Let’s make this just the beginning for desal

Published August 10th, 2017

Cg head

Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

I am standing for the board of the International Desalination Association. The voting process starts this week. It is not the best moment for the Association. As the desalination industry has struggled to recover its momentum, it has become progressively riven by internal conflict: between the board and the paid staff, between supporters of the Makhzoumi family (whose company employs 883 of the Association’s 2,319 members) and those who oppose the domination of the Association that this buys; between those who backed the decision to hold the 2017 biennial World Congress in São Paulo, and those who had second thoughts; between those who see the scope for the development of a desalination-related humanitarian foundation, and those who see it as a distraction. It has not been pretty, but on the other hand: it is not desalination.

The reason why I am standing for the board is because I am a believer in desalination. I don’t think that the technology is reaching maturity, and I think that its impact on the world is only just beginning to be felt. Furthermore, the IDA has a big role to play in helping the industry reach its potential.

The fragmentation of the board of the Association reflects a broader fragmentation in the industry. As the money has ebbed away from the market, the different sectors that make up the industry have turned in on themselves: the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractors, the investors, the equipment suppliers, the plant operators, even the universities and research institutes have all become less interested in building the big picture, and more focused on their own margins and careers.

If there is a feeling that the market is reaching maturity, it is because the industry is currently focused on shaving off small slivers of cost from established practices, while reducing its capital exposure. It is not because the desalination story is over.

There are still great challenges out there, and the great thing is that they can be solved – but only if the industry finds better ways of achieving collaboration among its different specialisms. The big challenges like reducing the impact of concentration polarization on the efficiency of ultrapermeable membranes, understanding the mechanisms of biofouling and finding ways of inhibiting it, and developing the value in the brine stream, are all cross-disciplinary. The solution will involve bringing together EPC contractors, membrane scientists, biologists, operators, financiers, and everyone else into a common dialogue. That is what the IDA, with its World Congress, is for.

But it needs to be more than that if the industry is to thrive. It also needs to be an advocate for the industry in the wider world. Another impact of the weakness of the market has been that the industry has become more inward-looking in terms of business development. Nobody is going out and selling what desalination has to offer governments and industrial water users who have yet to develop a strategy for dealing with the risk of scarcity. The IDA should do this, and in doing it we need to take the broadest definition of desalination: one that includes both water reuse and brine concentration. This will establish the Association as the lead agency in the development of the circular economy in water.

All this sounds quite idealistic, but for me it also involves an element of self-interest. As the leading provider of information on the desalination industry, I need the business to thrive.

Will I get elected? Practically speaking, it depends on two people. One is you, if you are eligible to vote. If you agree with my analysis, please do support me. The other person whose support I need – but not directly – is Fouad Makhzoumi, the CEO of Future Pipe, who controls around one third of the votes. Although Future Pipe members have every right to vote, and the financial support of Future Pipe has been important in the past, it has come to the point where the support of Future Pipe calls into question the independence of every director who receives it. This undermines the legitimacy of the whole board. What I am asking of Makhzoumi, in the interests of the future of the Association, is to abstain from using the full power of his block of votes in this election. I hope that he is smart enough to see that his power won’t be worth having if he continues to use it as he has done in the past. Such abstinence will end the factionalism on the board and enable the Association to lead the industry once more.