Are there any desalters smart enough to save Gaza?

Published June 2nd, 2016

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

I was in Ramallah last week at a workshop to discuss the tender process for the proposed desalination plant for Gaza. It was one of the most alarming and engaging discussions I have taken part in since starting at Global Water Intelligence.

The event was organised by the Middle East Desalination Research Centre, which was set up as part of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s to share desalination expertise between the opposing sides in the Arab – Israeli conflict as a means of fostering peace. It is the only surviving institution created by the Accords, and in promoting a desalination plant for Gaza it has a mission which recovers the founding spirit of the organisation.

The facts of the matter are as follows. Gaza has a population of 1.8 million people living within a 40km coastal strip. It extracts around 200 million m3 of groundwater per year against an average annual recharge of 55-60 million m3. This overdraft has led to accelerating seawater intrusion into the aquifer, the major parts of which now show a salinity in the region of 600-2,000 mg/l, and in some places the figure reaches as high as 10,000mg/l. Contamination from wastewater and agricultural run-off is also a problem. Only 3.8% of the domestic water supply meets WHO drinking water standard. The United Nations warned in 2012 that the aquifer may become unusable at some point this year, and the damage to it will be irreversible by 2020. Already we are seeing an uptick in kidney complaints. These could reach epidemic proportions if nothing is done to introduce new freshwater supplies to the Strip in the next five years.

Rebhi El Sheikh, who is deputy chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority, is the man responsible for making sure that this does not happen. Physically slight and quiet in his tone, he is a remarkable man. While others might be side-tracked by the terrible politics of the situation, El Sheikh is completely focused on the objective of ensuring that Gaza has a potable water supply before it is too late. He outlines the implications of Gaza’s blockade without a trace of malice towards those who enforce it. To build a 150,000m3/d desalination plant in Gaza will require around 67,000 truckloads of materials. Currently around 500 trucks carrying food and other necessities make it through the barrier from Israel each day that the crossings are open. El Sheikh estimates that it would take 50 years to deliver the necessary materials to Gaza overland – assuming that the Israeli authorities would permit them to cross. Anything that could be construed as a threat to Israel’s security is not allowed across the barrier. The engineer advising on the desalination plant has been unable to import the equipment necessary to assess the feedwater quality. A small containerised plant remains unused because it has proved impossible to source the epoxy paint required to protect the intake. Even simple materials such as cement are considered a risk because they might be used in tunnel building.

It means that the only way that a desal plant can be delivered to Gaza is by sea, either as a pre-engineered land-based plant loaded onto a temporary dock, or in the form of a barge mounted system. But that is not the end of the challenge. Gaza’s power station was destroyed in 2014, and the new desal plant would have to develop its own power supply. There is some scope for renewable energy, but a diesel generator will need to do much of the work at least until a gas supply can be arranged. It means that the energy consumption of the plant will have to be among the lowest in the world if it is to be an economic proposition.

Altogether it makes for challenging conditions for a tender, not least because of the risk associated with the delivery schedule. For an unscrupulous contractor, building the Gaza desal plant could be the most lucrative project ever: it would add to the bill every time the PWA was forced to alter the timetable. The obvious solution might be to try to get Israel to indemnify the contract against delays, but El Sheikh explains that such a suggestion misunderstands the Israelis: from their point of view the security is non-negotiable.

There are so many reasons why this is a difficult project, but at the same time, it is also an inspiring challenge for the desal industry. The company with the vision to deliver to the requirements of low energy, pre-fabrication and scheduling risk minimisation will be the global superstar of the desal industry. Delivering such a feat of engineering and intelligent client partnership would show the world that desalination can be a force for peace.

Without desalination, the conflict between the two sides can only get worse as the security blockade morphs into a public health crisis, with an irreversible impact on the possibility of life in Gaza.

The project will be financed by donors including the Islamic Development Bank, and is envisaged as a five year design-build-operate with the option of a five year extension.