Water desalination in Taiz
Yemen is quickly becoming one of the driest places on earth, and, according to some estimates, might be the world’s first country to run out of water. Some parts of Yemen have suffered more from water scarcity then others, foremost among them the city of Taiz, located off the Red Sea coast in the country’s southwest corner. Rampant population growth, increased urbanization and a systematic draining of surrounding ground wells and aquifers, means the city might soon be the world’s first to run out of water.
The crisis in Taiz, along with the rest of the country, has prompted many Yemenis to begin looking into ways to utilize non-conventional water resources as a means of making up for shortfalls in production. Among these alternative methods are plans to utilize the country’s 2,200 kilometer coastline along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and begin experimenting with the desalination of seawater.
Compared to their full potential, desalinization schemes have until now made little headway in Yemen and other developing nations suffering from water scarcity, due to their perceived high costs compared to more traditional means of water extraction, primarily from natural springs and ground aquifers. Small plants have previously been built in Aden and recently in 2007 on the small Socotran island of Abdul Kuri. Despite the country’s current crisis, however, Yemen’s government has failed to implement a serious plan to desalinate seawater despite the fact that much of the country’s per capita consumption of water has decreased significantly in recent years.
But this is not for lack of trying. According to Towfiq Al-Sharjabi, deputy minister of the Ministry of Water and Environment, in 2008 the Yemeni government began looking into the possibility of constructing a water desalination plant in the coastal city of Mokha, 94 kilometers west of the water scarce city of Taiz. According to Al-Sharjabi, at full capacity the plant would be able to pump a total of 100,000 cubic meters (100,000m/3) of water per day, more than enough to meet the daily needs of Taiz city, which he estimated to be 55,000m/3. However, Al-Sharjabi said that if the plant was constructed, it would be several years before it would be able to operate at this rate and meet the city’s water consumption needs. Located along the Mokha coastline, the plant would be connected to a pipeline running from Mokha to Taiz and then later to Ibb city, serving all small towns and villages located along the way.
In 2010, the Yemeni government hired JFA Consulting, a British firm specializing in the oil, gas and environmental sectors, to assess the viability of the project and the extent to which seawater desalination could be a feasible solution to Taiz’s water crisis. Led by its CEO, James Firebrace, JFA Consulting conducted two field studies—first in 2010 and later again in 2013—of both the site of the plant in Mokha and a comprehensive study of the social and economic effects of water scarcity in Taiz.
The studies concluded that with proper management, not only would construction of the plant help fill the ever widening gap in the city’s dwindling water supply, but that it would also be able to provide consumers with high purity water at cheaper rates than consumers were currently spending. Despite this positive feedback, construction of the plant has still not begun, and the government is currently struggling to find financiers to put money into the project.
Despite Mr. Firebrace’s claims, many within the Yemeni government have dragged their feet with regards to water desalination due to its perceived high cost compared to extraction of ground water from the country’s various aquifers. A report put together by Yemen’s Social Fund for Development (SFD)--the Yemeni government’s official social and development body chaired by the prime minister--was presented at the Yemen National Water Conference in Sana’a held on Jan. 15, 2011. In this report, the case for desalination is shot down due to its apparent high cost.
“Desalination is a non-rainfall dependent water source, therefore it’s expected to be the most sophisticated and costly option,” the report reads. “The cost of 1m3 of desalinated water is anywhere between $0.6/m3 and $1.2/m3, a number that increases to anywhere between $0.9m/3 and $1.8m/3 after transport and administrative costs are factored in. The cost of extracting groundwater meanwhile runs at just $0.26m/3.”
“For poor governorates such as Taiz, building water desalination plants is always a last resort,” says Al-Sharjabi. “Yet, at the same time, the city is in desperate need of a sustainable water source,” he added.
The same report claims that 19 out of Yemen’s 21 fresh water basins and aquifers are over exploited, as consumption rates outpace the rate of natural replenishment, a phenomenon that’s expected to increase and compound with the expansion of global warming.
“Annual consumption exceeds over two billion cubic meters, while natural replenishment hovers around one billion,” according to Al-Sharjabi.
Such scarcity, combined with population growth, means that the amount of water actually received by residents through government run water utilities—which is administered in Taiz through the Taiz Water and Sanitation Local Corporation (TWSLC) and operated by Taiz governorate—has decreased significantly in recent years, forcing citizens to supplement public utility water with other, more expensive options in order to meet their daily needs. That being said, while harvesting groundwater may be cheaper for the state than undergoing desalination, Yemen’s citizens get left behind, and end up paying more.
“From 1996 to 2013, Taiz witnessed a youth bulge that pushed its population from 320,000 to roughly 840,000,” Firebrace told the Yemen Times. “During this same period, the percentage of residents being served by the TWSLC decreased from 72 percent to 46 percent. Meanwhile those who are served have watched as the amount of time they’re required to wait in order to receive public utility water for the local corporation has increased on average from two to three weeks, to anywhere between four and 12 weeks.”
Abdullah Saleh is the former head of the National Water Resource Authority (NWRA) within the Ministry of Water and Environment, and currently works with the World Bank in helping to implement its Water Sector Support Project (WSSP) in Sana’a for sustainable water use and development. Saleh worked with Firebrace and JFA when the latter were conducting their field studies regarding the feasibility of the desalination project in Mokha.
“The problem comes down to poor management,” Saleh said. “Those hired to work within the TWLSC don’t have the technical expertise to manage water networks. A lot of water gets wasted and lost due to degraded infrastructure, broken pipes and a lack of proper equipment.”
Saleh said that apathy within the TWLSC and the federal government to better manage Taiz’s public water utility network is exacerbated by the fact that the corporation often fails to collect public utility bills.
“The TWLSC is like the spoiled child of the water sector,” he said. “Many Taiz residents avoid paying their bills for the water they consume through utilities. However as long as officials are given their yearly budget and salaries, they cease to care much about anything else.”
Every year, the TWSLC incurs a loss according to Saleh, and cannot effectively balance its books. “That being said, there’s little incentive on behalf of the local or federal government to pump additional money or invest further into the corporation. This prevents the TWLSC from being able to keep up with increasing demand for water as the city’s population grows.”
Such a situation has pushed locals to begin searching for secondary methods for obtaining water, including purchasing water extracted through private wells operated by local businessmen, and then sold either via water tanker trucks, or in what are known as ‘kawthers’. Kawthers are local water purification stations that sell purified water to citizens in what are known as ‘dabbas’, or containers, usually varying in size, between five to 20 liters.
The use of kawathers has become increasingly common in Taiz over the last ten years, with roughly 85 percent of the city’s households purchasing kawther water in 2013, up from roughly 5 percent in 1996. Water purchased through kawthers on the whole have higher purity levels than water purchased from tankers, a fact reflected in the difference in cost between the two.
“By 2013, citizens were paying more than $4.5m/3 for tanker water, and $23m/3 for kawther water,” according to Firebrace. As overall water scarcity has increased with the draining of groundwater aquifers, the price of both types of water has also increased.
“By breakdown, Yemenis in Taiz today will spend on average YR50 ($.23) for a 10 liter dabba of kawther water, compared to YR15 ($.07) in 1996. During this same time period, the retail price of 3m3 of tanker water increased from YR650 ($3.00)to as much as YR4000 ($18.6), depending on the location.”
Yet, regardless of which water source citizens choose to purchase, both are significantly more costly than the price paid by the TWLSC to pump water into local homes, or the hypothetical costs of desalination schemes if the government were to construct a desalination plant in Mokha.
“Locals are being squeezed,” Firebrace said.
Admittedly, implementing a desalination scheme would require a restructuring not just of the TWLSC itself, but also of the city’s public utility water distribution network, including the construction of new filing stations connected to a main pipeline, and a means to effectively and cheaply transport desalinated water to residents’ homes, measures that would put a further strain on the state’s already stretched budget.
“This is a good chance for those within the TWLSC and the public water sector to make a good decision and sponsor an initiative that would benefit consumers in the long run,” according to Saleh. “Such a project could reduce the price of water and improve management. Whether it’ll actually get built or not is a matter of politics.”
Additional reporting by Bassem Al-Khameri