Jordan's Red Sea Desalination Plan

At the Aqaba Water Co., artificial intelligence saves water

For a small city in a water-poor country, Aqaba got lucky. The city of 110 000 sits on the Red Sea, on Jordan’s only coastline. Residents get their water from 20 wells in the nearby Disi aquifer, a store of ancient groundwater that straddles the border with Saudi Arabia. While the rest of Jordan makes do with a few hours of water service a week, Aqaba’s supply is uninterrupted.

Some of that happy circumstance is self-generated, with computer-controlled water infrastructure and a new artificial intelligence system that will soon manage most of it. Now Aqaba is becoming a linchpin in Jordan’s grand water strategy. By the end of next year, the city plans to start building Jordan’s first seawater desalination plant, which will provide 10 million to 15 million cubic meters of water per year, matching Aqaba’s current usage. The reverse-osmosis treatment plant will be the first step in an ambitious plan to build a canal to send water from the Red Sea to the shrinking Dead Sea, generate hydropower on the canal, and install another desalination facility along the way. ”Our project will be a pilot for Jordanian engineers to gain experience and prepare for larger desalination projects in the future,” says Imad Zureikat, general manager of Aqaba Water Co., the city’s utility.

With investors across the Gulf pouring money into Aqaba, the utility expects demand to double in five years. Business-friendly regulations introduced in the last eight years have begun to turn the port city into a miniature Dubai, bringing new spikes in water use, Zureikat says.

To meet that burgeoning demand, the Aqaba Water Co. is implementing new management techniques. The utility is already a model of efficiency for the country, if not the region. In stark contrast to the surrounding desert, Aqaba’s verdant palm trees and grassy patches thrive on treated wastewater, or ”gray water,” distributed through a separate network—a classic conservation scheme that many advanced industrialized countries lack. The rate at which water is lost through leaks or metering failures is less than half that for the rest of the country, which loses 43 percent of the water entering its networks.

Naem Saleh, the water company’s technical and engineering director, attributes the difference to the company’s move, in 2004, to implement a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system that reads the network’s flow characteristics every few milliseconds. ”The first thing in our strategy was to automate and computerize everything,” Saleh says. Working with the software company Oracle to integrate the individual controls, the utility is now adding artificial intelligence to react swiftly to shifts in demand. Its decision-making algorithms will be trained on the last two years of operational data. When complete, the system will control the pumps that fill the reservoirs and adjust pressure levels in the pipes to match consumption—for example, to keep the pressure around 500 kilopascals during the day and 200 kPa at night, when pressure can build up and cause pipes to burst. It would also maintain pH and chlorine levels and, eventually, automate the work of about 20 field technicians.

With Aqaba using mostly desalinated water, the water in the Disi aquifer can be preserved for Amman. A separate project will transport the Disi water 325 kilometers uphill to Jordan’s capital. That supply will buy Jordan the time it needs to build larger desalination plants and truly harness the Red Sea. Nisreen Haddadin, an engineer managing the Ministry of Water and Irrigation’s master plan, sums it up concisely: ”This is our dream.”

 This is the first in a two-part series on water technology in the Middle East.