Water, energy, and the need for planning

Samira Kawar
Samira Kawar (Photo: Jordan News)
The government’s announcement, a few months ago, of plans to build a desalination plant in Aqaba constitutes good news, but it can also be seen as too little, too late, and demonstrates a lack of cooperation and planning amongst various ministries.اضافة اعلان

The plant, which will provide up to 300 million cubic meters of potable water per year, will not be in operation before 2025 or even 2026. That means that the country, which is already suffering a severe water shortage, will have to put up with at least four more years of the same. 

Given that Jordan is one of the most severely water-stressed countries globally, that its 10 million-strong population is increasing, and that global warming is very likely the cause of the country’s progressively lower rainfall, the current water crisis was very predictable years ago, and the country should have already built at least one large-scale desalination plant. So much for the “too late” part of the aforementioned remark.

The “too little” stems from the fact that Jordan’s water exceeds the planned desalination plant’s 300 million cubic meter per year capacity. The country needs 1.3 billion cubic meters per year, but only gets around 900 million cubic meters, and by the time the plant is up and running, the country’s water needs will have grown.

The long-overdue water desalination scheme also highlights the absence of planning between key government ministries. Water desalination is an energy-intensive process, and under the plans for the plant in Aqaba, companies bidding to construct and run the project must suggest ways of providing the energy to run it. 

In the nearby oil and gas rich countries of the Arab Gulf, this is not a major consideration. As a matter of fact, power generation and desalination plants are actually built together. But for an energy-poor country like Jordan, which imports 94 percent of its energy needs, buying expensive gas and oil (the refined products of which are used to generate electricity) will only add to the cash-strapped government’s financial burden.

The obviously logical answer is to use renewable energy — mainly solar power — to generate the electricity needed for desalination. Jordan’s location in the so-called “earth-sun belt region” — given that it averages at least 300 days a year of sunshine and enjoys average solar radiation ranging between a 5 and 7 kilowatt-hour per square meter — means the country is ideally placed to develop a strong solar power industry. It has made an encouraging start.

The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources’ strategy targets a 31 percent share for renewables in total power generation capacity by 2030 and a 14 percent share of the overall energy mix by the same date. 

But a lack of proper planning poses a challenge to new, near-term investments in solar power. The government’s long-term gas and oil supply contracts, particularly its 15-year agreement to buy pipeline gas from Israel, have resulted in an electricity surplus, which spells delay in new power generation projects. This problem could have been avoided had a large-scale water desalination plant in Aqaba been up and running, powered by a nearby electricity plant — preferably a solar plant. Desalinated water — which consumes large amounts of energy — is considered to be one the best ways of storing electricity, and some energy experts even consider that desalinated water is energy. 

Location is another problem. None of Jordan’s larger solar power facilities exist in Aqaba. The largest capacity is located in Maan, just over 100km away from Aqaba, probably because desalination was not on the agenda when it was planned — another planning failure. 

What all this amounts to is the need for joined up thinking within government, so that individual ministries don’t draw up plans that focus narrowly on their supposed remits, but widen their plans to take into consideration areas and issues that overlap with those of other ministries. The example of an orchestra springs to mind, with individual players — or ministries — each contributing in harmony to a wider symphony. 

Samira Kawar is a Jordanian veteran, London-based energy journalist, who has covered energy in the Middle East for over 20 years.

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