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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 September, 2004, 08:50 GMT 09:50 UK
'Water factory' aims to filter tensions

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Jerusalem

Membrane 'filters' at Ashkelon
Tubes containing membranes which filter salt water at high pressure
The solution to one of the thorniest problems in the Middle East may be taking shape on an anonymous-looking building site in south-west Israel.

Private contractors are building what they call a "water factory".

And they believe they may have found the Holy Grail, the Philosophers' Stone: an economical way to turn sea water into high quality drinking water.

It has become almost a cliche in the Middle East that the most divisive issue is not land, not oil, but water.

In fact many experts believe water will be the cause of the next war in the region.

So the prospect of limitless supplies of cheap drinking water has the engineers here very excited indeed.

"Thinking about this concept of water factory, I think that the water problems, not only in the Middle East, but in the rest of the world can be solved, at comparatively competitive prices," enthused Gustavo Kronenberg, one of the engineers in charge of the project.

"There is no problem of water, the problem is to get out the salt. There is plenty of water in the sea."

But the real problem until now has been the cost. Water desalination has been the technology of last resort, the Rolls-Royce solution for a rich desert kingdom like Saudi Arabia.

New technology

Now this plant at Ashkelon, on Israel's Mediterranean coast, promises to provide water at around $0.52 a cubic metre.

That's only marginally more expensive than the existing water costs in Israel.

At the moment the water company provides supplies at around US $0.45 a cubic metre. The water from the new plant will be higher quality, and costs are coming down all the time.

1. Water flows in from the estuary or sea
2. Salt water contains sodium and chloride ions
3. Pressure is applied to force salt water through membrane
4. Semi-permeable membrane with millions of microscopic holes
5. Clean water fit for drinking
6. Saline concentrate flows out

In fact costs are going down so fast that the makers are even discussing building desalination plants in rainy old England.

When it is finished next year the Ashkelon plant will produce 100 million cubic metres a year. That's roughly one seventh of the domestic water demand in Israel (excluding agriculture and industry).

The key to the success is a technology called "reverse osmosis". Essentially this involves water being pushed through a membrane or filter at a very high pressure.

That high pressure means it uses a lot of energy. At the Ashkelon plant they have cut the costs by building their own power station as part of the unit.

New technology recycles spare energy as part of the process. The membranes themselves are being continually upgraded to improve efficiency as well.

International solution?

Already other countries in the area are looking at the technology with interest.

Neighbouring Jordan is gasping for water. It is tenth from the bottom of the world water league.

Supplies are being maintained, but only by plundering ground water, the water stored deep beneath the earth.

And sooner or later that will run out. It would take just three plants the size of Ashkelon to plug Jordan's current water deficit.

One idea being looked at is a massive pipeline up from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Part of the water would be used to replenish the Dead Sea, which is receding at the rate of a metre a year because the surrounding countries are using up the water that once fed into it.

More of the water from the pipeline could be cleaned, using the technology being developed in Israel, then used to supply fresh water to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.

From our experience, water is an element of peace-building and cooperation
Hazem al-Nasser,
Jordanian water minister
A plan is now being put forward to the World Bank, with a view to launching a major feasibility study. But the ultimate cost could run into billions of dollars.

The challenge is to secure that kind of political investment in the region during the current political deadlock in the Middle East peace process.

"From our experience, water is an element of peace-building and co-operation," argues Jordanian Water Minister Hazem al-Nasser.

"All countries are ready to co-operate when it comes to water."

That's a very optimistic analysis of what's been one of the most difficult questions in the politics of the Middle East.

At the Ashkelon water treatment plant, the engineer Gustavo Kronenberg has a slightly different perspective.

"Unfortunately water is one of the reasons that create war. If you compare the cost of one F-16, it is more or less the cost of this desalination plant.

"I believe at the end of the day it will be much cheaper to solve conflict based on this type of plant than through buying new F-16s."

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16 Mar 99  |  Middle East

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