Khalil Behbahani, CEO of MAPNA Group Investment Division:

MAPNA Has Technological Capability to Supply Iran with Potable Water

Water, a powerful asset in shaping the future

Water is one of the most central issues in creating the future and requires to be viewed beyond the technological and executive affairs of the industry.

Population growth and its effect on the increase in water consumption, lack of proper management in water consumption and recycling, and Iran’s low average annual rainfall which is about 243 mm – equivalent to less than a third of the global average precipitation – are some of the challenges ahead of the agricultural sector and other fields.

Currently, Iran is facing serious issues such as the drying up of lakes, rivers and wetlands, the decline of underground water levels, land subsidence, the reduction of water quality, soil erosion, desertification, and dust storms. Solutions to deal with tensions around water can be divided into two short-term and long-term categories. Short-term solutions are mainly based on supply management, and long-term solutions are based on demand management and macro-policies of the water sector. The water desalination method is one of the most important and practical methods of water supply for areas that have access to seawater. Common desalination methods include thermal (including MED and MSF), membrane (RO), and thermal-membrane hybrid desalination. 

Khalil Behbahani, CEO of MAPNA Group Investment Division, believes that one of the main solutions for Iran is water supply through desalination. Of course, he notes that the most important challenge to the development of this sector is not related to technology but to policy-making. According to him, water pricing by the government is one of the main problems that made the private sector and the government hesitate in using desalination methods.

What follows is the full text of an interview with Mr. Behbahani:

  1. Considering the threats that the country is facing in the field of water scarcity and drought, how much do you think relying on water desalination is realistic and how much of our country’s problems can be solved with this method?

Before entering the vital subject of water desalination, it is important to remember a few points. First, Iran is a dry country located in a dry region. Iran’s average annual rainfall is 243 mm. This amount is one-third of the global average, and also its distribution is uneven in the country. It means that one-third of the country has 1000 mm of rainfall, while the average rainfall in the eastern catchment area is 148 mm. It has been a while since conflicts over water in the Middle East have started and we all have accepted that water is a strategic issue or one of a set of strategic activities that can make profits for companies in the future.

It seems that we have been delayed in dealing with this subject. Because we had to enter the field in the early 2000s and now we could see the results. 

The next point is that we have an urgent need for water management coordination in the country. I raised these issues to clarify what MAPNA’s concerns are as a company and where is the place of water in its business portfolio.

But if your question indicates whether water desalination is possible and whether it can meet the growing need of our country, I must say that besides the solutions that are necessary in the water-use efficiency sector and water demand management, using unconventional water sources including desalination, purification and wastewater recycling is also inevitable. I mean ignoring this technology is a kind of negligence. Actually, it should be said that desalination is one of the solutions to the lack of water. Water is one of the most central issues in creating the future and requires to be viewed beyond the technological and executive affairs of the industry.

It is estimated that 90% of our water consumption is in the agricultural sector, about 2% in industries, and 8% in the sanitation and drinking division. These statistics indicate that we must consider the two components of consumption and production.

Your question is directed to the production sector and the technologies that this sector has. According to MAPNA’s technological experiences, the company has created an environment where it can implement the technical knowledge more easily and even become a technology creator in the water industry, which is apparently a simpler industry than turbines, generators, control systems, and boilers. But in short, it can be said: Yes, this is technically and technologically possible.

  1. As far as I know you separate potable water from the sea and then return salt back to the sea, therefore, my second question is about environmental concerns. In the past, we tried to solve the water problem by building dams, but then these dams became a disaster in the country. Now, what if this desalination leads to excessive salinity of seawater in the future? Have the environmental consequences of such plans been taken into consideration?

Specialists in dam construction should answer the controversial part of this question. Let’s go back to the issue of the desalination of seawater. We desalinate just one of the eight units of water taken from the sea and return the remaining 7 units to the sea in compliance with environmental requirements, including the amount of salinity increase and water temperature increase at the point of discharge. In the long term, the ecosystem will be affected, and no one denies its effects and consequences. But three points should be considered. First, will technology stay where it is today? Doesn’t technological progress have an effect on these issues we mentioned? The answer is clear. Usually, technological advances can overcome these shortcomings. Secondly, the high seas and their influence can make the consequences of this problem tolerable to some extent. And thirdly, it is possible to manage a major part of this problem by processing the returned water and creating side products.

The more important issue is that now the Persian Gulf countries are, unlike us, using this technology. An ideal situation is when the international community decides to use this technology in a controlled or improved manner; however, when our neighbors are constantly using this common field and we are suffering from water scarcity, then your question requires further consideration.

In addition, industrial effluents and pollutants from many industries that are currently operating pollute the environment much more than this salt water residue.

We have to do a lot of work in the division of consumption management to manage the consequences of water scarcity, but in MAPNA we offer an even better solution. We say that this salty water, which should be returned back to the sea, can be used as a raw material for products and extraction of rare elements.

  1. What products are going to be extracted from this water?

Salts and rare elements such as lithium, caustic soda, or chlorine, which can be produced by water electrolysis, can be extracted from this water and we are looking for these elements and products as well.

  1. On the other hand, desalination consumes a lot of energy, which creates environmental pollution on its own part. What solution have you come up with for this problem?

In MED or thermal methods, we consume about one and a half kWh electricity per cubic meter, while in Reverse Osmosis (RO) membrane technology, about four and a half kWh electricity is consumed per cubic meter. Therefore, we see that the production of four and a half kWh electricity also has some pollution that can be minimized with other methods. Using technologies with less electricity consumption and using renewable energy to supply potable water can also be included in the set of answers.

Pollution is not related to the salty water which is returned to the sea, but some other issues involved that need to be solved. As I said, desalination is one of the key solutions for water supply, and MAPNA is ready to develop its activities in this field.

  1. I am convinced that desalination is very strategic, so what is the main challenge that prevents the development of this technology in the country? Since it is clear that the current capacity is not sufficient at all.

The main point is the economy. Despite all the problems we have in the water sector, water is currently very cheap in Iran; thus, there is no economic justification for any investment in this field. The government is also facing limitations in its construction projects in this sector, besides, there is no necessary motivation for the private sector. These issues combined constitute the most important challenge in the water sector.

This is a general principle. When you reduce the price of infrastructure or energy for consumers, you have given the message of “consume excessively”, or better to say “waste it!” This is while producers prefer to operate in a market with good efficiency.

The second point is the type of management in the field of water. It means that we have no official water supply. The Ministry of Energy considers itself responsible for the production and distribution of electricity, but in the field of water, the ministry is just a distributor, and it has no responsibility for supply and production.

Let me explain it with an example, many governorates tell us that they need potable water, and in response, we announce that we are ready to supply the water they need. But when the contract is supposed to be signed, there is no one to sign. They tell us to produce water, “Inshallah, there will be industries that will come and buy water from you.” Who will invest in such a situation? On the other hand, industries know that they can access the water more cheaply from the distribution network in the country.

  1. As I understood, the problems that you are facing are not related to technological challenges. Is it correct?

Yes. Our problems are related to the administrative division, and lack of integration in the country’s management system and the economy. But we do not have any problems in the production and exploitation of desalination systems.

  1. Have you entered the field of water recycling?

One of the future goals is water consumption management, recycling, sewage treatment, and industrial effluents treatment, and it seems to have been started especially in industrial centers and in provinces that are far from the sea.

The statistics in this field are also interesting. Iran recycles and treats just 15% of wastewater, but this number is 52% in the Middle East countries and North Africa, and 80% in developed countries. A simple comparison of these statistics shows our backwardness; we are aware of the importance of water recycling, but we are lagging behind.

By the way, we started dealing with this issue in MAPNA and we are operating our first project in the industrial-urban wastewater treatment of Esfahan Steel Company.

This recycling project has a capacity of 850 m3/h, which is considered a big project in the field of recycling. It is the biggest project in the country. The other project is the water supply of Parand Power Plant from urban wastewater, which supplies the water needed by Parand Power Plant completely from urban wastewater.

  1. How do you evaluate this industry in the next 10 years? Do you think your concerns have been resolved by then or do you still have to wait for a change in some policies?

The capacity of our desalination plants in Iran is about 600,000 m3/d. We all know that this number is insignificant and does not meet our needs. On the other hand, Article 36 of the 6th National Development Plan forced the Ministry of Energy to supply 30% of the water needed by coastal cities through desalination.

I must say that there is no other way than desalination. In the future, we have no other choice than this method. Now is not the time to discuss whether this approach is good or not; this discussion belonged to the 1960s. Therefore, I hope that the requirement for the development of this industry will be well understood and non-executive divisions such as the management and improvement of the economy of the water industry, policy-making, laws and regulations, contracts, and financial aid packages will further facilitate the industry. Our ten-year horizon for this industry is thought-provoking and somewhat frightening.

  1. Recently, some companies are working on other ways, such as extracting water from humid air. What’s your opinion about the efficiency of such methods?

Now there are greenhouses that use these technologies. But even in the UAE, they use this method in a limited way. From my point of view, using such technologies is effective and has it’s market too. The research and development department of MAPNA has conducted research in this field, but it should be noted that this technology is generally marketed on a small scale, and due to its small dimensions, such projects cannot meet the country’s needs in the field of water supply. Therefore, such measures cannot solve our problem. Since our need for water supply is much bigger than relying just on one solution, these methods can be used as complementary solutions and to align with the technological world.

  1. Finally, I would like to know that considering the wide range of MAPNA Group’s activities in the field of consumption management and recycling, have you been able to achieve a suitable situation that we can say is the result of MAPNA’s efforts?

In the consumption management division, MAPNA Group has taken measures to minimize water consumption in its power plants and industrial complexes. In power plants, EDI technology has replaced the ion-exchange resin system, in which the amount of wastewater and pollutants is much less and the efficiency is much higher. Using wastewater treatment to supply water for power plants and the development of this method is seriously on the agenda.

In fact, most of the water that was discarded is now recovered in MAPNA power plants. For example, our power plant used to consume 12 L/s (liter per second) for the combined cycle block in the last 5 years, then we reduced this amount to 7 l/s and now it has reached 4 L/s. Reducing the water consumption of power plants to a third, is what our technology and attitude have done in MAPNA.

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