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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 February 2021

Masafi, from the source to market

We visit the border of Fujairah and RAK, where wells collect the water in drips, and watch as bottles are moulded at jackrabbit speed.
Rhapsody in blue: the process goes from pumping, bottom right, to packaging, above. The rock through which the water travels can be found only in the UAE and New Zealand.
Rhapsody in blue: the process goes from pumping, bottom right, to packaging, above. The rock through which the water travels can be found only in the UAE and New Zealand.

MASAFI // Few people ever think of the journey Masafi mineral water makes from its origins high in the Al Hajar mountain range to end up in their glass.

It is one of those everyday feats we take for granted. From the start of the cycle in the rain clouds high above the craggy mountains to the whirling non-stop activity of the bottling factory, each and every drop completes a complex journey before arriving at the dinner table. The product is one of the nation's most popular consumable exports, with bottles distributed across the globe. Each day more than 500,000 bottles of spring water flow through the system, destined for thirsty consumers throughout the Middle East and Asia.

After slowly trickling through almost half a kilometre of igneous rock, formed over hundreds of thousands of years, the water emerges, rich with minerals, to be collected from scores of cracks in the rockface, by a series of pipes and funnels, bound for the nearby bottling plant. The village of Masafi, which means pure water in Arabic, lies on the boundary between the emirates of Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah, and has been home to water production since 1977, when the local water was first bottled by a team of German engineers.

According to the company's plant manager, S M Usman, it takes an average of six days between collection from the 32-square-kilometre catchment area and the water's arrival fully packaged on the supermarket shelves. The rainshowers that start the cycle are heaviest in this corner of the Mussandam peninsula between September and February. "Usually, 100mm to 120mm of water falls during that time, and I have never seen it below 80mm," said, Mr Usman.

The company has its primary pumping station some 400 metres above sea level, surrounded by two wadis and several farms. Here 16 powerful pumps drive water through the filtration and bottling process. The water is not gathered from underwater pools or rivers. Instead it is collected in "wells", around 150 metres below the surface of the mountain, when it emerges into funnels from cracks in the rockface.

"It is a fracture network. Imagine water flowing though the tiny cracks in the rocks and we cut in to that water flow. From that crack, there are a number of other cracks," Mr Usman said. "At 500 to 600 feet [150 to 180 metres] below ground, there are about 20 to 30 cracks per well." A pipe with the approximate diameter of a cricket ball collects the water from the cracks, and from there it is pumped out to the filtration process.

Pankag Naik, the water resources and production manager, said the water trickled though igneous rocks, which are part of the serpentine group of minerals. "It's magnesium rich. This type of rock can be only found in the UAE and New Zealand," Mr Naik said. The company hit the headlines last year when the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority recalled 500,000 bottles from stores after a batch of water was deemed unfit for human consumption due to dirt particles found in bottles. The contaminants are thought to have entered the water during the packaging process.

"We knew it happened before it became public," Mr Usman said. "We started ordering new filters to rectify the problem." The water flows through a tightly controlled filtering system, Mr Naik explained. "It is chilled and passes through the filters and then through 0.03-micron filters. This is the final inspection. If anything shows up, an alarm goes off and it shuts down the plant." (A micron is a millionth of a metre).

From the filtration room, two pipes run around the bottle-making plant to the filling room. There are two steps to making the bottles. First, a small bottle is made from a tiny white ball about the size of a Tic Tac. It is heated and turns into a tube about 8cm long. It is cooled four times by water before it is sent into the second part of the process. It is heated again and then stretched like a balloon inside a mould," Mr Usman said. Between the two processes, an assistant supervisor, Jam Mohammad, keeps a close eye on the bottles. "I check for the width and the weight of the bottles. They have to be spot on," he said. The empty bottles shuttle around the plant on a conveyor belt, dangling by their necks before carrying on to the filling room. They switch to another conveyor belt which positions the bottles below a high-pressure jet, which injects water into the bottles, filling a 500ml container in less than three seconds. The bottles then hurtle off ready for the next stage, where they are capped before they queue up to be labelled and boxed. Everything is automated. The only people standing around are supervisors. "We don't do anything. It starts, its stops and we just have a supervisor here checking on everything," Mr Naik said. Production runs 24 hours a day during the summer and drops to 16 hours per day in the winter. "Obviously, there is a lot more demand for water during the hotter months," Mr Usman added.

He said the boxes of water sit in the warehouse for two days. They wait to be loaded onto trucks that will go across the Gulf states. Mohammad Shabib was taking a truck full of water to Muscat. He does the trip about three times a week - "two hours to the border and then it will be a further six hours on to Muscat," he said. Further down the line, forklifts try to get everything loaded before work slowed to a halt at midday. Irfan Panjabi was taking 2,400 cases to Masafi's warehouse in Abu Dhabi, a five-hour trip that would be quicker if trucks were not barred from so many routes. The bottles typically sit in the warehouse for three or four days before local deliveries are made. And then the water is ready for the last leg of its journey, into the waiting mouths of thankful consumers who wouldn't know igneous rock from a hole in the ground.

Published: August 28, 2010 04:00 AM

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