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Desalination technology: Algerian plant highlights the challenges of getting drinking water to a parched region

The five-year-old Hamma plant has slacked the thirst of a metropolis, but innovation and new technologies are needed to address environmental issues

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Algeria’s Hamma Seawater Desalination plant, perched on the country’s 1,200 kilometre-long Mediterranean coast against a backdrop of blue skies and deep blue water, wields technology to ensure a vital social service – drinking water. But the plant also tells a tale of many challenges.

Inaugurated in 2008 by Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika as Africa’s then largest reverse-osmosis desalination plant, Hamma kicked off a government program to ensure reliable and continuous provision of potable water to the water-starved capital Algiers — and the rest of the country. The three-pronged program involves desalination on the coast, dams in the middle of the country and water transfer in the south. It was designed to reduce water stress, and pre-empt social protest. The country’s water shortage was compounded by the depletion of the groundwater table and aging infrastructure.


 

Conditions were so acute that residents of Algiers had access to water only one out of every three days, explains Ali Nouioua, Hamma plant manager for GE Power & Water.  Consistent water supply “was a big preoccupation for the government,” he says.

Hamma was a first step — the government quickly moved forward with the construction of additional facilities. Hamma nevertheless stands as a model of a public-private partnership that significantly contributes to improved water service and continuous investment in innovation to address environmental and sustainability challenges. “We are pioneers. We served as the pilot for all subsequent plants,” Nouioua says.

The Hamma plant, for example, was designed to reduce energy use by using gravity to keep seawater flowing into the reverse-osmosis system and filters.

Five years into operations, Hamma operates at full capacity supplying 200,000 cubic meters of potable water a day to Algiers that ensures constant access for some 25-30 per cent of the six million inhabitants of greater Algiers. Two pipelines feed Hamma’s desalinated water to a government-controlled distributor in the capital. To offset the high cost of desalination, the government delivers the water at subsidized prices.

 

The plant’s strategic emphasis on continuous research and development, innovation and technological enhancement is essential to address corrosion from sea salt as well as environmental issues linked to chemicals used in the desalination process. Locally, environmental concern was sparked by the fact that the plant is adjacent to the Jardin d’Essai, a 19th century botanical garden with some 8,000 imported trees which is considered one of the most important botanical gardens in the world. Hollywood’s first Tarzan movie was filmed amid the garden’s dense greenery.

“Things have improved. Many of the issues are not Hamma’s fault but have to do with the limitations of existing [desalination] technology. One has to acknowledge that Hamma is addressing issues and seeking to be a model of technological progress,” said an independent Algerian expert on desalination who requested anonymity.

A key challenge for Hamma is timely access to spare parts and services. Independent experts note that Algerian environmental regulation also has yet to develop standards for desalination – despite the rapid growth and expansion of the sector. To minimise delays, Nouiaou has taken to educating foreign suppliers on documentation requirements for imports. Hamma also manufactures as much as possible locally.

Nouioua says Hamma is also working with the University of Algiers to develop new technologies and recruit students who are trained for three months before being put in charge of smaller projects with the prospect of being hired by GE.

“Our strategy is all about continuous improvement,” Nouioua says. “We continuously question the system. We implement a maximum number of innovation projects each year. These can involve modifications to the existing system, optimization of processes such as equilibrium pressure and equipment efficiency, or more agreeable equipment, spare parts and materials. We look for quality all the time. When we see a weakness, we improve it.”  

Maintenance, including testing and regular cleaning of the membranes is an equally important pillar of Hamma’s strategy as is regular training of personnel in the deployment of new processes and technologies. “We do everything in accordance with safety and environment. It is a culture that we have in our plants. Everything is linked to the environment,” he adds.

The stress on maintenance, particularly regarding flow capacity, and technological improvement is key to Hamma’s commercial success with GE as the technology provided is paid by the number of cubic meters of potable water it delivers. GE needs to ensure to the government and the public that it is seeking to address environmental concerns.

Continuous innovation is also key to the plant’s commercial competitiveness. Funding for the $200 million Hamma plant was provided by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Algeria has since financed new plants through local banks, raising fears among foreign investors that they would not be playing on a level playing field. Those fears have to some degree been alleviated by changes in investment law that restrict foreign participation to a shareholding of at most 49 per cent. The regulation means that performance and technology are the key areas of competition.

The core of Hamma technology is General Electric Intelligent Platform’s PACSystems RTX7i that manages information and provides integration with the plant’s Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. The system has enabled the plant to reduce downtime risk and improve coordination of its various processes, including pumping, pre-treatment, reverse osmosis, post-treatment and delivery to the Algiers distributor.


 

The tightly pressured reverse osmosis process is complicated by the fact that Hamma’s raw input is polluted seawater that needs to be cleaned. The seawater is first screened for materials that are large or float. Once those are removed, coagulation chemicals are added to settle colloidal material. Finer substances are then removed in dual media filters before the water is processed in cartridge filters that separate out particulate material. Then only does it undergo reverse osmosis in high pressure membranes.

Plant security is another priority given the political and social importance the government attributes to Hamma and similar installations. As a result, Hamma is installing a close-circuit television system so that it can monitor movement within the facility.

“If Hamma gets it right and Algeria’s water strategy succeeds, both GE and the country benefit,” said the independent Algerian desalination expert. “Hamma will be seen as a model of success and Algerian policy may be emulated by others on the continent.”

Said Chitour contributed to this article.

On April 15, GE and Saudi Aramco launched the "ecomagination challenge" – a global competition to find innovative solutions that provide measurable and economically viable improvements to the process of seawater desalination.  Up to four $50,000 cash prizes will be awarded for the best ideas.  For more information: https://www.ninesights.com/community/ecomagination

 

Supported by GE.

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