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Water Management In Korea

Monday, February 1st, 2010
South Korea is poor in natural resources, producing neither oil nor natural gas. However, it was believed that the country was rich in water until recently, though not anymore. There is a Korean saying about spending money like water, meaning that a person who throws away money often has to be reminded that he is spending too much. This old saying shows how abundant water once was in Korea.  

There is also a very old and interesting story called ‘Bong-I Kim Sun Dal.’ He was someone who, one might say “could sell the Brooklyn Bridge,” although he simply sold water.

One day Bong-I had a drink with the water deliverymen who drew the water from the Daedong River (in North Korea) for wealthy upper-class people. At the gathering, a brilliant idea came to him.

He gave certain amount of money to each of the water deliverymen and asked them to pay a portion of it back the next day when he was standing near the Daedong River.

As the water deliverymen were queuing up to pay money to Bong-I, people were wondering what was going on and why the deliverymen paid money to Bong-I.

One of the upper-class people, a so-called ‘yangban,’ asked him why the water deliverymen paid him for the Daedong River.

Bong-I replied that he inherited the Daedong River from his late parents who in return inherited the river from their ancestors for generations already.

The noble man thought of the river as a bottomless fountain of wealth. He began trying to persuade Bong-I to sell him the river. Bong-I pretended that he did not want to sell the river since it was inherited from his parents. After tedious and long hours of bargaining, Bong-I agreed to sell the river to the nobleman.

The very next morning, this nobleman stood in front of the river and waited for the water deliverymen in order to collect his money. However, none of these water deliverymen paid him a dime. Furious and upset, the nobleman asked one water deliveryman for his money only to learn that he was conned by Bong-I. The water deliveryman clicked his tongue. “Tut, tut. The river does not belong to anyone; there is no such owner. You’re pathetic.” The nobleman tried to catch Bong-I, but it was too late to take the money back. Although Bong-I told a lie to the nobleman, people were impressed by the idea of selling the river, which belonged to no one.

For such a long time, rivers have been considered no one’s business in Korea. Anybody could jump into the rivers on hot summer days; women washed their laundry in them while the men went there for fishing. Everyone used the water, but no one cared about it since there were so many rivers. Now, things are different. The global shortage of water makes people think about the importance and finitude of water. Rivers are everyone’s business and we are the common owner of rivers.

According to the fifth world water forum in 2009, only 2.5 percent of the total water on earth is potable. Moreover, a majority of this potable water is contained in Antarctic and Arctic glaciers. Therefore, less than 1 percent of the earth’s water is drinkable. Every 15 seconds one child dies from water-related disease while more than 3 million people die from water-related disease annually. Also, 884 million people lack easy access to safe drinking water.

Water experts predict that the availability of drinking water will become scarce if we spend water as if there’s no limit. The National Intelligence Council in the United States said that the half of the people on earth would live in countries suffering water shortages in 2015.

Many experts also warned that in 52 countries, 3 billion people would suffer from water shortage in 2025. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OE CD) also foresaw that 3.9 billion people, or half of all humankind, would suffer from water shortage constantly. The World Economic Forum (WEF) expected that worldwide grain production would decrease 30 percent due to lack of water.

The alarm has sounded already in many places. According to a recent McKinsey report, India, a country short of water, would need 1.50 trillion metric tons of water in 2030, though the current supply is only 740 metric tons. Argentina, a breadbasket for the world, has seen 20 percent of its farmland turn to wasteland due to drought.

Korea is no exception. Residents in Taebaek city had a nightmare in early 2009. Taebaek City was famous for its abundant and clean water, but last winter was very different. There was no rain for weeks, which brought the water level at the dam very low. From Jan. 6 to April 2, for 87 days, water was available only three hours per day. Even worse, the water supply was restricted for 1,327 household hillside residents during the time. Everyday, these hillside residents had to go down the hill to get water from the water wagon.

It shook the Korean society and their belief about water. The incident proved that Korea could become one of the water shortage countries in the future as a few institutes have previously warned. Water is a not an unlimited commodity, but is a finite resource like oil. Korea uses only 27 percent of its annual rainfall because the majority of the country is mountainous. To avoid the worst-case scenario, Korea has started regenerating polluted water and seawater into drinking water. The Korean government encourages using gray water and supplies various water saving equipment to avoid wasting water.

Generally, the cost to get water is from less than 0.1 USD /1m³ to 0.5 USD /1m3, depending on the area. If the area is rainless for days, it will cost more to produce water. Even worse, if there are no rivers or streams nearby, there will not be many options for getting water. One of the most promising ways to get water in drought is through desalination. Due to high demands for desalination plants, the technology is seen as a next generation growth engine – not to mention the fierce competition among countries to develop new desalination technologies.

The worldwide market size for desalination is likely to be 3.3 trillion won by 2015 while the size was a mere 6.0 trillion won in 2005. Especially, the traditional water shortage area of the Middle East has been pouring oil dollars into desalination projects to get water. The Korean government has also announced it will invest 9.491 trillion won into water-related industries by 2012. The government included water management projects as one of 17 future growth engines and earmarked 688 billion won for commercial desalination service.

In the desalination plant, seawater becomes freshwater through many procedures. Seawater goes through pretreatment, desalination, post treatment and supply steps before it is freshwater. The water is drawn from the sea and initially sent to a plate of iron treatment to remove alien substances. Then, the water is sent to a water tank for sinking floating matter in order to remove smaller alien substances. The next step is removing the salt from the water, the core process of desalination. The most common desalination processes are distillation and reverse osmosis. Distillation obtains fresh water through boiling seawater and cooling its steam. Reverse osmosis uses an osmotic action in which water goes to a high concentration. Salt removing water goes through post treatment that adds some caustic soda and carbon dioxide to become drinking water. Currently, the most popular desalination process is reverse osmosis, as distillation is less attractive due to high oil prices. Roughly half of the new orders for seawater desalination plants adopt the reverse osmosis process.

At present, many countries throughout the world use desalination plants to solve water shortage problems. In the southern part of Israel, the desalination plant desalinates 100 million metric tons of seawater into drinking water per year. Saudi Arabia recently announced that it would build the world’s largest power and desalination plants in Riyadh, the capital of country, to supply water and power to the city in three years. This project is believed to cost US$9 billion for initial spending, according to Bloomberg.

Korean companies are also leading players in the seawater desalination plant market. Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction produced and shipped seawater desalination facilities in Nov. 2009 for the first time from its Vietnam plant, which was inaugurated in May 2009. Doosan Vina, the company’s Vietnamese affiliate, is Doosan’s second production base after the Changwon plant in Korea. Doosan Vina produced and installed a vaporizer at Phase 2 Shuweihat Seawater Desalination Plant in the UAE . Prior to this, the Vietnamese affiliate shipped the first installment of power generation facilities supplied to the Pecem Power Plant in Brazil in September 2009.

Cho Bongjin, head of Doosan Vina, said, “We were able to produce core facilities for seawater desalination by integrating Korea’s advanced technology.” He continued, “Going forward, Doosan Vina will serve to become a pillar of Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction’s global production system.”

Doosan also won the Phase 3 Shuaibah Seawater Desalination Plant project for US$850 million in late 2005, and has been conducting the project in a package deal from the engineering and procurement phases through construction, encompassing the entire process of production, installation and test operation. The company aims to complete the facility soon. The seawater desalination plant under construction at a site about 100 km south of Jeddah, is capable of churning out 880,000 metric tons of fresh water a day, the largest in scale in Saudi Arabia for now, which is enough to supply 3 million people a day. Notably, the project is playing a major role in easing water shortages in the Jeddah region, the driest region in Saudi Arabia.

Doosan has supplied seawater desalination plants that supply a combined 1.61 million metric tons of fresh water – enough for 5.5 million people – per day, beginning with the Parajan project in 1978 to the Shuaibah Phase 3 projects. Additionally, the company is constructing a Jeddah seawater desalination plant capable of supplying 240,000 metric tons a day.

Doosan also plans to construct a test bed for a seawater desalination plant in Busan from January 2010 with a daily capacity of 45,000 metric tons, enough for 150,000 people, by 2011. So far, only small-scale plants with daily capacities of 1,000 tons or less have been operating in Korea, primarily on islands.

Yoon Sik Park, head of the Water BG at Doosan, said “Through the seawater desalination plant, we will develop an 8MIGD (36,000 ton) -class reverse-osmosis facility technology, the world’s largest, and develop major equipment including high pressure pumps with homegrown technology. On the basis of these efforts, we expect to be able to attain plant engineering exports worth 10 trillion won up until 2020.”

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