‘Our attention in the Gulf has been on the production side and we have forgotten about demand,’ he said to MEED on the fringes of the International Desalination Association conference on financing desalination projects in London on 10 May. ‘There’s a tremendous amount of saving that can be achieved by paying attention to leakage in the public network and water conservation.’ A conservative estimate of leakage suggests that some 20 per cent of water is lost before it reaches the consumer, causing losses of more than 2 million cubic metres a day. Al-Hussayen says the cost of reducing leakage is less than 10 per cent of the cost of adding new production.

The conservation area is more vital still. ‘Taken together with leakage, unneeded consumption means we lose about 60 per cent of all the water we produce,’ he said. ‘I am sure that steps on leakage control and consumption issues, if implemented, can deal with all consumption for the next 20 years – without adding new capacity.’

The biggest problem is toilet flush boxes, which account for 30-40 per cent of all household consumption. In the kingdom, boxes with a capacity of 15-20 litres are still available, while in the US, for example, federal law prohibits manufacturing or importing boxes larger than 6 litres. The use of existing boxes can be dealt with through a replacement scheme. Such programmes have proved successful in many cities, creating large water savings.

Although there are no government steps under way to deal with the problem, Al-Hussayen said the new water ministry is expected to address it when it is set up. The ministry was announced last year. It will also address issues such as privatisation and water tariff rates.

So far, private water projects have only been mooted for the production side, but Al-Hussayen insisted they can play a role in distribution too. ‘The private sector could have good opportunities in the distribution side, because that’s where the savings can be made,’ he said.

Public misgivings about paying for water or entrusting the private sector with water provision can be alleviated through a proper regulatory system, said Al-Hussayen. ‘Hopefully, the new ministry will take the role of regulator, either from within, or by setting up a new body separately.’