Interview: Restoring Basra

Khatib & Alami explains how it is working with the Basra Governorate to address the urgent water scarcity crisis in the Iraqi region

The Basra Governorate in southern Iraq is in the midst of a transformational programme aimed at restoring its water infrastructure. A historical lack of investment, exacerbated by war and instability, has led the province to suffer from a chronic shortage of safe and clean drinking water for much of the past three decades. In 2018 this reached a crisis point which threatened the health and wellbeing of more than four million residents.

The Shatt al-Arab river, which runs through Basra, has been severely impacted by a combination of saltwater intrusion from the Arabian Gulf, environmental pollution such as raw sewage, litter, industrial and agricultural waste, and the effects of climate change.
Basra Governorate responded to the challenges of 2018 by appointing Khatib & Alami to get to the root of the problem. The consultancy was tasked with delivering a water strategy which would finally set a roadmap for recovery.

“We were commissioned to deliver both a short- and medium-term plan which would tackle the most urgent issues with the water system, but also provide a sustainable strategy for the rehabilitation of the network,” Dr Maher Kahil, Senior Manager – Infrastructure for K&A, tells Big Project ME.

“Compared to many parts of the Middle East region, Basra governorate has an abundance of water resources. We needed to look holistically at the entire system to be able to make a series of proposals which could overcome their challenges in a manageable way, while providing the foundations for delivering a high quality, resilient water network.”

Key issues identified by K&A’s team included the state of the region’s water treatment plants (WTPs), as well as its conveyance and distribution systems. Historic lack of funding had resulted in a short-term approach using small-scale WTPs, but the nature of these poorly maintained plants resulted in low quality water, as well as consuming large amounts of energy. Some had already reached the end of their service lives; some were damaged, while others had urgent maintenance issues.

As for the water distribution networks, the team found that most of the water pipelines were subject to encroachment, which reduces both the quantity and quality of water conveyed. There are no water areas or pressure zones in Basra due to the lack of water reservoirs, as well as a lack of organisation in the existing network.

After assessing future population demand and the existing infrastructure, K&A’s experts developed a water implementation strategy which included the construction timeframe for 16 new large-scale projects, including water treatment and desalination plants with a total capacity of 1 million m³/day, together with around 850 km of new transmission lines and 290 km of distribution pipelines to overhaul the water system.

As part of the Basra Development and Reconstruction strategy, K&A is also spearheading the full infrastructure design and supervision for wet utilities, dry utilities, roads, and landscaping in specific areas across 55 km².

“A multidisciplinary team of 80 specialists from our Cairo and Beirut Design Centres is working in tandem to champion the detailed infrastructure design of five areas, with a construction cost of more than $1 billion,” explains Michel Saba, Basra Full Infrastructure project director for K&A.

“Basra Governorate started to implement projects to improve its infrastructure systems several years ago, but an overall strategy was required to provide the necessary focus and cohesion through which transformational change can happen,” adds Dr Kahil.

“We’re proud to be part of this important program which will finally enable Basra Governorate to overcome its water crisis, while supporting economic growth and prosperity for the community.”

Key project
The majority of water treatment plants (WTPs) in the Shatt Al Arab River are no longer fit for purpose as they had not been designed for the current nature of the river.

This is because it has been impacted by major variations in salinity levels due to tidal effects from the Arabian Gulf; low water levels upriver; high turbidity after rainfall; and pollution caused by the release of sewerage.

This situation has created the need for water treatment plants capable of dealing with salinity levels from brackish to saline, high turbidity and the possible existence of other pollutants. In response, the Water Directorate of Basra (BWD) has successfully planned the implementation of several interventions to enhance the water supply scheme and the services provided to the citizens in this area as part of its continuous duties in this domain.

BWD contracted K&A for the advisory consultancy role of design review of several treatment plants under implementation, including a key project – the Mahila Reverse Osmosis (RO) Plant.

The Mahia (Emheila) water desalination plant uses the Reverse Osmosis (RO) process for a designed capacity of 3,000 m³/hr (72,000 m³/d) to produce potable water from Shat Al Arab river. A key challenge for this treatment plant is that the water source is highly affected by the tidal effect that brings saline water deeply upstream, especially during the drought period, resulting in unique conditions of salinity variation from 2,000 to 30,000 mg/l.

The introduction of such a desalination plant is therefore vital for providing potable water with acceptable quality since conventional surface water treatment plants do not remove salinity. In areas less impacted by such a tidal effect, the Basra area continues to be served by other relatively more conventional treatment plants.

Therefore, the Mahila RO Plant is one of several components currently implemented to mitigate the scarcity of potable water supply to the
region, and incorporating a team that includes the Owner, Consultant, and Contractor (including their consultancy support and suppliers) has greatly contributed to the success of the project, which is currently being finalised to be ready for commissioning and start up.

Ahead of the plant’s launch, Big Project ME spoke to the K&A team to find out how they helped deliver the project and increase the access and supply of clean drinking water to Basra.

What role did Khatib & Alami play on the project?
Khatib & Alami delivered design reviews covering the water intake from Shatt Al Arab, the water transmission line from the water intake to the treatment plant, and the treatment plant itself, where raw water passes through screening chemical precipitation followed by lamella settlers, ultra-filtration units, and finally the reverse osmosis membranes.

The plant’s RO system enables flexible operation under different scenarios of salinity, varying from 2,000 to 30,000 mg/l, with energy recovery at higher salinity level through proper control systems.

Water is further disinfected, stored, and pumped to the Abu Al-Khassib water supply network, while the reject is directed to a final discharge point after environmental investigation. In addition, K&A’s team has been responsible for capacity building by conducting training sessions for the client’s staff in the design and operation of RO systems.

This project will complement other under construction WTPs such as the Al-Abbas conventional treatment plant which is in R-ZERO, the main water facility for water distribution across Basra Governorate, near Basra Airport. The Al-Abbas plant has a capacity of 120,000 m³ per day and will provide clean water as per international and Iraqi standards.

We have assigned a multi-disciplinary team to review the design of the plant, including all structural, mechanical, electrical, ICA and civil engineering tasks.

What is the current state of progress for the Mahila RO plant?
The Design Review process is at 98%, while the construction progress is slightly less at around 85%. However, final arrangements are ongoing for tie-ins finalisation and commissioning and testing.

What were some of the engineering and construction challenges encountered?
The large variation in raw water characteristics (turbidity, salinity, etc…) due to tidal effects from the Arabian Gulf, combined with low water levels in Shatt Al Arab River, has led to the innovative design of the first medium-scale desalination plant capable of treating both seawater from the Arabian Gulf and surface water from Shatt Al-Arab river. This involves the use of high-pressure pumps and an energy recovery turbine (the working range is from 9 to 15 bar, while keeping the same product water quantity and quality).

There was also a need for soil improvement to cope with the high ground water table. This required using the most efficient pile distribution approach in order to minimise project costs without affecting project safety. Selecting the optimum structural system, through close collaboration between the Consultant (as design reviewer) and the Contractor (including water intake structure and steel works) also helped in decreasing the project time-schedule and facilitated site construction.

Strong consideration was given to ensure high durability, an economic design, and compliance with local and international standards.

What was some of the planning put in place to ensure the smooth delivery of the project?
Several factors contributed to the smooth delivery of work including the contractor assigning a European consultant to develop the design work, in conjunction with good-quality contractors, to ensure a high-quality product matching with the client’s requirements.
K&A was appointed to deliver a comprehensive design review within a tight time frame to ensure that the project meets international codes and standards. This was managed to match the time schedules for the contractor’s design submission and consultant reviews.
In addition, priority and long lead items were identified early on, so as to ensure that they were supplied on time. Care was taken to select reputable suppliers for RO membranes, pumping & high-pressure pumping systems and energy recovery units, which are the core for any successful operation of a RO plant.

The team also made sure to Investigate all options prior to timely selection of appropriate solutions for brine disposal, raw water feeding, etc.
Finally, continuous activities were maintained on the project, even during the pandemic.

What was the workforce deployed on the project and how did the team ensure that there was constant communication and collaboration between all stakeholders?
The Contractor deployed approximately 130 staff to cover the various engineering aspects, including technicians, skilled laborers and so on.

This was in addition to design office staff, which included local and international consultants, as well as project management teams from the contractor’s side.

Frequent meetings between the Client, Consultant and Contractor were undertaken to ensure continuous progress of works. This was also accompanied by regular follow-up visits to the site.

Finally, what were some of the construction technologies and methodologies deployed on the project to ensure its successful delivery?

The following approaches were deployed during the construction process – the utilisation of pre-cast piles to accelerate the construction of the foundation; the use of pre-cast slabs in fuel tanks to facilitate accessibility and constructability.

In addition, we designed an integrated layout, which combines administration requirements with plant operations, while hosting equipment in one central hall, which is a steel structure

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