Ambitious desalination plans
Ahmed Kadry, Tuesday 27 Oct 2020
Director of the Egyptian Desalination Research Centre Hossam Shawki speaks to Ahmed Kadry about the increasing importance of desalinated water

Egypt is embarking on ambitious plans to increase the amount of potable water produced by its desalination plants. Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli recently announced that the state intends to invest some LE135 billion until 2030 in doubling the quantities of desalinated water used in the country’s drinking water.

In late August, the minister of housing, utilities, and urban communities, Assem Al-Gazzar said that Egypt intends to build 47 desalination plants by 2025 at a cost of LE45 billion. That plan is part of six five-year plans to expand the construction of desalination plants. Al-Gazzar said at the time that 19 desalination plants were already under construction and that there were 65 existing plants in Egypt.

The desalination projects are part of government efforts to optimise the use of the country’s water resources, especially with the threat of future shortages of Nile water because of the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The government’s plans to expand the desalination projects are very important in meeting the needs of the growing population, Hossam Shawki, director of the Egyptian Desalination Research Centre (EDRC), told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said that in the future new communities might depend on desalination for their water needs, unlike in the past when Egypt could rely on the River Nile. Egypt’s receives 55 billion cubic meters from the River Nile.

From 1980 until the early 2000s, water produced from desalination was in the range of 100,000 cubic metres per day. However, in 2011 that number jumped to around 130,000 cubic metres per day, increasing to about 140,000 cubic metres in 2014.

This year, it jumped to about one million cubic metres per day, with future plans to produce about eight million cubic metres per day by 2030 and 20 million cubic metres by 2050.

The EDRC was established in 2016 to research desalination methods that could be of use to the country. It is supervised by the Desert Research Centre (DRC) with the support of the Academy of Scientific and Technological Research.

Desalination plants can be an efficient choice for Egypt, Shawki said, because 99 per cent of them need to be on the seashore. Egypt is progressing at a rapid pace and developing new communities and cities near the seashore, including New Alamein, East Port Said, and Galala City, he said.

However, the high cost of producing desalinated water could only be justified when producing drinking water. A cubic metre of desalinated water costs LE17, which would be very costly were it to be used for agricultural purposes where 4,000 cubic metres of water are needed annually per feddan.

One cubic metre of fresh water from the Nile only costs about LE1.5.

Desalination plants are also a costly investment. According to Shawki, they cost about $800 per cubic metre and can increase to $2,000 per cubic metre, this investment being largely spent on the high-pressure pumps needed to force seawater through desalination membranes and the membranes needed to filter the salt from the water.

Desalination plants in Egypt use the reverse-osmosis method of desalination because it is more efficient, using about four KW of power per cubic metre of water, while thermal plants can use 20 KW per cubic metre.

However, thermal plants have a higher production capacity, able to produce up to one million cubic metres of water per day, while even the biggest reverse-osmosis desalination plant can only produce around 680,000 cubic metres.

Shawki said there was a thermal plant in Saudi Arabia that produces about 1.15 million cubic metres per day of desalinated water.

He said the EDRC was striving to localise the production of the high-pressure pumps that represent about 20 per cent of the cost of the plants and the membranes that represent about 15 per cent. A further 25 per cent of the cost is taken up by running costs.

Localising the production of these two items would drastically reduce the cost of building desalination plants, Shawki said. The EDRC has been able to make progress in localising the production of the membranes, and it is conducting experiments on high-pressure pumps this month.

Desalinated water is safe for human consumption, and desalination is a common practice in many countries, including Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Spain. There are no threats to the environment either, he said.

Desalination plants do not produce negative emissions, and any emissions associated with them come from the production of the power used. All the desalination plants in Egypt are being built using the reverse-osmosis method, which is safer to the environment and is used by 68 per cent of plants worldwide.

The new generation of membranes had meant that boron, found in large quantities in salt water, was removed to levels suitable for human consumption, Shawki said. “Water desalination is a giant industry… millions of people consume desalinated water, and there is no evidence to suggest that anyone has ever had issues as a result of drinking desalinated water,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly