Fears of a major oil spill in the Persian Gulf go beyond environmental damage or military obstacles--to the availability of life-sustaining fresh water.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and smaller gulf nations are highly dependent on a handful of immense desalination plants, both for drinking water and agriculture. Most of these plants take seawater directly from the Persian Gulf.
“They are quite vulnerable, absolutely,” said Leon Awerbuch, Middle East manager for power and desalination at Gaithersburg, Md.-based Bechtel Power Corp. Bechtel just completed a study of threats to such facilities for Saudi Arabia’s Saline Water Conversion Commission.
Desalination experts and military planners worry that oil sucked into the intakes of the big plants could foul machinery and contaminate the water that a crippled plant managed to produce.
Many of these plants also run in tandem with steam-powered electricity-generating facilities.
“A major spill down the south side of the gulf, to the shores of Saudi Arabia, would threaten not only their water, but their power,” said Thomas T. Scambos, chairman and CEO of General Technology Applications Inc., a Manassas, Va.-based oil-spill equipment manufacturer.
Concern heightened Friday as the Pentagon confirmed that the Iraqis were pumping 100,000 barrels of crude oil daily into the gulf, a rate that could create the world’s largest oil spill within 20 days or less.
In much of the Middle East, where the first simple seawater distilleries date back at least to AD 400, desalination plants are now common.
More than half the fresh water in the region comes from desalination. Of the biggest users, almost all of Kuwait’s potable water and two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s comes from a few jumbo-sized facilities as well as thousands of smaller plants in industrial settings and smaller cities and towns. Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also depend on desalination for fresh water.
Iraq takes most of its drinking water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But it also uses small desalination plants for military and industrial sites that are often located in arid areas of the country.
For the Western allies, the big plants most immediately vulnerable are in Saudi Arabia, particularly those at Jubayl and Khobar.
The world’s largest facility, with one water-production plant building 1 1/2 miles long, Jubayl produces most of the potable water for Riyadh, the Saudi capital. While Khobar is farther south, Jubayl lies temptingly on the coast between the military concentrations at Dhahran and the Kuwaiti border.
“It’s close and it’s huge and everybody and his dog knows where it is,” says James D. Birkett, who has worked on desalination projects in the Middle East for more than two decades. “The Saudis would be seriously hurt if that installation went out.”
The easiest way for the Iraqis to damage the Kuwaiti water plants currently under their control would be to blow them up.
But to get at the Saudi plants, most experts think a large, intentionally unleashed oil slick, with the prevailing winds driving it south, would be a more likely weapon.
A desalination plant uses “pretty rugged equipment,” says Birkett. “It’s not the sort of plant that could be destroyed by people coming ashore on a rubber boat with grenades. A stray artillery hit could hurt, but it probably wouldn’t cause big problems. A plant would be vulnerable to a sustained artillery barrage.”
Oil presents a different threat.
Most of the biggest desalination plants use an evaporative method that is something like a long row of teakettles. Steam is used to heat incoming seawater through devices called heat exchangers. The seawater turns to vapor, with the salt and other contaminants left behind when it is condensed back into water.
Oil in the seawater can destroy the efficiency of this technique, “basically by coating the tubes of the heat exchangers, the heart of the desalination plants,” said Bechtel’s Awerbuch.
But it can do more. Since oil, unlike salt, also evaporates, the oil can be distilled along with the seawater, producing a contaminated end product.
The threat first became real to the Saudis in 1983, during the Iran-Iraq War. A massive oil slick, flooding from war-damaged offshore wells, spread to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“A lot of people were very scared about what would happen to the plants,” recalls Abdalla M. Ahmed, a marketing manager in Del Mar, Calif., for E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.
Du Pont is a leading supplier of parts for one desalination system used in the Middle East.
The 1983 oil slick got into water intakes of plants in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, forcing them to immediately shut down to prevent further damage.
“I’m not convinced that a slick, just a slick, would knock out these plants,” says Birkett. “It’s going to be a real pain in the neck, but with a good array of booms and skimmers, you can keep the area around the intake clear.”
But other experts Friday voiced the conviction that no combination of booms would long protect the plants. Several, in fact, called for burning the slick to destroy it.
“For this size spill, there will be no way they can boom off and operate the plants,” said Eric Anderson, a scientist with Applied Science Associates, a Rhode Island-based consulting firm working with the United Arab Emirates.
QUENCHING A DESERT THIRST: DESALINATION
Many Mideast countries, short of drinking water, use water from the sea in two main methods: multi-stage flash evaporation and reverse osmosis. MULTI-STAGE FLASH EVAPORATION
A technology from the 1950s, this uses steam to heat salt water and recapture the purified water after it is distilled. Because it uses steam as an energy source, it is often coupled with steam-turbine power stations. Most of the desalinated water used in the Mideast is produced in these plants. HOW IT WORKS:
Hot seawater is passed through a series of as many as 40 chambers, each at a lower temperature and pressure. This process evaporates a small portion of the water at each stage, and the vapor is condensed into fresh water. It takes up to 10 gallons of seawater to produce a gallon of fresh with this method. The concentrated brine left behind is usually dumped back into the sea. REVERSE OSMOSIS
A sort of ultra-filtration system, which was first developed in the 1960s to provide super-pure water for use in manufacturing computer chips. When applied to seawater, the costs of reverse osmosis and multi-stage flash are roughly comparable. This method is gaining ground in the Middle East because of its energy efficiency. HOW IT WORKS:
The salt water is forced at high pressure through a permeable membrane. Water molecules pass through the membrane, but salt, bacteria and most pollutants are left behind.
It takes two to four gallons of salt water to make one gallon of fresh, depending on the saline content. Again, concentrated saltwater is left behind to be returned to the sea. KEY USERS
The five largest users of big land-based desalination plants are, in order: Saudi Arabia, United States (particularly in Florida), Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Libya.
Key desalination plants in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are:
In millions of gallons a day 1--Jubayl 270 2--Doha West 125 3--Jidda 110 4--Yanbu 62 5--Mecca-Taif 55 6--Khobar 50 7--Doha East 50 8--Shuaiba 50 9--Shuwaikh 35
Source: West Neck Strategies