WATER ENGINEERING: Taking the plunge

26 August 2005
As one of the world's largest engineering firms, the US' CH2M Hill is known the world over. However, its Middle East profile is not as high as might be expected. Although the firm has been active in Egypt since the 1980s and has also worked in Jordan, the West Bank and Iraq, its revenues from the region have traditionally averaged less than 10 per cent of the company's $3,200 million annual turnover.

All this is set to change. CH2M Hill - the name is derived from the initials of the firm's founders and a subsequent merger - is refocusing its efforts in the Middle East, and has opened a new regional office in Dubai. Starting with its water, wastewater and water resources division, it aims to double its market share in the region over the next three years.

'We chose Dubai because obviously you can look around and see the construction and population growth here,' says Tom Searle, CH2M Hill's water business group president. 'With growth comes a demand for water. This area is not known for its abundant water supplies, so we feel CH2M Hill can come in and satisfy some needs for water services.'

The company has wasted little time since opening its office. It recently submitted technical bids for the Sharjah Electricity & Water Authority (SEWA) contract to design, supply and install two reverse osmosis (RO) desalination units at Layyah and Khorfakkan. It also submitted in July a prequalification application to form an operation and maintenance (O&M) joint venture with Oman Wastewater Services Company (OWSC) for the Muscat wastewater project.

The Omani scheme sees the company taking a more stakeholder-focused approach than usual. Historically, CH2M Hill has focused on design and technology and pure design projects in the region. But now the goal is to become more active on the development side, as private power and water projects become more commonplace. 'Part of what we have done in the past is [to work] on a project-by-project basis, but what we want to do is have a sustainable long-term presence here,' says Searle. 'Eventually we would like to move more to design-build-operate and design-build-own models.'

Should the company succeed in making inroads in water services, its other divisions - communications, environmental services, industrial and military facilities, power and transportation - are likely to follow suit. But gaining a foothold first in the highly competitive market for water services will not be easy.

For Searle and the water group, the key to cracking the Gulf will be the growing emphasis on membrane technology, which is rapidly gaining favour over older equivalents. 'Historically, in seawater desalination, the technology of choice has been the thermal technologies - MSF [multi-stage flash] and MED [multi-effect distillation]. But RO has come and established itself and been recognised as a more energy-efficient way to desalinate seawater with improvements to the membranes,' says Searle. 'We've done quite a lot of water reuse using membranes in Singapore, and I think as water efficiency becomes more important in the region, there will be more applications of membrane technology on the wastewater side. We feel we add more value to that dimension of the water business here.'


Unlike some companies in the desalination sector, CH2M Hill does not have its own proprietary technology, preferring to pick and choose from the market. While this inevitably results in steep licensing costs, it does enable the company to select the right technology for the job and to retain a degree of flexibility.

'We do not have our own proprietary technology because we have a vast marketplace, serving our clients with the best technology,' says Searle. 'One of the key things we offer is the unique perspective to look at the various technologies. If we had our own technology, that would be the one

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