Water woes have continued to remain a predicament for many countries since ages. After many technological advancements, desalination continues to remain a reliable source of potable water after the hydrological cycle. Desalination has often been avoided because of high capex, energy consumption and geographical reasons, but with the current water scenario across the globe, the need to use seawater is now more than ever. Trends project that more than half of the world’s population will live in water-scarce areas by 2050 with Asia accounting for 73 per cent of those affected. Asia withdraws the highest percentage (20 per cent) from the freshwater resources. Eighty per cent of this water is used for agricultural purposes. The countries in Southeast Asia (SEA) are heavily dependent on the natural sources of water.

Key developments

Among the ASEAN countries, Singapore has continued to top the list by launching its fifth desalination plant, in April 2022. By using reverse osmosis (RO) technology for desalination, the country strives to maintain sustainable development along with ensuring safety of water supply. The RO technique involves low risks in comparison to other alternatives and has worked efficiently at various scales for many years. Singapore’s commitment to sustainable development is also evident in the details of the latest plant that has been set up. The Jurong Island desalination plant, with modern water treatment equipment and membrane technologies including dissolved air flotation, ultrafiltration and RO approximately 5 per cent more energy efficient than the existing plants. RO for desalination in Singapore consumes 3.5 kWh per cubic metre and the authorities are trying to reduce it further by 1.5 kWh per cubic metre and then to 1 kWh per cubic metre in the long run.

Besides RO, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) Singapore, is also experimenting with other technologies such as electro-deionisation and biomimicry to reduce energy consumption and shift to more sustainable practices. The Philippines is also seeing substantial growth in this field. Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines, is being considered as a potential market for desalination to address the inadequate supply of water. Lately, the country has gained considerable traction from Israel. The water industries in Israel have viewed the Philippines as a “very attractive market”, considering it to be one of the markets for setting up operations. In addition to this, the industries also found the Philippines to be suitable for Israeli technologies and revealed their plans to form partnerships by bringing in delegations to demonstrate its various water management technologies.

In another development, the Department of Science and Technology in the Bicol region of the Philippines (DOST-5) is building desalination facilities to provide clean potable water to the citizens. The office has allocated PhP 2.9 million for the development of a desalination project in Pandan town in the Philippines. The project is under the Community Empowerment through Science and Technology (CEST) programme and Pandan is one of the CEST communities in Catanduanes. The beneficiary town has a shortage of water supply. In addition to this, the municipality of Pandan has set aside a counterpart fund of PhP 1.5 million for the project. The equipment will provide low-cost clean water compared to water refilling stations which are very expensive. As per the latest updates, the construction of the project was expected to begin in the first quarter of 2022.

Leading Saudi conglomerate ACWA Power and Pertamina new and renewable energy (Pertamina NRE) have signed a joint development agreement (JDA) to develop a water desalination plant in Indonesia with a total capacity of 363,480 cubic metres per day along with other development projects. The power and water desalination plant for the Tuban GRR&P is expected to be operational by first quarter of 2027. The East Economic Corridor (EEC) authorities are also looking to implement a publicprivate partnership (PPP) deal for seawater desalination projects at Map Ta Phut and Pattaya in Thailand.These projects combined are worth 7.7 million baht. With an aim to ensure sufficient water supply in the EEC areas, the projects are expected to help supply 200,000 cubic metres of water per day to the EEC in 2027, rising to 300,000 cubic metres per day by 2037. According to a study conducted by National Water Resources, demand for water in the EEC is expected to reach 2.9 billion cubic metres in 2027 and up to 3 billion cubic metres by 2037. Seawater desalination projects would help prevent possible water shortages in the EEC area in case of extreme drought.

As for Malaysia, public company MPDT Capital Berhad plans to build a RM 1 billion desalination plant in Penang, that will generate 250 million litres per day (mld) of water. The company aims to set up the plant on a concrete deck above the sea near the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge. It has proposed to provide desalinated water to the state free, without capex but of course, with concession and other terms and conditions. The 250 mld capacity might not be enough for entire Penang, but it could be sufficient for the industries in the Free Industrial Zone in Bayan Lepas.

The way forward

There are a myriad of factors that can act as hindrances in the adoption of desalination for the countries in the SEA region. ASEAN has surely brought about economic growth and stability among the countries but the adoption of desalination is still going to be a herculean task. Geographical conditions, capacity for energy consumption, and technological advancement besides providing water at a reasonable cost are some of the major issues that need to be considered. The SEA region is the third largest in terms of population. The financial integration allows collaboration among its capital markets, meaning that it would would attract intra-ASEAN investors to invest in one another’s country.

As per the key findings of Southeast Asia Energy Outlook 2022, six SEA countries have already announced net zero emissions and carbon neutrality targets. These steps shall ensure the widespread adoption of desalination across these countries. Nowadays, desalination is being looked at not just to mitigate the water crisis, but also as a feature to ensure future water safety and attract foreign investment. Many countries that have sufficient water supply are now setting up desalination plants as a precaution for future shortages. The extra guaranteed water storage will act as an attraction for foreign investment, especially for the manufacturing industry in the region. Asia is home to a significant part of the world’s population, and the SEA region ranks third in terms of population. In the coming years, saltwater intrusion in water resources is expected to increase due to the rising sea level, thus making desalination an inevitable option