No more queues at sewage terminal

Out of sight and out of mind, sewage is the forgotten, and yet crucial, component of the water challenge facing the UAE.

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DUBAI // Out of sight and out of mind, sewage is the forgotten, and yet crucial, component of the water challenge facing the UAE. Last September, however, the extent of the problem became all too public. When Dubai's only sewage treatment plant reached capacity, long queues of tankers carrying waste formed. Some drivers illegally dumped their loads, either on roadsides or into drains, and raw sewage found its way onto beaches.

The lorries carry waste mainly from labour camps that are not connected to the main sewage system, but their appearance en masse underlined the problems facing an expanding society at the far end of the water cycle. On August 20, Dubai Municipality opened its new waste water treatment plant at Jebel Ali. It is now conducting final tests of the facility that promises to solve all the sewage woes of the emirate.

When it comes fully online, Jebel Ali will be the second treatment facility in Dubai and is expected to take the load off the overburdened Al Aweer sewage plant. Municipal officials say the first phase of the project will be running early next month and will handle 150,000 cubic metres of raw sewage per day. Eventually, the plant will be able to handle 300,000 cubic metres a day. "We need to build a biological base before starting treatment of waste. This takes a few weeks," said Mohammed Abdulaziz Nujm, the head of the treatment plant.

Some tankers carrying sewage to Al Aweer are occasionally directed to the new plant as a part of the testing process. Al Aweer is capable of treating 260,000 cubic metres of sewage a day, nearly a third of which is either pumped into Dubai Creek after treatment or used to restore groundwater reserves. A large part of the remaining water is used for irrigating landscaping in Dubai, including golf courses. About 6,000 to 7,000 cubic metres of treated water is also used to irrigate farmland.

The new plant had been scheduled to open in April 2010 but, following the uproar over the long queues of sewage tankers at Al Aweer, the municipality decided last year to fast-track the first phase of the project. The rescheduled opening of April this year was then delayed. In the meantime, Al Aweer, designed to handle 11,000 cubic metres of sewage per hour, has dealt with as much as 23,000 cubic metres during peak hours. An estimated 25 per cent of the load is carried to the plant by tankers.

The tanker queues have started to disappear. Tanker drivers and owners say there are several reasons, among them the test opening of the new treatment plant. In addition, the municipality recently opened a new parking area for the tankers. "Now there are not enough tankers even for the new parking area," says Abid Hussain, owner of Al Jabal Transport, which has several sewage tankers operating in the emirate every day. "The problem has been solved."

But Mr Hussain says the main reason for the absence of tankers is the financial slowdown. "Several labour camps have shut down and tankers that carried sewage from them have no business," he says. Other factors have also helped, including a tank installed by the municipality to hold sewage received during peak hours, enabling the plant to treat it during downtimes.