will have a capacity of] 500,000 residents by 2015. The critical time that this plant must be in operation is January 2015. It’s a must – or a crisis will happen.”

Private involvement in Kuwait water schemes

These early schemes will offer the PTB the opportunity to test its plans to engage with the private sector. Project companies for both the IWPP and wastewater treatment plant will be formed. Half the shares will be listed in an initial public offering (IPO), while 40 per cent will be held by the private developer and the government will retain a 10 per cent stake.

It comes as no surprise that the PTB selected a power and water scheme and a wastewater treatment facility to be included in its first wave of projects. Investment is needed urgently to build new infrastructure.

Despite the recent activity and the positive mood in the country, Kuwait still has to play a lot of catch-up. The state has neglected its essential utilities in the past five years and until the first project reaches completion, many will continue to doubt whether the government has really found a new impetus to press ahead with its proposed investment programme. Already, the IWPP is running several months behind schedule as the regulations governing private partnerships are still being ironed out.

Furthermore, it is not just one or two desalination and wastewater projects that Kuwait needs to execute. The government needs to plan for continued growth until 2020 and beyond. Otherwise, as happened with the Sulaibiya plant, its efforts will be quickly wiped out. The challenge will be maintaining momentum.

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