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Arabian deserts attract water-tech businesses

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The deserts of the Middle East seem to be fertile ground for American water-use technologies, say members of a World Trade Center San Diego mission that spent last week in Saudi Arabia, Doha and Qatar.

With growing populations and dwindling water supplies, nations around the Persian Gulf are seeking new technologies for conserving water supplies, recycling gray water, desalinizing sea water and treating and reusing wastewater.

And because desalinization consumes so much power, they are looking for new energy technologies to run the plants, including wind and solar.

The Arabian thirst is creating more opportunities for the 200 or so companies in the San Diego County area that specialize in water use, said Hugh Constant, the WTC San Diego's executive vice president who led the 10-member mission.

"There's amazing demand for potable water [in the Gulf region]," said Constant, who lived in Saudi Arabia for half a dozen years before moving to Southern California in 1982. "They have a real concern about having secure supplies of food and water."

The Gulf -- one of the driest regions on Earth -- is currently suffering severe water shortages. In the Saudi capital Riyadh, for instance, households could get tap water only one day out of every 2.5 days in 2011. In Jeddah, the average was one out of nine days.

Desperate to build better supplies, the Saudis plan to spend $53 billion on water projects over the next 10 years, with multibillion dollar investments also expected in Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Hoping to tap into that demand, 10 executives from U.S. water and energy technology companies joined the WTC San Diego trade mission, which lined up meetings with government officials and corporate executives throughout the region.

Robert Caslava, a cofounder and lead biologist of Leap Frog Industries in San Marcos, said he got a very good reception for his company's products, including solar-powered desalination systems, containerized desalination plants and enzyme-based methods for cleaning wastewater and increasing product yields in salty soil.

At an International Water Summit in Abu Dhabi, Caslava showed his wares to the head of Abu Dhabi's Water and Electrical Authority as well as potential customers from as far away as India, Pakistan, Angola, Nigeria and England.

"There seemed to be a great demand for U.S. products versus products from Europe or China," Caslava said. "They recognized that there were differences in quality between the U.S. and China. And a lot of European products don't have the same kind of standardized parts as U.S. products."

On the other hand, Caslava said he was embarrassed to find the trade mission members -- who served as the official U.S. delegation -- were so heavily outnumbered and outspent by government-backed delegations from other nations, such as China, South Korea, Japan, India, Germany and France.

"Most foreign countries pay for companies to go to trade fairs like that -- paying for huge booths with gigantic displays -- but we paid for that ourselves," he said. "It's embarrassing to find that somebody from a place like Slovakia gets paid to go out to represent their country while the richest country on Earth can't do that."

Small businesses do qualify for a $2,000 reimbursement from the Commerce Department when they travel to trade fairs, but that doesn't cover their expenses. And the WTC San Diego paid the department far more than that for its matchmaking services -- setting up meetings between the mission's participants and potential customers or partners.

"It's a lot of money, but it's worthwhile," Constant said.

Mission participant Ryan Godfrey, director of strategic-planning and business development at Minnesota's Tonka Equipment Co., warned that the Gulf's water sector is "immature and currently in a transitory state," which means companies have to be prepared to shift with the market.

But participant Victor Boksha of Silicon Valley's Smart Grid Intelligent Management, said he found the Gulf's business culture to be "very open to import of energy technologies and ready to be involved in international partnerships."

The WTC San Diego is planning another water-related trade mission to Algeria and Morocco in March.

"Algeria too has a big budget for water technology," Constant said. "They export a lot of food to Europe, which means they have to meet European Union standards for properly treating, monitoring, testing water for produce. The market there has been great and the Algerians say how much they are looking forward to doing business with Americans, since they've been dominated by the Europeans for so long, especially the French."

But it is having a harder time attracting members because of concerns about an insurgent campaign in the southern part of the country, far from Algiers or Oran -- the cities targeted by the trade mission.

"It's an uphill battle convincing businesses to go," Constant said.

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