Vol.2, No.4, 526-532 (2011)
opyright © 2011 SciRes. Openly accessible at http://www.scirp.org/journal/AS/
Agricultural Scienc es
Comparison between the irrigation qualities of
conventional tertiary and UF + RO advanced
treated wastewaters
Abdallah Abusam1*, Bader Al-Anzi2
1Water Resource Division, Water Technologies Department, Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, Safat, Kuwait;
*Corresponding Author: abusam3a@yahoo.com
2Environmental Technology Department and Management, College for Women, Kuwait University, Safat, Kuwait.
Received 9 September 2011; revised 18 October 2011; accepted 28 October 2011.
The Ultrafiltration and Reverse Osmosis (UF +
RO) membrane system is nowadays frequently
used in wastewater reclamation. The almost
complete removal of the dissolved elements,
however, raises concerns about the suitability
of the water treated by this system for agricul-
tural irrigation. This study compared the irriga-
tion qualities of UF + RO permeate and conven-
tional tertiary effluent, using the WHO guide-
lines. Obtained results indicated slight to mod-
erate degrees of restrictions are required for the
reuse of the tertiary effluent as agricultural irri-
gation water, while no restrictions are needed
for the UF + RO permeate. But it had also been
found that the UF + RO system unnecessarily
deprive the reclaimed water from nutrients and
organic matters, which would have been recy-
cled benefic ially through agricultural irrigation.
Keywords: Wastewater; Reclamation; Reuse;
Tertiary Effluent; UF + RO Permeate
Water scarcity is the main reason for the increasing
trend in wastewater reuse in agriculture worldwide. Es-
pecially in arid and semi arid regions, where water re-
sources are very limited, wastewater reuse has become
the most attractive option to alleviate pressure on fresh-
water resources. Wastewater reuse has generally proven
to be economically and environmentally beneficial [1].
Advantages of wastewater reuse include reduction of the
amount of freshwater extracted from the environment,
provision of a reliable supply of large amounts of water,
enhancement of crop productivity and reduction of en-
vironmental degradation [1-3]. However, potential prob-
lems related to wastewater reuse are risks from patho-
genic microorganisms, increased soil salinity due to high
total dissolved solids (TDS) concentrations, clogging of
soils and/or irrigation systems with suspended solids [4],
and introduction of toxics to crops and crop consumers
(trace elements, e.g. Na, B and Se and toxic compounds,
e.g. endocrine disrupters and pharmaceuticals) [5]. There-
fore, a reclaimed wastewater that will be reused as agri-
cultural irrigation water should satisfy certain quality
requirements, e.g. the Food and Agriculture Organiza-
tion (FAO) proposed quality requirements [6].
Wastewater is conventionally treated up to a second-
dary level (i.e., biological treatment plus chlorination) or
to a tertiary level (i.e., biological treatment plus sand
filtration and chlorination). Usually, secondary and terti-
ary treatments result in a limited removal of dissolved
salts and toxic compounds, and therefore, they are com-
monly not considered to meet the requirements for unre-
stricted irrigation. For this reason the use of membrane
systems for advanced treatment of wastewater has re-
cently received great attention [7].
Membrane systems are frequently used in the recla-
mation of wastewater in order to produce high quality
water for e.g. agricultural irrigation, industrial uses and
aquifer recharge applications [8]. Membranes used in
water and wastewater treatment can be classified, based
on the pore size, into four categories: Microfiltration
(MF), Ultrafiltration (UF), Nanofiltration (NF) and Re-
verse Osmosis (RO) membranes [9]. For polishing the
secondary effluent, a two-stage membrane system that
consists of UF + RO membranes is commonly used.
Here the function of the UF is to remove organic matter
and pathogens, while the function of the RO is to re-
move dissolved solids [10]. Due to the very high re-
moval efficiency, however, there are concerns that con-
ventional UF + RO treatment may deprive the reclaimed
water from plant essential nutrients [11]. The objective
A. Abusam et al. / Agricultural Sciences 2 (2011) 526-532
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. Openly accessible at http://www.scirp.org/journal/AS/
of this study was to compare the irrigation quality of a
tertiary effluent to wastewater treated to advanced level
using UF + RO membrane system.
Kuwait municipal wastewater is treated to tertiary or
advanced levels at four main activated sludge plants,
located in Jahra, Riqqa, Sulaibiya and Um-Al-Haiman
areas. Sulaibiya plant is the world’s largest membrane-
based reclamation plant, which was originally built for
providing an alternative source to potable water for Ku-
wait [12]. But its effluent is used since commissioning in
December 2004 in agricultural and landscape irrigations.
Sulaibiya plant treats wastewater up to UF and RO ad-
vanced levels. The other three plants (Jahra, Riqqa and
Umm-Al-Haiman plants) are all conventional activated
sludge plants that treat wastewater to tertiary levels
(biological treatment plus sand filtration and chlorine-
tion). Table 1 gives the basic technical information
about the main municipal wastewater treatment plants in
The effluents of only Jahra (tertiary) and Sulaibiya
(RO permeate) plants are pumped to a central facility,
called the Data Monitoring Center (DMC), located about
30 km from Kuwait city, where treated wastewater is
stored, further chlorinated and distributed to the main
farming areas situated in Abdalli, Sulaibiya and Wafra
areas. Effluents of the other plants are reused mainly on-
site or to irrigate greeneries near the motorways.
The DMC facility has six effluent storage reservoirs
(ESRs) of total capacity equal to 340,000 m3, pump
houses, chlorination units, a laboratory for water analy-
sis and a computerized data management facility for
recording the daily quantity and quality of the ESRs in-
flows and outflows. Storage of treated wastewater efflu-
ents in properly designed and operated ESR’s improves
the effluent quality, particularly with respect to concen-
trations of nutrients and trace metals [13], and thus help
in producing high crop yields [14].
Data used in this study were obtained from the records
of the DMC facility in Kuwait. DMC daily-records con-
tain information about the quantity and quality of in- and
outflow of the ESRs. In this study only the data for the
year 2005 were used. During 2005, the average inflows
from Sulaibiya and Jahra plants were 331,367 m3/d and
25,805 m3/d, respectively. Thus, the average hydraulic
residence time at the ESRs was 25.5 hours, while the
average mixing ratio (Jahra stream/Sulaibiya stream)
was 0.08 (ranged from 0.03 to 0.14).
Collected daily data about the treated wastewater
quantity and quality was summarized and statistically
analyzed. Wastewater quality parameters were actually
determined at the DMC laboratory in accordance with
the American standard methods for water and wastewa-
ter examination [15], except for the EC and pH which
were determined in the field using portable measuring
devices. Solids (TSS, TDS and VSS) were determined
by gravimetric method. COD was determined by stan-
dard open reflux method. BOD5 was found after five
days incubation at 20˚C. Hach spectrophotometers were
used to measure NO4, PO4 and SO4 while NH4 and org-N
were determined by distillation and digestion methods.
Na, Ca and heavy metals were measured using a flame
atomic adsorption spectrophotometer (ASS).
Quality parameters of Jahra tertiary effluent and Su-
laibiya RO permeate were assessed for agricultural irri-
gation and compared, using criteria adopted from the
WHO guidelines [5] given in Ta ble s 2 and 3. The crite-
ria consisted of pH, EC, TDS, TSS, SAR, Cl, Na, Ca,
Mg, B, HCO3 and TN (Tab le 2 ) plus ten trace elements
(Table 3). SAR was calculated as follows:
Ca Mg
where Na+, Ca2+ and Mg2+ are in meq/l.
Table 1. Kuwait’s municipal wastewater treatment plants.
Plant Secondary Treatment Tertiary Treatment Advanced Treatment
(70,000 m3/d)
6 conventional activated-sludge systems operated
in extended aeration mode. Sand filtration + chlorination -
(120,000 m3/d)
12 conventional Activated-sludge systems operated
in extended aeration mode. Sand filtration + chlorination -
(420,000 m3/d) 9 BNR activated-sludge systems. - Disc filtration + UF
+ RO + chlorination
(20,000 m3/d) 4 oxidation ditch systems. Sand filtration + UV
+ chlorination -
A. Abusam et al. / Agricultural Sciences 2 (2011) 526-532
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The measured qualities of Jahra tertiary effluent and
Sulaibiya RO permeate are summarized in Tab le 4. The
following sections discuss the irrigation qualities of the
two steams, based on the criteria presented in Ta bles 2
and 3.
4.1. pH
Irrigation water with low pH (<6.5) promotes leach-
ing of heavy metals, while irrigation with water which
has high pH (>11) destroys bacteria and can also tem-
porarily inhibit movement of heavy metals. The WHO
recommends the pH values of the irrigation water to be
in the range of 6.5 - 8.0. In general, pH outside this rec-
ommended range can cause a nutritional imbalance or
may contain a toxic ion, and thus, negatively affecting
plant growth [6,16]. The measured pH values ranged
from 6.5 - 7.3 (mean = 7.1) and 7.2 - 7.4 (mean = 7.3)
for Jahra tertiary effluent and Sulaibiya RO permeate,
respectively (Ta b l e 4 ). This implies that both Jahra and
Sulaibiya effluents satisfy the WHO recommendation
with respect to pH values.
4.2. Salinity Hazards
In contrast to drinking water (EC < 0.7, TDS < 500
mg/l), treated wastewater is generally characterized by
high salinity due to addition of salts from domestic and
industrial sources. High salinity can damage soil, plants,
crops and groundwater [5]. EC and TDS are good indi-
cators of salinity hazards to crops. Table 4 shows that
EC and TDS concentrations in Jahra tertiary effluent
(EC = 1.7 dS/m, TDS = 932 mg/l), are much higher than
that of Sulaibiya RO permeate (EC = 0.17, TDS = 88.4).
Although EC in the range of 0.75 to 2.25 µS/m (similar
to that of Jahra effluent) is widely used [17], irrigation
with water that has EC closer to 2.0 µS/m can be a long-
term health hazard to animals and humans [18]. Accord-
ing to WHO guidelines (Table 3), slight to moderate
restrictions should be applied when irrigating with Jahra
tertiary effluent, while none is required when irrigating
with Sulaibiya RO permeate. Main restrictions that
should be applied in such a case are selection of salt tol-
erant crops and application of appropriate salinity con-
trol measures.
Table 2. Guidelines for interpretation of water quality for irrigation (Adopted from [5]).
Degree of Restriction
Potential Irrigation Problem Unit None Slight to Moderate Severe
EC µS/m <0.7 0.7 - 3.0 >3.0
TDS mg/l <450 450 - 2000 >2000
TSS mg/l <50 50 - 100 >100
EC at SAR = 0 - 3 dS/m >0.7 0.7 - 0.2 <0.2
EC at SAR = 3 - 6 dS/m >1.2 1.2 - 0.3 <0.3
EC at SAR = 6 - 12 dS/m >1.9 1.9 - 0.5 >0.5
EC at SAR = 12 - 20 dS/m >2.9 2.9 - 1.3 <1.3
EC at SAR = 20 - 40 dS/m >5.0 5.0 - 2.9 <2.9
Sodium (Na+): Sprinkler Irrigation meq/l <3 3 - 9 >9
Chloride (Cl): Sprinkler Irrigation meq/l <3 >3
Chloride (Cl): Surface Irrigation meq/l <4 4 - 10 >10
Bicarbonate (HCO3) mg/l <90 90- 500 >500
Boron (B) mg/l <0.7 0.7 - 3.0 >3.0
Total Nitrogen (TN) mg/l <5 5 - 30 >30
pH - Normal range: 6.5 - 8.0
Table 3. WHO recommended maximum concentration for trace elements [6].
Element Recommended Maximum Concentrations (mg/l)
Al 5.0
Cd 0.01
Cr 0.10
Co 0.05
Cu 0.20
Fe 1.0
Pb 5.0
Mn 0.20
Ni 0.20
Zn 2.0
A. Abusam et al. / Agricultural Sciences 2 (2011) 526-532
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Table 4. Measured quality of Jahra tertiary effluent and Sulaibiya RO permeate.
Jahra Tertiary Effluent Sulaibiya RO Permeate
Range Mean Range Mean
pH (-) 6.5 - 7.3 7.1 ± 0.3 7.2 - 7.4 7.3 ± 0.1
EC (dS/m) 1.1 - 2.1 1.7 ± 0.4 0.04 - 0.35 0.17 ± 0.13
TDS (mg/l) 70 - 1380 932 ± 437 13 - 209 88.4 ± 77.5
TSS (mg/l) 3 - 10.3 8.0 ± 2.9 0.8 - 3.2 1.9 ± 1.0
SAR (meq/l)1/2 0.9 - 4.7 2.9 ± 1.5 0.2 - 23.3 5.2 ± 0.3
Ca2+ (mg/l) 18.1 - 31.9 23.5 ± 5.1 0 - 2.2 1.0 ± 0.1
Mg2+ (mg/l) 1.7 - 34.2 16.5 ± 3.0 0 - 10.4 10.4 ± 2.8
Na+ (mg/l) 42.6 - 114.4 92.5 ± 29.6 0.6 - 14.4 5.9 ± 0.5
COD (mg/l) 16.3 - 26.6 22.5 ± 3.7 1.3 - 6.3 3.0 ± 0.18
BOD5 (mg/l) 0 - 8.5 5.0 ± 2.6 3 - 6.3 4.7 ± 1.4
Cl (mg/l) 256 - 824 397.7 ± 191.4 8 - 51 27.9 ± 1.9
B (mg/l) 0.06 - 0.35 0.14 ± 0.01 0.02 - 0.11 0.06 ± 0.01
HCO3 (mg/l) 78 - 139 110.3 ± 23.4 1 - 34 24.5 ± 11.0
TN (mg/l) 4.1 - 9.8 6.0 ± 2.4 0.6 - 5.8 1.8 ± 0.2
PO4 (mg/l) 3.5 - 5.8 5.0 ± 0.9 0.8 - 3.7 1.9 ± 0.1
Al (mg/l) 0.0001 - 0.3357 0.0600 ± 0.1226 0.0001 - 0.2211 0.0983 ± 0.01
Cd (mg/l) 0.0001 - 0.0107 0.0066 ± 0.0033 0.0004 - 0.4880 0.0648 ± 0.02
Cr (mg/l) 0.0001 - 0.1126 0.0200 ± 0.0041 0.0001 - 0.0667 0.0099 ± 0.002
Co (mg/l) 0.0001 - 0.0115 0.0020 ± 0.0003 0.0001 - 0.0476 0.0109 ± 0.002
Cu (mg/l) 0.0001 - 0.0114 0.0066 ± 0.0037 0.0008 - 0.0122 0.0045 ± 0.0004
Fe (mg/l) 0.0006 - 0.0019 0.0012 ± 0.0006 0.0003 - 00013 0.0008 ± 0.0001
Pb (mg/l) 0.0100 - 0.1068 0.0523 ± 0.0369 0.0036 - 0.1063 0.0467 ± 0.0367
Mn (mg/l) 0.0080 - 0.0291 0.0163 ± 0.0079 0.0002 - 0.0054 10.4 ± 0.0015
Ni (mg/l) 0.0001 - 0.0055 0.0025 ± 0.0003 0.0001 - 0.0229 0.0040 ± 0.001
Zn (mg/l) 0.0252 - 0.0677 0.0413 ± 0.0161 0.0023 - 0.0216 0.0138 ± 0.006
4.3. Total Suspended Solids
Suspended solids present in irrigation water can be
organic matters (e.g. plants, algae, bacteria), and/or in-
organic matters (clay, sand, silt). High suspended solids
concentration in irrigation water may cause a number of
problems e.g. clogging of the irrigation systems, sealing
of the soil surface, filling the voids between sand parti-
cles, reducing soil infiltration and drainage capability
and increasing soil compaction. According to the WHO
standards, total suspended solid (TSS) less than 50 mg/l
is safe for a drip irrigation system, while values above
100 mg/l can cause plugging. Table 4 shows that TSS of
Jahra tertiary effluent is in the range of 3 - 10.3 mg/l
(mean = 8), while that of Sulaibiya RO permeate is in
the range of 0.8 - 3.2 mg/l (mean = 1.9). This indicates
that TSS of both the tertiary and RO effluents are satis-
fying the WHO standards.
4.4. Sodium, Calcium and Magnesium
Hazards (SAR)
Sodium content is an important criterion for evaluat-
ing irrigation water quality. Excessive amount of sodium
can lead to development of alkaline soil and cones-
quently to reduction of soil permeability. At high con-
centration, sodium ion can replace the adsorbed calcium
and magnesium ions, leading soil destruction. High con-
centration of sodium can also reduce the plant capability
to absorb nutrient potassium and magnesium [19]. In
addition, high concentrations of sodium may also cause
injury to leaves [20]. The WHO guidelines [6] recom-
mend no restriction at sodium concentration less than 3
meq/l and slight to moderate degree of restriction at so-
dium concentration in the range 3 - 9 meq/l, but severe
restriction at sodium concentration greater than 9 meq/l.
Ta b l e 4 shows that sodium concentration of Jahra terti-
A. Abusam et al. / Agricultural Sciences 2 (2011) 526-532
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. Openly accessible at http://www.scirp.org/journal/AS/
ary effluent and Suliabiya RO permeate varied between
42.6 - 113.4 mg/l (1.85 - 4.93 meq/l) and 0.6 - 14.4 mg/l
(0.03 - 0.63 meq/l), respectively. Therefore, no degree of
restriction is required when irrigating with Suliabiya RO
permeate, while a slight to moderate degree of restriction
is required when irrigating with Jahra tertiary effluent.
Possible future sodium damage to soil is commonly
measured in terms of the Sodium Adsorption Ratio (SAR).
SAR expresses better the exchangeable sodium percent-
ages in the soil than only sodium percentage [21]. As
shown in Table 4, calculated values of SAR were be-
tween 0.9 - 4.7 and 0.2 - 23.3, for Jahra tertiary effluent
and Sulaibiya RO permeate, respectively, when EC val-
ues were in the range 1.1 - 2.1 and 0.04 - 0.35, respec-
tively. According to the WHO guidelines (Table 2), thus,
only a slight to moderate degree of restriction is re-
quired when irrigating with Jahra tertiary effluent, while
none is require when irrigating with Sulaibiya RO per-
4.5. Chloride
Because it is usually not absorbed by soil and thus it
moves in the transpiration stream and accumulates in the
leaves, high chloride concentrations in the irrigation wa-
ter can cause leaf burning or dying of leaf tissues. As
shown in Table 4, the chloride concentration of Jahra
tertiary effluent was in the range of 256 - 824 mg/l (7.2 -
23.2 meq/l) and that of Suliabiya RO effluent was 8 - 51
mg/l (0.2 - 1.4 meq/l). According to the WHO guidelines
presented in Ta b l e 3 , a slight to moderate degree of re-
striction is therefore required when irrigating with Jahra
tertiary effluent, while no degree of restriction is re-
quired when reusing Sulaibiya RO permeate.
4.6. Boron
Boron is an essential micronutrient for plant growth.
Although boron can affect sensitive crops (e.g. orna-
mental plants), it does not affect soil [5]. Boron concen-
tration in Jahra tertiary effluent varied between 0.06 -
0.35 mg/l (mean = 0.14), while that of Sulaibiya RO
permeate was in the range of 0.02 - 0.11 (mean = 0.06)
(Table 4). As the WHO guidelines [6] do not recom-
mend any restriction for boron concentration less than
0.7 mg/l, therefore, no degree of restriction is required
when irrigating with Jahra tertiary effluent nor with Su-
laibiya RO permeate.
4.7. Total Nitrogen
Nitrogen is an essential macronutrient for plants. It is
usually found in wastewater in the forms of ammonia,
nitrite, nitrate and organic forms of nitrogen. Total ni-
trogen (TN) is the sum of these forms of nitrogen. TN
concentration of the Jahra tertiary effluent was in the
range of 4.1 - 9.8 mg/l (mean = 5.0), while TN concen-
tration of Sulaibiya RO permeate was 0.6 - 5.8 mg/l
(mean = 1.8) (Tabl e 4). Notice that TN of Sulaibiya RO
permeate (mean = 1.8) is much less than that of Jahra
tertiary effluent (mean = 5.0). That is, RO treatment had
unnecessarily deprived the Sulaibiya reclaimed water
from nitrogen, which is an essential plant macronutrient.
According to the WHO guidelines (Tab le 2), no degree
of restriction is required for irrigation with water with
TN less than <5 mg/l, while a slight to moderate degree
of restriction of required for irrigation water with TN
between 5 - 30 mg/l. Generally, TN less than 30 mg/l
does not harm plants, except sensitive crops such as
sugar beets [6]. Therefore, only a slight to moderate de-
gree of restriction is required when irrigating using Jahra
tertiary effluent for irrigation, while none is required
when reusing Sulaibiya RO permeate.
4.8. Heavy Metals
Irrigation with water which contains high concentra-
tions of heavy metals can lead to metal accumulation in
both soils and crops, which consequently will cause
health problems to crop consumers. Heavy metals are
usually not absorbed by plants unless they reach the
threshold concentrations [5]. Comparison of heavy met-
als concentrations given in Tabl e 4 to the WHO recom-
mended maximum levels (Table 3) clearly indicates that
concentrations of heavy metals in Jahra tertiary effluent
are far below the recommended maximum levels. Simi-
larly, heavy metals concentrations in Sulaibiya RO per-
meate are also less than the recommended maximum
level, except few instances of high cadmium concentra-
tion (0.4880 mg/l while the recommended maximum is
0.01). [5]. Usually, common wastewater treatment proc-
esses remove most of heavy metal concentrations [22] as
demonstrated by the results obtained for Jahra tertiary
effluent (Table 4).
4.9. Organic Matter
Organic content of wastewater usually increases soil
moisture, retain metals and enhances microbial activity.
Therefore, irrigation with wastewater is better than add-
ing synthetic fertilizers [6]. Irrigation with even extremely
high organic matter concentration (BOD > 500 mg/l)
usually does not impact negatively the environment.
Table 4 shows that COD of Jahra tertiary effluent was in
the range of 16.3 - 26.6 mg/l (mean = 22.5), while that
of Sulaibiya RO permeate was in the range of 1.3 - 6.3
mg/l (mean = 3.0). Notice also here how unnecessarily
RO treatment had removed almost all the organic matter
content from Sulaibiya wastewater. In contrast, all BOD
A. Abusam et al. / Agricultural Sciences 2 (2011) 526-532
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. Openly accessible at http://www.scirp.org/journal/AS/
of Jahra tertiary effluent can be reused beneficially in
agriculture and without any adverse environmental im-
4.10. Phosphorus
Phosphorus is also a plant macronutrient. Normally
wastewater does not contain large amounts of phospho-
rus that can impact negatively the environment. Further,
irrigation with high concentrations of phosphorus and
for a long term does not damage the environment [6].
Table 4 shows that measured PO4 values were in the
range of 3.5 - 5.8 mg/l (mean = 5.0) and 0.8 - 3.7 mg/l
(mean = 1.9) for Jahra tertiary effluent and Sulaibiya RO
permeate, respectively. Also notice here that, RO treat-
ment had without a need removed most of the phospho-
rus, which would have been beneficially recycled through
agricultural irrigation reuse.
Based on the results of this study, the following con-
clusions could be made:
• According to the WHO guidelines [6], no degree of
restriction is required when irrigating with Sulaibiya RO
permeate, while only slight to moderate degrees of re-
strictions are required when irrigating with Jahra tertiary
effluent, with respect to salinity hazards and to high
concentrations of sodium and chloride.
• RO treatment, however, removes unnecessarily ni-
trogen, phosphorus and organic matter from the reclaimed
Data used in this study were collected during the execution of a pro-
ject entitled “Development of Wastewater Quality Database and Assess-
ment of Effluent Quality for Potential Reuse in Kuwait (WT013C)” at
KISR. This project was partially financed by the Kuwait Foundation
for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS).
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