A growing population and economy underlines Ras Al Khaimah's need for water

With a growing population and rising water consumption, investment in new water production facilities over the previous decade has been a priority for Ras Al Khaimah. The Federal Authority for Electricity and Water (FEWA) has made major strides in meeting RAK’s rising demand, most recently when it inaugurated the new Ghalilah desalination plant in 2015 and started new desal units of 8m imperial gallons per day (MIGD), laying more than 90 km of new transmission and distribution networks. While declining output at FEWA facilities in Nakheel has impacted water production and could limit the emirate’s ability to meet consumer demand in the future, Utico’s investment and construction of new facilities is increasing the capacity available for RAK and the region. The authorities are thus now looking at partnership with the private sector, including a flagship solar-powered desalination facility, to meet growing energy needs. Project delays could remain a concern, however.

Rising Demand

Although some towns located within the Hajar Mountain range receive up to 350 mm of rainfall each year, the emirate relies on salt-water desalination for the bulk its water supply – activities that have become increasingly important in the wake of rapid population growth. The RAK Department of Economic Development (RAK DED) reported that the emirate’s population jumped from 267,000 in 2009 to 438,000 in 2013, a 64% increase, mainly due to larger and better census coverage in the emirate.

The growing number of residents, however, has put a strain on existing water supply, as is the case across the UAE. Desalination provides approximately 37% of the country’s total water demand and comprised 62.5% of total water production in RAK in 2013. The remainder is sourced from rapidly declining groundwater reserves, making new desalination facilities critical for national development.

In January 2015 Han Seung-Soo, former prime minister of South Korea and the UN’s special envoy on disaster risk reduction and water, highlighted that the UAE contained just 83 cu metres per capita per year of renewable water resources, against the UN’s water scarcity threshold of 1000 cu metres per person per year. According to Han, exploitation of groundwater resources has led to total water consumption exceeding the nation’s natural recharge capacity by 24-fold, with the UAE’s total groundwater supply falling by 18% since 2003 as a result.

Water Shortfalls

Total desalination capacity in RAK stood at 6m imperial gallons per day (MIGD) in 2003, and FEWA was already reporting water shortages in the emirate that year as a result of industrialisation and population growth. In January 2013 the authority announced plans to raise the emirate’s production capacity by an additional 8 MIGD through construction of new facilities. At the time, these activities were concentrated in Nakheel, which held three small-scale desalination plants, as well as the Burairat plant, which offered 1.2 MIGD of capacity as of 2012. Following revisions to existing plans, the emirate’s capacity rose with the construction of the Dh35m ($9.53m) Ghalilah Seawater Desalination Plant, offering initial capacity of 3 MIGD, as well as a new Nakheel facility, both of which were completed in 2004. The Dh30m ($8.17m) Nakheel plant initially offered 10 MIGD of capacity; however, production has declined over the previous decade, which has affected domestic water production in the emirate. Growth in the Nakheel region in the city of RAK has, however, seen an influx of new residents, businesses and hotels, putting further pressure on supply.

The emirate was once again hit by water shortages in 2008 and again in mid-2011 as a result of technical problems at Nakheel’s desalination facilities. Figures released by RAK DED show that the plant’s annual output declined from 4.87bn gallons in 2011 to 2.35bn gallons in 2013, compared to 1.04bn gallons at Ghalilah and 463.27m gallons at Burairat. The department also reported that total water plant production in the emirate fell from 6.64bn gallons annually in 2010 to 3.87bn gallons in 2013, dropping a further 46% to rest at 2.07bn gallons in 2014, with production at Nakheel reaching just 514.03m gallons for that year, compared to 1.12bn gallons at Ghalilah and 433.9m gallons at Burairat. Well water production has simultaneously risen from 2.16bn gallons annually in 2010 to 2.31bn gallons in 2013, according to RAK DED, although this was not enough to cover the shortfall in plant production. RAK’s total water production capacity, including well production, fell from 24.1 MIGD in 2010 to 16.9 MIGD in 2013, and from 8.8bn gallons annually to 6.2bn gallons during the same period.

New Infrastructure

FEWA has also been active in building new infrastructure, announcing in January 2012 the construction of two reservoirs at a cost of about Dh21m ($5.72m) to provide cumulative capacity of 10m gallons of emergency drinking water. In the same month, FEWA also announced plans to build two reservoirs, each with a 10m-gallon capacity, as well as a desalination plant at Ghalilah, originally due to come on-line by 2013.

The new plant was delayed, however, and in October 2014 officials announced that the Julphar region of RAK City was in the midst of a water rationing programme, with water being pumped to the area for 36 hours, followed by a 12-hour cut. FEWA officials noted that the authority was supplying the emirate with 36 MIGD, including 1.5 MIGD provided to Julphar, although they did not specify how much of this came from local supplies and attributed the shortage to a glitch at the Ghalilah plant.

As a result of this most recent shortage, FEWA announced plans to build a new water pumping station in Ghalilah, as well as three storage tanks with a combined capacity of 2m gallons. Long-term plans include construction of a 400-km pipeline to connect Nakheel to Julphar. Meanwhile, private utility company Utico reported that its total desalination capacity ownership in the emirate stood at 160,000 cu metres per day at the end of 2014, and its transmission and distribution network was more than 480 km.

Ghalilah Plan

The most significant recent development for RAK’s desalination sector was the opening of the new Ghalilah desalination plant, which was officially inaugurated in March 2015. The Dh320m ($87.1m) facility has a capacity of 15 MIGD, while its associated water tanks and pumping station, built at a cost of Dh75m ($20.42m), add 20m gallons of emergency capacity. US firm Aquatech was awarded a construction contract for the plant in June 2011.

The facility was built using low-cost PX pressure exchanger devices from US-based Energy Recovery, which won a supply contract in June 2012. Japan’s Toray Industries supplied reverse osmosis (RO) membranes for the project. RO stands as a more efficient and environmentally friendly method of desalination, compared to multiple-effect distillation (MED), or evaporation processes.

Indeed, the emirate has so far embraced RO technology, with FEWA reporting in 2012 that of its 10 operational water desalination facilities, eight operated using RO technology and just two – Ajman and Nakheel – used MED technology.

Long-Term Development

Mohammed Saleh, director of FEWA, told local media in March 2015 that the new Ghalilah station will increase daily water production in RAK to 33 MIGD. He noted, however, that RAK’s daily water demands stand at 36 MIGD, compared to 15.5 MIGD in Fujairah, 25 MIGD in Ajman and 8.5 MIGD in Umm Al Quwain. Although the new Ghalilah facility will have a considerable impact on RAK’s water security, the emirate’s reported current capacity is still 3 MIGD less than what it uses, meaning the emirate has yet to reach water self-sufficiency.

Development of new desalination facilities will be critical to meeting long-term demand, and stakeholders were heartened by the 2013 announcement that Utico plans to build the world’s largest solar-powered seawater desalination plant in RAK.

With an expected capacity of 22 MIGD, the plant would transform RAK’s water sector and offer the additional benefits of 40 MW of solar-generated electricity. However, the project has been hit by delays. Utico floated a construction tender for the new plant in November 2013, which was finalised in January 2014, but Utico has not set a date for commencement of construction.

However, this has not dampened government plans to increase capacity, with FEWA announcing plans to launch a tender for a new desalination plant in the UAE in the first half of 2015. The plant is expected to offer capacity of 30 MIGD at a cost of Dh700m ($190.5m), although further details have yet to be revealed. The federal government has also focused its attention on the Northern Emirates, announcing a Dh15bn ($4.08bn) investment project for power and water facilities in 2013, as well as a 100-MW solar power plant in partnership with the private sector.

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The Report: Ras Al Khaimah 2015

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