By Adam Giansiracusa – Access to water is one of the most daunting infrastructure and development challenges facing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Low levels of rainfall and declining water tables, coupled with an expanding population that has soared from 3 million in 1950 to 26 million today, continues to place enormous demands on this vital and limited resource.
The current trends in water consumption in Saudi Arabia are unsustainable. To meet its national demand, the Kingdom draws roughly 70 percent of its water from fossil aquifers, enormous underground pockets of ancient water which would require millions of years to replenish. Renewable water resources per capita are also dropping at an annual rate of two percent. In 2010, Saudi Arabia’s per capita renewable water capacity is 240 cubic meters, only one quarter the global average. This problem will only compound as the population grows; by the end of the next decade, the World Bank forecasts the Kingdom’s population at 31.6 million.
There is ample recognition that the Kingdom faces a humanitarian and environmental emergency in the coming decades; however, the cost, difficulty, and political ramifications of the necessary policy changes will take time. The Kingdom is addressing the problem by cutting wheat production, exploring new desalination technology, and considering decreasing its national subsidies on water consumption.
Due to its scarcity, the allocation of the Kingdom’s water resources is an important part of an efficient water policy. Because of a 1970s program to make the Kingdom self-sufficient in wheat production, by 2003 roughly 85 percent of water use was devoted to agriculture. In 2008, recognizing the program’s enormous strain on its nonrenewable water resources, the government announced a plan to phase down its agricultural subsidies to cut wheat production annually by 12.5 percent over the span of eight years. By 2010, however, farmers had cut planted areas by 40%, a more rapid change than expected. Consequently, the Kingdom is looking abroad for farm land, increasing the likelihood of deals such as its $100 million investment in Ethiopia .
Desalination of sea water is used to provide most of the Kingdom’s drinking water (4.5 percent of the total water). However, desalination is a capital and energy intensive process. The Kingdom’s energy demand is growing by roughly 8 percent annually, forcing greater domestic consumption of its primary export, oil. Currently, 1.5 million barrels per day of oil and equivalent are used for power production, a figure expected to rise to 2.5 million by 2020. This draws from the Kingdom’s total oil production, currently 8.5 million barrels per day (with an installed capacity of around 12.5 million) . Hybrid technology for desalination plants using alternative energy sources or advanced filtering membranes are in development, but unlikely to be available soon. In short, while an expansion of desalination capacity is a necessity, its energy costs are too high to represent the Kingdom’s entire strategy.
The final element in managing the Kingdom’s dwindling water resources is to reduce the subsidies it provides for water consumption, hoping that costs will compel Saudi consumers to use less. This entails heavy political costs; lowering the subsidy would directly impact almost everyone in the country. Saudi Arabia currently subsidizes more than 92 percent of the total cost of producing water. The average cost of municipal water in the Kingdom is the lowest in the world. Loay Al-Musallam, head of the National Water Company, believes that the only realistic way to control consumption will be to increase the cost of the resource for the consumers.
As one of the driest countries on the planet with a rapidly growing population, Saudi Arabia’s water situation remains precarious; it cannot sustain its current water sources or demands. The steps that the government has been taking are necessary – wheat production is wholly unsustainable, and the country will continue to need to build more desalination facilities to cope with a rising population. Yet the Kingdom will also need make difficult decisions to lower household consumption.
Photo Credit: Water Drop, 2009 (Allan Foster)