Saudi Arabia’s Great Thirst
Years of massive over-exploitation have severely depleted Saudi Arabia’s water resources. The government is now taking steps to curb consumption in all sectors but public awareness of the growing crisis remains low.
Saudi Arabia is facing a severe and rapidly escalating water crisis, with potentially disastrous consequences for the country’s economy, environment and the public health of its citizens. In the wake of a World Bank report on global water scarcity released in February 2016, various Saudi government officials and water experts warned that the kingdom could run out of water entirely by 2029 if it did not radically reform its agricultural practices and address high water consumption patterns across the country. Eighty-eight percent of Saudi water resources go to agriculture, while the sector only contributes 2% to GDP.
The former undersecretary at the Saudi Ministry of Water and Electricity, Ali al-Takhees, said the use of nonrenewable groundwater on economically unviable agricultural projects would end in disaster. “Saudi Arabia is facing a catastrophe if agricultural practices don’t change. The remaining groundwater needs to be preserved.”
With an average rainfall of just 59 mm per year and summer temperatures that reach 55°C, Saudi Arabia’s climate is among the harshest in the world. Ninety-five percent of the country is covered in deserts and there are no rivers or lakes. Instead the kingdom relies on its rapidly shrinking groundwater reserves and desalinated water.
Saudi Arabia’s vast deserts harbor large groundwater reserves that have accumulated in six deep aquifers in the central and eastern part of the country. This so-called ‘fossil’ groundwater, which accumulated 20,000 years ago, lies at depths of between 150 and 1,500 meters. But this supply is not renewable, which means that water pumped out of these reservoirs cannot be naturally replaced.
According to the 1984 Water Atlas of Saudi Arabia, the country had 253 cubic kilometers of proven groundwater reserves and 705 cubic kilometers of ‘possible’ reserves. The current status of the country’s groundwater reserves is not clear: the issue is considered to be sensitive and no official data is published on the subject. However, it is clear that many of the country’s large aquifers are severely over-exploited and some have already been depleted.
“The country is facing a severe water shortage challenge,” says Omar Ouda, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University in Al Khobar. “The available natural resources are not sufficient to cover demand and all resources, primarily groundwater, are over-exploited.”
The decline in water availability is the result of the country’s rapid economic development over the last 40 years, together with massive population growth and rising living standards.
Saudi Arabia’s population has increased from 4.3 million in 1962 to 31.5 million in 2015. With a growth rate of 2.3%, population figures are set to reach 42 million by 2040. This obviously places great strain on water resources in an arid country that is naturally water scarce. “It is scary to think about the water situation in the next 20 to 30 years if consumption patterns continue to rise,” says Nour Fitiany of the Jeddah-based environmental NGO Alnabta, which focuses on raising environmental awareness. “We are basically drinking oil at this point. Relying on desalinated water in this way is not sustainable.”
Reduce and Reuse
Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world, with 30 desalination plants on the country’s east and west coasts producing 1.3 billion cubic meters of desalinated water in 2015. Desalinated water is used in the industrial and domestic contexts, providing 50% of municipal water and thus making up for the growing “water gap” between demand and supply. According to a 2013 UNDP report, the Saudi government plans to invest $53 billion between 2011 and 2020 to increase desalination production by 3.92 billion cubic meters.
However, even in oil-rich Saudi Arabia desalination is putting pressure on energy security. According to a 2013 World Bank report, the country – which is the largest oil exporter in the world – is burning 1.5 million barrels of crude oil equivalent every day to produce desalinated water and generate electricity. If energy efficiency is not improved and current trends continue, domestic fossil-based fuel demand is set to reach 8 million barrels per day of crude oil equivalent by 2040, which would considerably reduce the amount available for export and thus jeopardize the country’s oil export revenues. Furthermore, desalination has a significant environmental impact, including damage to marine environments due to the release of brine and other chemicals into the sea and air pollution due to high emissions of CO2 and other harmful gases.
In a bid to address growing water and energy demand, the government is investing in research and development of renewable energy options. It is also currently building the world’s largest solar desalination plant at Al Khafji on the country’s eastern coast. The plant, which is set to become operational in 2017, will produce 30,000 cubic meters of desalinated water per day (in its first phase) to meet the needs of 100,000 people.
“Saving water is not in the culture yet in Saudi Arabia.” -Nader Nakib, environmental consultant
“Water is inevitably connected to energy in Saudi Arabia,” says Faisal Al Fadl, the secretary-general of the Saudi Green Building Forum, which promotes the greening of buildings across the country. “Whether we want to desalinate or extract groundwater, we need energy. This means that both problems need to be addressed if you want to achieve sustainable patterns of use. In terms of water, the strategy should be: reduce, reuse, reproduce. And make production cheaper. This is where solar desalination can play an important role.”
But critics say such initiatives to increase supply – even if it is in a sustainable manner – need to be coupled with decisive measures to curb demand. “Building the largest solar-powered desalination plant may seem like the way to go, but it does not solve the issue of high water consumption,” says Fitiany. “On the contrary, it accommodates it. Basically nothing changes.”
No Sense of Urgency
Annual water availability in the kingdom has been steadily declining for the past 60 years, dropping from 550 cubic meters per person in 1962 to 76 cubic meters in 2014 – among the lowest in the world. Yet despite this deepening crisis, public awareness of the state of acute scarcity remains low.
“We are living in la-la land now,” says Fitiany. “If people really thought about how much water they use and how that is connected to the desalination plants that pump harmful gases into the air 24/7, they would make more of an effort to change their behavior. It’s true that more people are aware of things like environmental protection and recycling, but in general I don’t think people care. There is no sense of urgency.”
Saudis are among the world’s highest water consumers at a domestic level, using 265-300 liters of water per person per day – around double the average daily use in most European countries. Monthly water bills for an average Saudi family of five came to less than $2 in 2015, with water users in the capital Riyadh paying $0.03 per cubic meter of water. This is one of the lowest rates in the world. Yet the actual cost of production and transmission of desalinated water, which makes up 50% of the municipal water supply, comes to about $2. According to Ouda, under this tariff system with its heavy subsidies, Saudi citizens were paying less than 5% of water production costs. Thus while water resources are rapidly declining, low prices and easy access to water make people think the resource is abundant.
“There are lots of government and grassroots initiatives to raise awareness of the water crisis,” says Nader Nakib of the greening consultancy G which works on increasing water efficiency in cities and reducing water consumption. “But saving water is not in the culture yet. Awareness campaigns only have a limited impact until people have no option but to save water.”
Both Fitiany and Nakib believe the government and civil society should make more efforts to raise awareness of the water crisis and actively encourage more careful water use. Popular media and social media channels can also be highly effective in disseminating messages about water use efficiency, while schools and mosques could also play an important role. “There is still a long way to go,” says Fitiany. “Much more needs to be done on a grassroots and government level. If that means increasing oil, water, and electricity prices, then so be it.”
The Saudi government has taken the first steps towards actively reducing domestic water use, with the introduction of a five-year plan to gradually increase water tariffs.
The first price hike in early 2016 sparked a wave of complaints from consumers who saw their water bill increase from a few dollars per month to hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars due to an error in the water metering and tariff system. This is now being addressed, according to Ouda, who says that while tariffs are still very low, the higher rates could change water use behavior in the medium to long term.
“Believe me, this is the best awareness program that has ever been implemented,” he says. “Awareness programs are great, if you start introducing them to school-age children and then build it up to be part of the culture. But if you want to change behavior patterns among adults who have many other things on their mind, you have to target their wallet – within reason of course.”
Besides changing individual consumption patterns, there is also considerable scope for increasing water use efficiency in Saudi Arabia’s cities, where 80% of the country’s population is concentrated. According to World Bank figures, 35% of water that is distributed through the country’s networks is lost through theft, metering inaccuracy and leakages in the transmission or distribution system – so-called non-revenue water.
“There is a need for investment in new water infrastructure in order to reduce the amount of non-revenue water,” says Nakib. “Making building codes more stringent on water efficiency would also help, as well as enforcing grey-water recycling on residential compounds and in the industrial sector.” He also points to a range of simple measures that individual consumers can take to reduce consumption, such as placing water-saving devices on their taps and toilets.
No Space for Irrigation
Still, the domestic sector only accounts for 9% of Saudi Arabia’s total annual water use, while agriculture consumes 88%. Any effort to reduce the country’s water demand will therefore have to involve drastically cutting agricultural water use.
Saudi Arabia’s agricultural sector expanded massively from the 1970s when the government launched an ambitious program to make the country food secure by subsidizing wheat production using fossil groundwater. Over a period of 15 years from 1980 to 1994, annual agricultural water use nearly tripled from 8 billion cubic meters to 22.3 billion in 1994. By the late 1980s, Saudi Arabia was sixth largest wheat exporter in the world, competing in the international market against rain-fed wheat.
But the high environmental cost of fossil-water mining soon became evident: by 1995, about 35% of the country’s nonrenewable groundwater reserves had been depleted and natural springs were drying up. Water levels in some aquifers have dropped by more than 200 meters over the past 20 years. Drastic measures to cut wheat subsidies and ban wheat exports reduced agricultural water demand to 17.5 billion cubic meters in 2003.
This was followed in 2008 by the decision to entirely phase out wheat production by 2016. Agricultural water use had dropped to about 15 billion cubic meters by 2010 and is set to be further reduced as the government continues to push through water-saving measures such as the phasing out of green fodder production by 2019. This will save about 7 billion cubic meters of water a year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Wheat farmers have been encouraged to move to other crops such as greenhouse farming or the production of fruits and vegetables using advanced drip irrigation techniques.
Ouda says these are positive steps. “They are moving in the right direction,” he says, “but changing agricultural policy takes time and implementing these changes takes an even longer time. Of course they have to change crop choices and adapt cropping patterns, but the bottom line is that there is no fresh water available for irrigation. Any water that is available should be used in the domestic and industrial sectors and if they want to irrigate they should use treated wastewater.”
Saudi Arabia currently only treats about half of its wastewater to tertiary level, which makes it suitable for use in agriculture. Of this about a third – 240 million cubic meters per year – is used for irrigation purposes, which means there is clearly considerable room for growth.
Yet even with recent measures to raise domestic tariffs, reduce agricultural water use and increase water use efficiency in all sectors, Saudi Arabia faces a formidable challenge over the coming decades to fill the growing water gap. Estimated at 11.5 billion cubic meters in 2010, it is set to at least double by 2030, according to Ouda – and that is under an “optimistic” scenario in which agricultural water use is cut by 3.7% every year and domestic and industrial demand do not increase significantly.
“Very hard measures are needed to make water use sustainable in this country,” says Ouda. “People will probably not be happy with this and it will be very hard for decisionmakers to come to an agreement.”
Meanwhile, Fitiany is working to educate a new generation of water users to be aware of the importance of water preservation by conducting workshops in schools and organizing other activities for children.
“Kids are like sponges: they absorb what they see adults say and do,” she says. “If we continue wasting water as we do now, we are not only depriving the next generation of a future; we are not even preparing them for it. That is why it is our job to teach children the values and habits that can help them build a sustainable future.”
Writers: Ahmed Almansouri & Francesca de Châtel