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How the green future of the Middle East can benefit from the water´s circular economy

By Julio de la Rosa, ACCIONA ME Business Development Director for our water solutions

The dish is served –water scarcity– and the main ingredients are limited natural resources, increased droughts, global population growth, a change in the consumption patterns, and all that seasoned by a relentless climate change. It has been simmering for decades and now we must take the necessary actions to stop and revert the situation that otherwise will cause irreparable damage to the environment.
In recent times, we have seen the governments of KSA, and UAE launching several green initiatives to protect the environment and continue their fight against climate change.
Two new Saudi initiatives are generating buzz and enthusiasm for environmental protectionism and climate change mitigation far beyond the Kingdom’s borders. Unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year, the Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives call for regional cooperation to tackle the environmental challenges facing the Kingdom and the region.
The Saudi Green Initiative entails the planting of 10 billion trees in the Kingdom, restoring 40 million hectares of degraded land, generating 50% of electricity from renewables by 2030, and eliminating more than 130 million tons of carbon emissions. Under the Middle East Green Initiative, 40 billion trees will be planted in the region, 200 million hectares of degraded land will be restored and 94% of rubbish will be treated with the most sustainable technologies, reducing the carbon emissions by 60%.
These initiatives, which are part of the Vision 2030 reform strategy, will place Saudi Arabia at the center of regional efforts to meet international targets on climate change mitigation, as well as it will help this country to achieve its own goals.
The Saudi Vision 2030 has already demonstrated the Kingdom’s determination to significantly reduce CO2 emissions through the concept of the carbon circular economy.
In the neighboring country, the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan launched last year, an outline of how the Emirate will develop over the next 20 years, envisages large-scale changes to the landscape and the skyline to promote sustainable urban development. The Plan envisions the green and recreational areas dedicated to public parks to double in size, around 60% of Dubai to become nature reserves, and includes several new “green corridors”.
All these green initiatives are going to need well-designed maintenance and sustainable plan including the participation of all stakeholders with a people-centered mindset. The United Nations forecasts are that the planet will have a water deficit of 40% between now and 2030 if we continue with the current consumption habits. In this situation, it is necessary for society to move towards a circular economy model that is essential to address this climate crisis and the overexploitation of resources. I see these plans as a great opportunity to apply different ways of circular economy in the water cycle such as:
Water reuse
Thanks to the innovative technological solutions in the area of water reuse, it is possible to optimize tertiary treatment processes and deliver solutions for the burgeoning demand for water for agricultural uses, urban irrigation, recreational activities, replenishing aquifers, and protecting them from saline intrusion. We are constantly researching technological developments for the reuse of wastewater—one example is biological membrane reactors—to allow for more extensive and sustainable use of purified water.
Besides, this water reuse, depending on the treatment applied, can be full of nutrients that will reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, minimizing the potential impact on natural aquifers. The objective would be to return this resource to the environment with a level of quality similar to or even higher than the one it had before being used, as well as to find a value for the pollutants that the water contains derived from its use.
The catalysts for these eco-designs are without a doubt, innovation, and technical excellence. We have managed to increase the internal consumption of recycled, reused, and rainwater to up to 44% of the total water used in its facilities, based on the principles of the circular economy. In our wastewater treatment plants, we have reached the highest level of reused water, so high efficiency and sustainability are a reality now. In Egypt, in four of our wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), we have managed to reuse purified water equivalent to that originated from a population of 500,000 inhabitants, and then use it for irrigation.
Transforming sludge into resources
Driven by innovation, solid waste generated in a wastewater treatment plant can be used as a fertilizer for agriculture. The waste removed from the treatment plants has an important content of organic matter and nutrients (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) that is of high value for agricultural uses. This would contribute to improving the health of soils that need organic matter as well as to close the natural cycle that connects the city with the countryside. A good example where we have applied this principle is at “La Escalerilla” water treatment plant in Arequipa (Peru).
Sludge generated at sewage treatment plants or desalination treatment plants is rich in natural minerals that can be used as well as a fertilizer.
Our RAMSES Project, which emerged as a result of implementing efficient solutions to continue re-using the treated wastewater effluent as a main source of irrigation water proved to be so necessary for areas of great water stress. As quality requirements for re-generated (effluent) water used for irrigation becomes more demanding, we shall need additional processes that will push treatment costs upwards. Therefore, it is our duty to continue working on technologies and processes that enable wastewater for agriculture to be re-used efficiently, considering the responsibility we have as a leading water treatment company to fight the global warming that our planet is suffering. Another strong point of the project is that it sets out to maximize resources, re-using many of them again in the same process and thereby promoting its circular nature.
The RAMSES Project – named by combining part of the initials of the full name in English (Enhanced Reclaimed Water quality through Mainstream and Aerobic treatment using Supported biomass growth) – developed by ACCIONA, has been partly funded by the European Commission through the LIFE program and carried out in a WWTP at the South of Spain.
Under this entire context, it is necessary to make an effort to conceive water as a key element in the concept of the circular economy, considering the environmental impacts throughout its life cycle and managing them from the beginning. We need a fundamentally new approach with the right technology and legal framework because what was considered a worthless waste until now, can be transformed into a valuable sustainable resource.
Undoubtedly the Middle East region, with some of the world’s largest oil-exporting countries, has started its own trip to a greener future showing us the path to follow.

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