Water: Quenching the kingdom's thirst

28 March 2003
Saudi Arabia may be blessed with the world's largest oil reserves - but water is the resource the kingdom craves. High population growth rates, a new wave of industrial projects and high agricultural usage are all pushing domestic water consumption to record levels.

In November, soon after his appointment as the kingdom's first-ever Water Affairs Minister, Ghazi Al-Gosaibi announced that his ministry would draw up a national water plan, aimed at meeting the challenges ahead. It will not be an easy task. Population growth - at 3.8 per cent, one of the highest in the world - is one of the main reasons for the rise in demand. Based on estimated per capita consumption of 200 litres a day (l/d) - lower than the current level of 230 l/d - water requirements will increase to 7.1 million cubic metres a day (cm/d) by 2020, from 4.5 million cm/d today.

But population growth is not the only pressure point. The fast pace of industrialisation is also having an effect, while the real culprit is agriculture. The sector soaks up more than 85 per cent of the total annual water consumption of 22,500 million cubic metres, and the level is rising.

Other factors are coming into play too. More than half the kingdom's 30 desalination plants, which provide 50 per cent of its water requirements, are aging and due to be decommissioned in less than 15 years. Eight will have reached their 30-year lifespan by 2010. To avoid a significant shortfall in desalinated water supplies, the ministry is closely co-operating with the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) to devise a comprehensive programme aimed at meeting future needs.

'We have to have a new approach for the sustainable development of our water resources,' says Deputy Water Affairs Minister Ali al-Tokhais. 'We will treat water as one unit and deal with it on all levels, which means in domestic consumption, agriculture and industry.'

Al-Tokhais says the first item on the ministry's agenda will be to evaluate existing resources. 'We will have to find out how much water is stored in the ground, how much water can be used, how much water can be stored behind dams and how to use it efficiently,' says Al-Tokhais. 'Once this is established, we have to develop a short, medium and long-term strategy for the usage of water in a sustainable way.'

Apart from desalination, the kingdom relies on conventional resources, such as underground water and surface water from rainfall, rivers and dams, to ensure it meets domestic requirements. 'We try to utilise all the available resources,' says Al-Tokhais. 'For the collection of rainfall we have built 206 dams and another 11 are under construction, mostly at the major wadis.'

The resources are not evenly distributed across the country. Al-Tokhais says most dams have been built in the southwest - an area that relies exclusively on rainfall to provide water for domestic and irrigation purposes. The cities of Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Taif, and other areas with high domestic water consumption and limited access to conventional water resources, rely on desalinated water, which accounts for 85 per cent of total domestic usage.

Agricultural areas depend on rainwater, dams, wells or treated wastewater, while industries largely utilise seawater and treated wastewater.

So far, the scarcity of water is not reflected in its price. Although water used for domestic consumption is not free of charge, the existing tariff structure does not reflect its value. 'The rate for water is really very low in the kingdom,' says Al-Tokhais.

At present, a household pays SR 0.10 for the first 50 cm of water consumed and SR 0.15 for the next 50 cm. The next three price brackets for households consuming 101-200 cm, 201-300 cm or more than 301 cm of water are SR 2, SR 4 and SR 6.

These highly subsidised rates are expected to be replaced with a revised, comprehensive tariff system under the national water plan. Reducing subsidies will release financial resources for investment into other areas of the water sector - and, even more important, a price rise is expected to reduce consumption rates. Al-Tokhais says the new charges could be introduced as early as 2005.

The new tariff structure will go hand in hand with the establishment of a country-wide metering system. The agricultural sector in particular will come under close scrutiny from the ministry. At present, water is distributed free of charge to the agricultural sector. The only cost to farmers is for drilling the wells, says Al-Tokhais. In the future, wells will be metered and tariffs will apply universally.

Increasing agricultural efficiency will feature high on the ministry's agenda. Al-Tokhais says: 'We want to increase the productivity per unit of water, so we will encourage all farmers to use new irrigation technologies and [to grow] crops using less water.' Soft loans and indirect subsidies to farmers are expected to support the ministry's strategy.

One of the key issues under the national plan will be to raise private consumers' awareness of the importance of saving water. It is a lifestyle issue, says Al-Tokhais. 'Many people live in big houses, have gardens and pools, all of which increase consumption.'

Al-Tokhais says per capita domestic water consumption stands at about 230 l/d. 'This is very high for a country like Saudi Arabia. The figure compares with 150 l/d in France,' he says.

The ministry is seeking to address the issue by encouraging households to exchange high-usage toilet flushes and washing machines for more efficient models. Another issue will be to reduce water loss - estimated at more than 20 per cent of reserves - through repairing leaks in the distribution networks.

The cashflows required to match future water demand and supplies are enormous. Based on per capita consumption of 200 l/d, the desalination budget alone is estimated to reach about SR 85,000 million by 2020, according to SWCC. The total cost of building, operating and maintaining water projects to guarantee that consumption level could reach a staggering SR 128,000 million ($34,133 million).

Much of the required investment will need to come from the private sector. 'We do not work without the private sector now, but we want it to be involved to accelerate the execution of projects and to increase efficiency in the sector,' says Al-Tokhais.

SWCC and Saudi Electricity Company (SEC) are studying plans for three 2,000-MW independent water and power projects (IWPPs) and a fourth - the 700-MW Shuqaiq plant - is expected to be tendered later this year. Much will depend on the success of the first private scheme. But with the necessary regulations and a sovereign guarantee for the government's purchase of water in place, the way has been paved for greater private sector participation.

Other elements of the national water plan have yet to be drawn up. But one decision has already been taken: the kingdom will not consider importing water. Unlike its smaller neighbour Kuwait, which is working on plans to bring fresh water in from Iran, Saudi Arabia rules out similar projects.

Says Al-Tokhais: 'We will not look at such an option. Importing water exposes one to the risk of political instability. We will have to adapt ourselves to whatever water is available in our country.'


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