Riyadh taps groundwater supplies

20 February 2013

The severe shortage of potable water in Riyadh in the summer of 2012 has prompted the government to fast-track an emergency groundwater supply project to meet demand

Poor availability of drinking water has long been a source of consternation for residents of Riyadh. So severe have the shortages been in the summer months that a black market in tanker delivery has emerged over the past decade, with private companies offering to deliver supplies at vastly inflated prices.

For the government, which is seeking to prevent public discontent and prepare its water assets for privatisation, action on this issue has become so vital that it has rushed through an emergency project to abstract about 200,000 cubic metres a day (cm/d) of groundwater from a network of new wells around the city.

Boosting supplies

The decision to act came in May last year, when Water & Electricity Minister Abdullah al-Husein announced that 2012 would be the last time residents suffered water shortages. He said a combination of projects would make the black market for tankers a thing of the past and pointed to the Ras al-Khair desalination plant on the east coast as being the main solution to Riyadh’s woes. The new facility is set to supply a further 800,000 cm/d to the capital, taking the total water supply to the city to 2.4 million cm/d from the current 1.6 million cm/d. The average demand for potable water in Riyadh in 2010 was 1.7 million cm/d.

[The government] has ordered 33 [groundwater] plants and we will deliver all of them in five months

Pierre Pauliac, Degremont

However, the Ras al-Khair facility is not due to become operational until March 2014. In the meantime, the kingdom’s National Water Company (NWC) has embarked upon the emergency water supply project to bridge the gap between availability and demand. The scheme will also increase the diversity of Riyadh’s potable water supply, which is becoming increasingly dependent on east coast desalination.

“Tendering was initiated in mid-June and we awarded the [emergency water supply] scheme in September,” says Abdullah al-Hagbani, head of corporate projects at NWC. “It will be delivered in six months. Usually a project such as this would take 18 months.”

The Riyadh Water Supply Enhancement Programme (RWSEP) involves boring 43 deep wells around the city, which will vary in depth from 170 metres to 2,400m. Groundwater will then be retrieved from the Al-Manjour aquifer and treated in small-scale water treatment plants. France’s Degremont, part of the Suez Group, will supply 33 such units under a $53m contract. Initially, 26 of these, each with a capacity of 5,000 cm/d, will be distributed in pairs to 13 sites. Another seven modules will then be provided to Al-Buwaib, where a permanent building is being created for a 35,000-cm/d plant.

Groundwater in Riyadh is known to be brackish, which means the treatment plants will use reverse osmosis to remove the salts. However, these units require a much smaller energy investment than seawater reverse osmosis as the salt content of groundwater is not as high. “Brackish water has lower total dissolved solids (TDS) than seawater,” says Pierre Pauliac, chief executive officer of the Middle East business unit at Degremont. “In Riyadh’s case, well water has 3,000 milligrammes a litre (mg/l) of TDS, compared to 40,000-45,000 mg/l TDS in seawater.” 

Reverse osmosis, where water is forced through a semi-permeable membrane, leaving the salts behind, is not the only stage in the process. The water will be taken from the wells into a cooling tower before being pumped into multi-media filters to remove biological contaminants. This is then filtered before undergoing salt removal and being sent to storage tanks.

Fast delivery

NWC has requested that the plants are containerised, which means they can be moved and reused in the future, making them much more complex than the usual skid-mounted units, which sit in a permanent frame. Pauliac says this portability is one of the main advantages of the equipment, along with the speedy delivery time. “The project is exceptional in that NWC has ordered 33 plants and we will deliver all of them in five months,” he says.

Although the timescale of the project is in the words of Pauliac “exceptional”, the demand for brackish water reverse osmosis (BWRO) plants is not unusual. “We believe more than 100 tenders will be floated each year for [BWRO] equipment with various clients,” he says, pointing out that Saudi Arabia is the most important market for Degremont.

Even with the new groundwater supplies, the margin between supply and demand will be tight in 2013

Construction of the RWSEP has been awarded to two local contractors, Al-Rashid Trading and Contracting Company (RTCC) and Nesma Water & Energy. Nesma confirms that its share of the contract is $136m, which involves drilling 13 wells and installing the associated water treatment plants. It will also supply glass-lined steel tanks for the storage and distribution of potable water in 12 different locations. The firm says the small timeframe for delivery is extremely challenging, especially given the depth of the wells that must be dug. Nesma is working with the local Acwa Power Holding subsidiary, Wetico, on the water treatment requirement of the project, and with Germany’s Schlumberger as a technology provider for the supervision of well design and drilling. Work is scheduled to be completed by March 2013.

Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, the groundwater resources that will be used for the scheme are non-renewable. Although the government has been working since the late 1990s to reduce its dependence on this resource, it remains the chief source of water in the country, with 80 per cent of all supply, equivalent to about 15 billion cubic metres a year (cm/y), coming from non-renewable aquifers.

Major policy changes in agriculture in the 1990s such as the reduction in farming and forage crops have made a big difference and cut demand by about 2 billion cm/y, but the kingdom still has an overdependence on non-renewable water. Renewable resources are estimated at just 2.4 billion cm/y.

Ras al-Khair plant

For now, at least, groundwater beneath Riyadh can ensure the city does not fall victim to shortages this year. By 2014, the supply gap should be well and truly closed with the completion of the Ras al-Khair desalination plant. It will have a capacity of 1.03 million cm/d and is being built alongside the 2,400MW combined-cycle power facility under construction by the local Al-Arrab Contracting Company and its Chinese partner Sepco III Electric Power Construction Corporation.

Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) appointed South Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction to build the $1.76bn desalination plant under an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract in November 2010, after the scheme floundered as an independent water and power project (IWPP).

The preferred bidder, Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation’s consortium, fell apart in April 2009, when partner Malaysia’s Malakoff International was unable to raise its equity stake for the scheme. The government decided to retender the project as an EPC contract, at the same time that Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Maaden) was progressing plans for its Ras al-Khair aluminium smelter. As a result, the Ras al-Zour plant became the energy source for the new smelter and since Maaden had already secured a gas allocation, the project was let as a gas-fired power station rather than an oil-burning facility.

Under the new arrangements, Maaden is set to take 25,000 cm/d of water from the desalination plant, along with 1,350MW of energy, leaving plenty of water to send to Riyadh. At present, 1.2 million cm/d is transported to the capital from the Jubail desalination plant on the east coast. Three pipelines are used to transfer the water: twin lines A and B, which transport about 830,000 cm/d over 460 kilometres, and Line C, which is situated to the north of the first two pipelines, making it a slightly shorter transmission main transferring 380,000 cm/d.

As part of the Ras al-Khair project, a new transmission line is under construction to take 800,000 cm/d of water to Riyadh. Designed by Germany’s ILF, which is also supervising construction, twin pipelines will travel over 450km and have a capacity of 900,000 cm/d. RTCC is installing 434km of mains, which start at 42-inch (107-millimetre) diameter, while Turkey’s Mapa is installing 538km of 72-inch (183mm) pipeline.

To complement the new desalination facility, NWC is investing SR3bn ($800m) in 580km of distribution pipework and 1.5 million cubic metres of new storage in the north, west and south of the city. This is alongside ongoing investment that will see 230km of new pipelines built every year.

Although water masterplans are still under development for Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca and Taif, NWC estimates that Riyadh is set for at least SR14.9bn ($4bn) in investment over the next five years. “For all the cities that we are managing, we are reviewing the masterplans for the next 20 years,” says Al-Hagbani. “Our needs for the four cities for the next five years is about SR40bn.”

TSE investment

About $1.5bn of this investment will be spent on projects to promote the use of treated sewage effluent (TSE), which is earmarked to become a major part of the country’s supply mix over the next decade. However, this requires high-quality effluent to be produced from new and existing treatment works. The investment on this in Riyadh is expected to be about $800m.

According to Arriyadh Development Authority, which has undertaken a masterplan for the use of TSE in the city, as much as 2 million cm/d could be reused by 2016. However, this will be directed to agriculture and industry, leaving groundwater and desalinated water to supply homes and businesses.

Demand for municipal water has been growing in Riyadh by an average of 5 per cent a year since 2001. Even with the new emergency groundwater supplies, the margin between supply and demand will be tight in 2013. Only timely delivery of the Ras al-Khair desalination facility in early 2014 can ensure Riyadh meets its water demands long into the future and that the black market for water tankers really does become a thing of the past.

Key fact

The average demand for potable water in Riyadh in 2010 was 1.7 million cubic metres a day

Source: MEED

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