A Kingdom’s Thirst: The Saudi Water Challenge
SUSTG.org | Lucien Zeigler | 3.29.13
Although Saudi Arabia’s lack of water resources is not yet a crisis, it is looming. The Kingdom receives only 4 inches of rainwater a year. Booming economic and population growth has compounded the challenge.
It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia is a dry place in a particularly arid region of the world. The dearth of water resources in the Kingdom is among its foremost challenges, with some estimates predicting full depletion by 2050 if nothing is done.
How serious is this problem for Saudi Arabia? As Jon Alterman noted in his 2011 article on the subject, ‘Clear Gold’ – Water as a Strategic Resource in the Middle East:
“The real wild card for political and social unrest in the Middle East over the next 20 years is not war, terrorism, or revolution—it is water. Conventional security threats dominate public debate and government thinking, but water is the true game-changer in Middle Eastern politics. Scholarly work on water has often focused on shared rivers as a potential cause of war between countries. But countries in the Middle East have not gone to war over their rivers, and diplomats have been successful in keeping tensions to a minimum. Instead, finite supplies of underground water within national borders pose a more immediate and strategically consequential challenge.”
Although Saudi Arabia’s lack of water resources is not yet a crisis, it is looming. Saudi Arabia receives only 4 inches of rainwater a year and has limited underground and other reserves. What has accelerated the need for more, sustainable water sources is the rapid growth of the Saudi economy and population in the last decade.
It is a boom that presents challenges to many sectors in the Saudi economy, especially agriculture, power generation, and natural gas production, all of which rely to some degree on ample water resources.
With $6.4 billion allocated for water and related infrastructure projects planned for 2013, a planned $66 billion on plants and upgrades over the next 10 years by state-owned National Water Co, and 160 water projects listed this year on the Ministry of Water and Electricity website, action is underway to address it. Government awards for water projects are seemingly a monthly news item in the media, with regional governors and other leaders readily signing off on major developments to Saudi Arabia’s water infrastructure.
To provide the water it needs, Saudi Arabia has fully committed to developing and implementing desalination capabilities. It leads all other nations in total desalination production (and is home to the world’s largest desalination plant) and is intent on widening the gap. There are 30 desalination plants in the country.
This, however, currently requires the use of oil, and a lot of it. 300,000 barrels are used per day to power saline water conversion plants, and although Saudi Arabia has plenty of oil, every barrel that is used for power or water generation is a barrel not sold on the international market. This, in turn, cuts into Saudi government revenues, the same pot of money that is financing the water infrastructure projects.
In this video interview with Reuters, Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Ibrahim, governor of the Saline Water Conversion Co., noted that the role of desalination (removing salt from saltwater to make it potable) is rapidly increasing in importance as Saudi Arabia gets thirstier. Now, 60% of the water that is used in Saudi Arabia comes from salt water. When asked by a the Reuters reporter how much this is going to increase in coming years, Al-Ibrahim said:
“Currently the government of Saudi Arabia is producing almost 3,000,000 cubic meters (of desalinated water) per day. Another 2,000,000 comes from the private sector…we need to increase our production from the current 5 million to almost 7 milllion in less than two years. If we look at the larger span beyond the short term, this 7 million needs to go over 10 million by 2025. So, from today until 2025, we need to almost double our production of water from desalination.”
Saudi Arabia’s commitment to addressing its water challenges came into sharp focus in 2008, with the announcement that it would stop producing wheat altogether in favor of imports. The decision formally put an end to a 30-year program that was aimed at achieving self-sufficiency in food resources. Ultimately the program was just using too much water. According to a Reuters report at the time by now retired journalist Souhail Karam, an unidentified Saudi official said it bluntly, “The reason is water resources.”
By 2016, Saudi Arabia seeks to totally supplant domestic wheat production with imports. To meet this deadline, the Saudi government and Saudi agriculture companies have begun buying up huge swaths of fertile land in Pakistan, Nigeria and other areas. One analysis done by Deutsche Bank noted that Saudi Arabia purchased major tracts of farmland in the Sudan and Ethiopia, with companies like Saudi Arabia’s Almari, Foras International Investment Co., and NADEC leading the charge. That report concluded th obvious, “Countries facing water stress, such as China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and countries in South Asia are among the major investors in farmland.”
Although water’s scarcity in Saudi Arabia has changed its national agriculture strategy, other industries have needed to plan around the Kingdom’s water problem. Most recently, an announcement that Saudi Aramco would be slowed in its pursuit of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) because of lack of water highlighted the challenge for that sector, according to Bloomberg’s Wael Mahdi:
“Finding the necessary amount of water in the regions where Saudi Arabian Oil Co. is exploring for shale gas will be difficult, according to Amin Nasser, senior vice president of upstream at the company known as Saudi Aramco. “The infrastructure cost will go down with time,” he said March 10 at an oil and gas conference in Manama, Bahrain. “But water is going to remain a challenge.”
Average water consumption in the Kingdom is estimated at 250 liters per capita, that’s 91 percent higher than the international average. The simple pie chart to the right, which appeared in this article in the Saudi Gazette yesterday, reveals an equally simple reality for Saudi Arabia: conservation is as important as increasing supply, and may in the end be cheaper and more sustainable.
Prospects for the Kingdom’s water sector are much brighter when compared to most of its MENA neighbors, many of whom lack the government spending capabilities, human capital, and technology to meet their respective national water needs. Nevertheless, the complexity of the Saudi water challenge means a solution will require strategic planning and coordination to accompany the billions in investment, and will ultimately require collective action from Saudi citizens to change the way water is used on a day-to-day basis.