Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi Arabia is facing a water crisis. Despite the kingdom’s massive investments in desalination plants, demand is growing at a rate that threatens to outstrip supply, leading to the formulation of ambitious plans for the expansion of its desalination plants at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, amid calls from experts for urgent reforms of subsidies and water use.
Saudi Arabia is considered among the poorest countries in the world in terms of natural renewable water resources. It is a desert country with little precipitation and no rivers or lakes, leaving it dependent on an extensive infrastructure of costly and energy-intensive water desalination plants. The state-owned Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) operates 36 stations on the east and west coasts of the country, mostly on the Red Sea coast.
The kingdom is in urgent need of huge investments in order to address the annual increase in demand, which is among the highest in the world, coupled with the added strain of a population growth rate of more than 2.5%.
Saudi economic analyst Turki Al-Haqeel said that the demand for water in Saudi Arabia is growing by more than 8.8% annually and could more than double over the next two decades, which will in turn increase pressure on oil consumption, affecting the structure of the Saudi economy.
This makes the issues of the water supply an existential problem. Saudi Arabia pumps the equivalent of 300,000 barrels of oil to operate its desalination stations on the eastern and western coasts of the country, providing 3.3 million cubic meters of water from the stations operated by the state-owned Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC). At the same time, in the medium term, Saudi Arabia is need of huge capital investments in order for this sector to remain able to meet its obligations, which are growing at an incredible yearly rate.
Saudi Arabia consumes near 7 billion cubic meters of water daily, 60 percent of which is desalinated. Of this, 40 percent comes from SWCC desalination stations and 20 percent from stations operated by the private sector. Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Ibrahim, Governor of the SWCC, recently admitted in a press conference: “We have exceeded the economic accounts allotted for providing desalinated water.”
In meeting the demand for the most basic and essential requirement for life, the Saudi authorities face three challenges: bottlenecks in desalination capacity, pricing, and the depletion of existing resources.
While Saudi Arabia is among the most water–poor countries in the world, its water system is one of the least costly for consumers. The tariff paid by consumers per cubic meter desalinated water is SAR 0.12 (about USD 0.03), while, the cost of production for stations that produce 20,000 cubic meters daily reaches SAR 12 (USD 3.20) per cubic meter. This is what costs the public treasury vast sums to produce water.
Adding to this problem is the extensive use of a large fraction of the kingdom’s water for agricultural purposes. The numbers suggest that consumption of water for irrigation doubled three times between the years 1980 and 2006 because of government efforts to develop desert areas.
Saudi consumption of irrigation water has reached nearly 21 cubic kilometers a year, according to the estimates of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Despite the scarcity of renewable water resources, Saudi Arabia has tried to transform itself into an exporter of dairy products and a self-sufficient producer of wheat—essentially the intensive export of water resources—while Saudi Arabia’s deep groundwater is on the verge of depletion and some estimates suggest that it will not last longer than 25 years.
The secret to the battle is the money invested in this sector. Saudi Arabia spends around SAR 135 billion (about USD 36 billion) in annual subsidies to three sectors: water, electricity, and gasoline, at a time when Turki Al Haqeel estimates the needed investment in desalination projects at around SAR 200 billion (over USD 53 billion) to meet the increase in demand for water through the middle of the next decade.
He added: “It is beyond doubt that urgent improvements and key reforms are needed in the water sector. The individual Saudi share of total renewable water reserves has decreased at an accelerating pace over the last two decades as a result of population growth and increasing pressure of the industrial and agricultural sectors on local water resources. Agriculture alone consumes 84% of the Kingdom’s total water consumption, according to the last annual report of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency. This policy in particular is what exhausted nonrenewable groundwater resources in the 1980s.”
Al-Haqeel argues that economic incentives must be altered if the situation is to be improved. He says declining tariffs on water and wrongheaded incentives have led to the overconsumption of water resources, and changes must be made by hurrying to undertake the necessary procedures to ration consumption. “The Kingdom must [also] greatly raise the level of this tariff over the coming years,” Haqeel added.
Saudi Arabia has taken a number of steps, including a shift away from wheat cultivation by stopping subsidies in 2016 and calling upon Saudi agricultural investors to move their investments abroad, where companies have access to better and less costly agricultural investment opportunities and an abundance of water resources.
Even with efforts to make changes in patterns of water consumption, the high and growing demand for desalinated water is straining the kingdom’s ability to produce it, leading to plans for massive new investments in infrastructure.
During a visit organized by the SWCC to the Ras Al-Khair water station, the largest seawater desalination project in the world, one of the corporation’s officers spoke with journalists about efforts address demand.
SWCC chief Dr. Al-Ibrahim said that the stations are working at their utmost capacity and constantly at peak, as demand for water decreases only for very brief periods. At the same time, the average desalination station works 24 hours a day to meet water needs, but a large percentage of the water produced comes from stations nearing the end of the 25-year working lives they were designed for. These stations produce just over half of the kingdom’s desalinated water.
Al-Ibrahim has said that the SWCC is working on a plan to bring new technologies to stations nearing the end of their lifespan to allow them to produce more while using approximately the same quantity of fuel and maintaining better environmental specifications.
Al-Ibrahim pointed to the Jeddah station, which the SWCC rebuilt in the same location with more advanced technologies to raise the station’s production by an estimated 600 percent, from 40,000 cubic meters to around 240,000 cubic meters per day.
Officials say that by the end of the year, the SWCC will have added to its daily production of desalinated water by approximately 150,000 cubic meters with the beginning of the partial reopening of the Ras Al-Khair station. The costs of the project have reached around SAR 23 billion (USD 6.21 billion).
Throughout this year and continuing through the middle of next year, the SWCC has a plan to raise production of desalinated water by around 2 million cubic meters per day from the current level of 3.3 million cubic meters. Overall, Saudi Arabia currently produces more than 1.2 billion cubic meters of desalinated water annually and plans to reach 1.825 billion cubic meters by the end of 2015.
Consequently, the kingdom has made investments totaling SAR 86.5 billion through 2015 in three large projects that should be completed within two years. Approximately SAR 67.5 billion have been designated for the construction of huge stations accompanied by projects around SAR 18.75 billion, with SWCC officials expecting investments in the water sector to grow considerably after 2015 in order to provide water security, because the development plan suggests a future demand three times the current level.
Given the enormous financial and energy costs in desalinating water, many ask why the SWCC is not investing more in solar-powered desalination projects or in black surfaces (an innovative technology patented by a Saudi inventor). SWCC officials argue that given the need to produce as much water as possible and the tight margins they have to work with, it is necessary to provide as much water as possible with proven, traditional technologies before alternative technologies can be explored.
Another issue is the cost of technology. Water production using fossil fuels at the large stations costs approximate USD 1 (SAR 3.75) per cubic meter, while the cost for alternative methods (such as solar) can be as much as USD 2 (SAR 7.50) per cubic meter.
However, the SWCC argues that it is developing more energy-efficient production technologies. The governor of the corporation confirmed that it was currently adopting strategic plans to raise the stations’ production by 50 percent while still consuming the same amount of fuel. The corporation also has a plan to invest in solar powered water production and aims to make Saudi Arabia an exporter of water production technologies.
From a production perspective, Saudi Arabia controls around 18 percent of global production of desalinated water. The SWCC is also creating partnerships with institutions and universities both locally and globally, and is counting on its plan for the city of Khafji to produce around 30,000 cubic meters of water daily by means of clean energy (such as solar powered desalination).
Likewise, the SWCC recently announced a tripartite partnership with Saudi ARAMCO and the state electric company in order to study and suggest viable projects integrating water and electricity production. The first is the Jubail III project, which will become the largest of its kind in the world over the next three years, with a daily capacity reaching 1.5 million cubic meters of water and 3000 Megawatts of electricity.
In comparison, the largest desalination station is currently in operation is in the Saudi mining city of Ras Al-Khair. It has a capacity of 1.025 million cubic meters of water and 2400 Megawatts of electricity.