The majority of the world’s desalination plants are located in the Middle East and we are likely to see a further increase given the region’s increasing water consumption and general water scarcity. GCC demand for desalinate water has increased at a rate of 9-11 percent in recent years according to Frost & Sullivan. By 2020, it is expected that the Middle East will add an additional 39 million cubic metres per day of desalination capacity since 2010, which indicates an approximate investment of US$50 billion.

Desalination plants in the Middle East have to date been a relatively small bolt-on to a much larger scale power project forming what are commonly known as independent water and power projects (IWPPs) i.e., an integrated water and power plant developed by an independent producer,  which is typically a global industry player.

However, given the increasing demand for water, it seems regional governments are increasingly adopting an independent water project (IWP) model to expedite supply and, given the introduction of solar and nuclear power projects in the region, IWPs are likely to become more prominent going forward.

Regional IWP Projects

One of the region’s earliest and Oman’s first IWP was the 80,000 m3/d Sur IWP commissioned in 2009. Five years into the 20 year operation period and the owners are reportedly planning to expand the plant’s capacity by a further 48,000 m3/d (12.7 million imperial gallons per day (MIGD)) to meet projected demand for water in the Sharqiyah region of Oman. Oman has since launched the Al Ghubrah IWP –a 191,000 m3/d (42 MIGD) 20 year desalination project expected to be commissioned by the end of 2014– and the Qurayyat IWP – a 200,000 m3/d day (44 MIGD) 15 year desalination project which is targeting commissioning by H1 2016.

UTICO, a UAE based private power and water utility company, has this year launched the Al Hamra IWP, a 22 MIGD 20 year desalination project which is targeting commissioning by Q1 2016.

Bidding, Building and Licensing

The region’s IWPs are largely being awarded, following a competitive bidding process, as long term concessions on a build-own-operate (BOO), build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) or design-build-operate (DBO) basis to global industry players such as Abengoa, Acciona, Cadagua, Hitachi, Malakoff, Sembcorp, Sumitomo Corporation, Tedagua and Veolia. Each IWP is required by law to be licensed by the national regulator to carry out water desalination.

To a lesser extent some IWPs are being awarded as engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contracts such as that awarded by the Iraq Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works to Hitachi and Veolia in 2014 for the construction of a 199,000 m3/d desalination plant in Basrah which will be Iraq’s highest capacity single water purification plant. In addition Marafiq, a Saudi based private power and water utility company, awarded Acciona in 2012 the construction of a 100,000 m3 per day (22 MIGD) desalination plant in Al Jubail expected to come into operation by the end of 2014.

Desert Design

The Middle East has historically utilised thermal desalination technology such as multiple-effect distillation (MED) and multi-stage flash evaporation (MSF) although more recently has increasingly utilized membrane technologies such as reverse osmosis (RO), which often require their own supply and maintenance arrangements.

Environmental conditions in the Middle East such as red tide, high sea water temperatures and salinity, mean the pre-treatment facilities need to be designed or adapted to handle those conditions and/or the project documents need to address the occurrence of those risks as, for example, force majeure events with corresponding relief for the developer.

Whether awarded as a long term concession or EPC, there are increasing opportunities for global industry players in Middle East IWPs.