Desalination: The magic cure?

By EHUD ZION WALDOKS
January 29, 2009 10:30

 
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The idea to desalinate seawater and turn it into drinking water emerged from a simple calculation - at some point in the near future, demand would outstrip supply. A man-made solution had to be found. Desalination has two major advantages: There is an unlimited supply of raw material and output can be calculated to the last drop. Desalination is not a new idea. Part of David Ben-Gurion's vision for Israel was to settle the Negev and desalinate the sea. In 1966, government officials were raising the idea in response to drought years. While the idea was bandied about for a long time, it wasn't until 2000 that the government approved the construction of desalination plants. Desalination plants don't come cheap. A 100 million cu.m./yr. plant costs roughly NIS 1.5 billion to build. In comparison, rain is free. Moreover, the state must buy desalinated water, as opposed to just collecting rain and then moving it around the country in pipes. So desalination alternately came up for discussion or was discarded depending on the weather outside. A good year of rain was apt to make the Finance Ministry cry, "Too expensive!" After each run of lean years, a bumper year of rain would slacken the government's urgency to build. So that while in 2000 the goal was 400 million cu.m./yr. of desalinated water by 2004, after the amazing rainfall year of 2003/4 that number was reduced to 315 million. However, since several companies had failed to build the plants they had won the tenders for, by then even that was unattainable. Building desalination plants isn't simple either. From planning to tender to completion is about five to seven years, as there are a variety of considerations and difficulties to overcome. First of all, they need coastal land to access the sea. With the country's short coastline, land there is a valuable commodity and the Israel Lands Administration has been reluctant to approve massive tracts for the plants. The plants are also rather energy intensive. For example, the plant in Ashkelon has its own mini power station. Until the country produces much of its electricity from clean, renewable sources, that means that the desalination plants also produce a fair amount of greenhouse gases. Environmentalists have questioned their ecological friendliness on that basis. They also need to be hooked up to the National Water Carrier. Completed in the mid-1960s, it runs from the North to the South and carries water throughout the country. Since the plants are on the coast, linking them to the carrier requires a whole new infrastructure. To run pipes, the Water Authority needs permission from everyone who owns the land under which they would run. That's a long and tedious process of negotiation, according to authority head Prof. Uri Shani. Constructing the massive pipes and laying them is no small feat either. What's more, if the goal of 750 million cu.m./yr. is reached in 2020, there will be more water coming from the plants than from Lake Kinneret. That means the flow in the National Water Carrier will actually have to change, according to Shani's testimony to the national investigation committee on the water crisis in mid-November. He predicted the entire desalination and sewage reclamation enterprise would require NIS 17 billion. To alleviate some of that cost, the government has adopted a BOO (build-operate-own) or BOT (build-operate-transfer) tender process for desalination plants. Simply put, a private company or conglomerate agrees to construct and run the plants in return for a government guarantee to purchase the plant's water for at least 25 years. With BOT, after that time, the plant reverts to government control. While the tender process reduces the initial costs, it adds a very complicated layer of bureaucracy. Shani estimated that it takes about two years to complete the tender process and cut through all the red tape. There are also several environmental concerns which have been raised: Green groups contend that the long-term effects of the plants have not been sufficiently studied. They have wondered why the government has not commissioned the Environmental Protection Ministry to undertake just such a study. Specifically, they are concerned about the effect of the return of highly salinated water into the sea. They are also worried about the effect of releasing treatment chemicals and iron. In the reverse osmosis process, once the water is sent through membranes at very high pressure, the leftovers are returned to the sea. However, Prof. Yuval Cohen, environmental consultant to the Ashkelon plant run by VID Desalination Company Ltd., told The Jerusalem Post during a private tour of the plant several months ago that all of his studies showed a minimal impact up to 100 meters from shore and a negligible one after that. Cohen is required to file copious reports to the ministry every year showing the results of the plant's ocean monitoring system. He has been part of the National Marine Environmental Monitoring Program and is the former director-general of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research in Haifa. Given all of the difficulties in constructing desalination plants, it is obvious that a lot of planning and political will is needed to ensure these massive projects stay on track. ACCORDING TO former water commissioner Shimon Tal, in the early years of the 21st century, at least two private companies had to default on plans to build desalination plants, one in Haifa and one in Galilee, because it turned out to be more expensive than they had initially estimated and won the tender for. In addition, Mekorot, the national water company, couldn't get a guarantee from the government to buy the water it would produce from the plant it was planing to build in Ashdod, Tal told the investigation committee in late November. Without that guarantee, it couldn't raise the funds to complete the project. According to Tal, rather than renegotiate the tenders with the two companies, the Finance Ministry preferred to let the plans lapse. Thus, instead of 400 million or even 300 million cu.m./yr. of desalinated water now, which would go a long way toward alleviating the current crisis, the country produced 135 million cu.m./yr at the beginning of this year. A charge of governmental negligence was a recurring theme in the position papers submitted to the committee from academic experts as well as a variety of other consumers and interested parties such as the Kibbutz Movement. There were repeated claims that if the country had been desalinating 400 million cu.m./yr. since 2004, there was a good chance we could have weathered the current water crisis. What's the plan now? The Water Authority's emergency plan, which was approved in August, calls for the desalination of 750 million cu.m./yr. by 2020 and 592 million by 2013. Here's how it plans to get there. There are two desalination plants up and running: Ashkelon (105 million cu.m./yr. since 2005) and Palmahim (30 million cu.m./y.r since 2007). The two plants have responded to tenders to increase output by 15 million cu.m./yr. each by the end of the year. There are several more plants in various stages of planning and construction: • Hadera: 100 million cu.m./yr. starting late this year and expanding to 127 million shortly thereafter. • Ashdod: Mekorot's 100 million cu.m./yr. plant has been resurrected with a completion goal of 2011. • Sorek: A 150 million cu.m./yr. plant is in the tender phase and planned for 2012. When built, it will be the biggest reverse osmosis desalination plant in the world. • Shomrat: 50 million cu.m./yr. This is the Galilee plant also resurrected. It is in the planning stages with a completion goal of 2013. The National Planning and Building Council also recently approved setting aside land in Hadera's new industrial area for a desalination plant for the Palestinians. The last 150 million cu.m./yr. to reach the goal of 750 million has yet to be decided upon. To put that in perspective: Household water consumption (everything that is not industrial or agriculture) holds at just under 800 million cu.m./yr. While household consumption is expected to continue to rise, if the country is in fact desalinating that much water by 2013 and 2020, it should be able to ride out the lean years and even move into a positive balance in Lake Kinneret and the aquifers by 2018, according to some of the Water Authority's projections. Current and future desalination plants: • Ashkelon - 105 million cu.m./yr. since 2005 • Palmahim - 30 million cu.m./y.r since 2007 The two plants have responded to tenders to increase output by 15 million cu.m./yr. each by the end of 2009. There are several more plants in various stages of planning and construction: • Hadera: 100 million cu.m./yr. starting late this year and expanding to 127 million shortly thereafter. • Ashdod: Mekorot's 100 million cu.m./yr. plant has been resurrected with a completion goal of 2011. • Sorek: A 150 million cu.m./yr. plant is in the tender phase and planned for 2012. When built, it will be the biggest reverse osmosis desalination plant in the world. • Shomrat: 50 million cu.m./yr. This is the Galilee plant also resurrected. It is in the planning stages with a completion goal of 2013.

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