Feb 16 - 22, 2004

Water is source of all life. Sweet water sources are being depleted at a fast rate. A time is fast approaching when all easily accessible sweet water sources would exhaust. The non-availability of clean drinking water is becoming a critical issue in many parts of the world and has resulted in increased incidence of hepatitis and other water-borne diseases. Karachi, a mega city of over 12 million people, is presently facing water shortage of around 100 million gallons per day (MGD) as against its totals water requirements of around 600 MGD. Efforts are afoot to enhance water supply from existing sources. In addition, possibilities are being explored to increase supply of potable water through seawater desalination.

In the recent weeks, there have been press reports about the desalination plants being planned by the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), the Defense Housing Authority (DHA) and the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB). Status of these projects, as gathered from press reports, is presented below:

a. The Federal Minister for Communications has been quoted saying that KPT is conducting its own feasibility studies of two desalination plants to be constructed soon to benefit the city. While one desalination plant will provide water to people of Manora and Bhit Island, the second plant will be for the people of Karachi city. It may be mentioned that feasibility study of KPT's 25 MGD capacity was earlier funded by a grant from the US government. The desalination plant included a 15 MW power generation plant, to supply electricity needed for the process.

b. A contract has recently been signed at Karachi between DHA, Cogen Limited and Siemens A.G. for establishing a combined cycle power plant for electricity and seawater desalination to be installed at DHA Phase VIII. Details of the project have been forwarded to the ministry for final approval. The project would have an installed capacity of around 94 MW and the electricity generated would be distributed through KESC network. The desalination plant would provide 3 MGD potable water by converting seawater into drinkable water, which will be distributed through Clifton Cantonment Board at a reasonable price. The state-of-the-art desalination plant has been completely manufactured in Germany.

c. KWSB has plans to build a seawater desalination plants of unbelievably large capacity reportedly at 450 MGD for which the feasibility report is about to be started. The federal government has approved an amount of Rs 23 million for the purpose and already released Rs 3 million as the first installment.

DHA, KPT and KWSB are planning to install seawater desalination plants of 3 MGD, 25 MGD and 450 MGD capacity respectively. Variation in the proposed capacity of the plants is very wide. Desalination technologies are relatively new and cost-effective technologies are presently being developed. With a view to facilitate the preparation of the feasibility studies and the implementation of the cost-effective projects in a timely manner, the following suggestions are offered for consideration by the government and the respective authorities undertaking the projects.

Many things about technology, process, capital cost, environment aspects, etc. can be learnt from the desalination plants already in operation in the country, as under: (i) Hubco power plant at Hub Chowki, Balochistan reportedly has in operation a desalination plant to meet water requirements for power generation as well as for the housing colony. In addition, drinking water is said to be provided to the villages in the vicinity of the power plant; (ii) The Chinese Company that is building deepwater commercial port at Gwadar has already installed a seawater desalination plant at the site to meet potable water requirements during the construction phase. On completion of phase one of the port project, the plant has been given to Pakistan as a gift and would be used to supply potable water to the port and the inhabitants of Gwadar; and (iii) A desalination plant has been installed in Cholistan at Derawar Fort, about 70 kilometers from Bahawalpur, for treatment of brackish water to make it fit for human consumption. This plant was reportedly installed by the Cholistan Development Authority (CDA) in September 2003, at a cost of over Rs0.70 million in six months. It has the capacity to treat 3,000 gallons of water within eight hours at nominal operational cost. This plant could serve as a pilot desalination plant for possible duplication in cities which have brackish ground water.

The developed countries might be approached, through the government of Pakistan, for seeking details and data about cost-effective desalination technologies considered appropriate for our conditions. It may be mentioned that the Federal Minister for Industries and Production while on a visit to Austria sometime ago had sought Austria's assistance for the setting up of a desalination plant near Karachi. It has also been reported in the press that to tackle water shortages caused by periodic dry spells in the region, China has offered to Pakistan a special package that incorporates low-cost desalination technology developed by its Tianjin Institute of Seawater Desalination. The technology is cheap and reasonablly compared to other technologies, due to which the production cost of one ton of potable water produced from seawater has been reduced from 85 cents to 60 cents. Also, in a ceremony at KPT last year, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan while signing a $0.287 million grant agreement on behalf of the US Trade Development Agency, reportedly said that the United States is on the forefront for providing desalination technology to any part of the world. There might be other countries offering similar or better technologies for our needs.

KPT is said to be already working on the preparation of seawater desalination plant for Karachi while KWSB might start work now on receipt of the first installment from the government for the feasibility. A good feasibility lays the foundation for selection of a viable project, its financing and successful implementation within budgeted cost and time. It is a major exercise that propounds careful scrutiny of all major parameters of the project particularly the final recommendations. The following points may be kept in view in the context of preparation and scrutiny of the feasibility study:

a. The feasibility report shall have better credibility if the consultants working on the report are reputed for their technical competence and for the quality of reports. In addition, the Terms of Reference (TOR) including the outline of the feasibility report may be carefully analysed to cover all requisite areas for investigation before the consultants are awarded the assignment. The scope of the feasibility report may be such as to provide satisfactory answers to most of the technical or other points that have a strong bearing on the project feasibility and it's financing. It may be noted that the desalination plant of purely commercial type is yet to be installed in the country. There is need to determine the economic size of such a plant based on a different technologies and their cost-effectiveness.

b. Capital cost including the financing and preproduction cost and the proposed means of financing may be reviewed carefully. The feasibility report must have details of tariff determination including detailed assumptions for all inputs and outputs. The level of tariff would determine the profitability of the proposed company and whether it would be profitable for the water utilities to switch over to the desalinated water supply arrangements from the existing sources. In many cases, tariff can make or break the project.

c. The feasibility report should also include details about other desalination plants of similar capacity based on the same technology and already operating in other parts of the world. Comparative data on capital cost and the cost of one million gallons desalinated water so produced may also be provided. The stakeholders may not opt for a technology based on which there are no existing successful projects in operation.

d. Almost all areas of Karachi including areas under DHA administration have ground water that is brackish and could also be desalinated, perhaps cheaply than the seawater. It needs to be confirmed if the selected technology would be suitable for desalination of brackish water and whether the desalinated water so produced will cost and quality-wise be comparable with the desalinated water produced from seawater.

e. Environmental aspects of the desalination project including the power generation plant at the proposed locations may be fully assessed. Karachi already has high level of pollution and other environmental hazards. Addition of the proposed plants within Karachi areas may possibly add to the environmental degradation and/or pollution levels beyond acceptable limits.

KPT, DHA and KWSB must have teams of experts to evaluate various aspects that would be analysed and examined in the feasibility report to be submitted by the consultants employed for the purpose. The same process should apply even if the study has been done by the in-house experts. Members of the teams must be up-dating their knowledge and collecting data on technology, similar desalination plants, operating costs, financing possibilities, etc. in the meantime. The assumptions on which the project feasibility would be developed including financial incentives and concessions, capital costs, financing plan, borrowing cost, level of pre-production expenses, etc. would need to be examined within a short time of the submission of the feasibility report. Time schedule for the preparation of the feasibility report, government approval for project parameters or incentives and for the implementation of the project might be properly provided.

KPT, DHA and KWSB would all benefit if there were close working relationship in the preparation and scrutiny of the feasibility studies as well as in the implementation of the desalination plants finally agreed for execution. The Managing Director, KWSB until a few weeks ago was heading DHA. His knowledge of DHA desalination plant might be useful for realization of the desalination plant now being considered by KWSB. Also, DHA and KPT would be assuming a new role of the bulk seller of desalinated water to KWSB or other water utilities. The tariff at which water is sold to the utility/bulk consumers will be of crucial importance with big potential for disagreement. The idea is to sort out difficult issues early on so that thereafter the implementation and operation of the projects is smooth and profitable. The final tariff to be borne by the people of Karachi should also be reasonable and not exceeding the existing rates. In order to foreclose the possibly of disagreements on the water tariff, it would not be inappropriate to suggest to the government for appointing a regulatory authority to determine bulk tariff for the desalinated water so produced and marketed.

Like electricity, large quantity of water is lost in distribution. The need for fresh capacity can be reduced to the extent wastage of water is controlled with better water management. Karachi and other big cities are not likely to overcome drinking water shortages without commitment to a long-term Water Vision, of which some of the main element could be as under:

a. Recognition by the people that drinking water (or for that matter even irrigation water) is fast becoming scarce and conservation measures have to seriously start NOW. Water management measures are to be initiated in houses, mosques, factories, commercial enterprises, etc. for that matter in every place where clean water is consumed. Wasteful use of potable water through carelessness or pipe leakages or mal-functioning taps, etc has to be controlled. Awareness through print or television media among people need to be developed to save large quantity of potable water. These days every where drinking quality water is used to flush the toilets. The switching over to the use of brackish water for the purpose can save large quantity of drinking water.

b. Building of water infrastructure requires lot of financial resources, which mostly are arranged by borrowings or in exceptional cases through grants from friendly countries or institutions. At present a small portion is met through user charges. The user charges need to be rationalized along with the installation of water meters. Households should in due course pay full water charges according to the water consumed. This is a pre-requisite to sustain water utilities on long-term basis and would help the consumers realize the importance of water conservation.

c. There might be a number of industries or businesses that use drinking water in bulk for applications where brackish water could be functionally good enough. Industrial and house-hold water requirements need to be estimated separately. In certain cases, industrial process water might be reused after it is treated. The City might have to erect water treatment plants so that the treated water is provided to the industries for re-use or is used to water the parks or for irrigation purposes. Instead of discharging untreated sewage or industry effluent water into the sea, it would be better if only the treated water is returned to the water bodies and channels.

d. KWSB and other similar utilities must realize that under the WTO regime from January 2005, clean water that is reasonably priced coupled with proper sanitation would be particularly required for enhancing competitiveness of local industry/businesses in the export market. Therefore, these utilities are urged to improve their cost-competitiveness and modernize their staffing, systems and procedures particularly in the design, execution and operation of various projects. The directives issued by the Managing Director to the senior management on 14th January 2004 regarding control of wastage, surveys of all properties drawing water, streamlining the tax collection, regularization of illegal connections, etc. are pertinent and should help improve KWSB operations. The Mapping of Karachi's underground water and its quality being considered by KWSB would help in improving water situation. The personnel might be motivated to perform better in the service of the Karachiites.

Good health, strong labour force, quality education, etc are to a great extent linked to easy availability of clean drinking water at reasonable prices. Therefore, the shortage of drinking water might be tackled at national level. Different water authorities might consider adopting a proactive approach in these matters and approach the provincial and federal government for taking appropriate measures for ensuring adequate quantity of clean water for drinking in the coming years. Details about suitability of technologies being procured for water treatment plants or seawater/brackish water desalination plants as well as their operating costs could be shared among water authorities of different cities and regions. Through collective research and development it is possible to adapt the technologies to our conditions and also to fabricate major parts of these desalination plants/treatment plants locally. The country stands a better chance of tackling the drinking water issues through a coordinated, fair and transparent approach among all the stakeholders.