Desalination in Saudi Arabia


Though it is widely known that water is an essential resource for life on the planet this report begins by providing some information on the importance of the vital resource. It has been observed that water is the major environmental issue of the 21st century and without the crucial resource there would be no life (Sipes 1). This vital resource is not by any means scarce on the planet with as much as 71% of the earth surface being covered by oceans.

It is interesting to note that 98% of the water on the planet is found in ocean and as such is unusable for drinking (Sipes 1). Of the remaining 2% that is considered fresh water the greater part of this resource is locked in glaciers and polar ice caps. It has been estimated that approximately 0.36% of this is available from underwater aquifers and an equal amount is also available in rivers and lakes (Sipes 1). This information suggests that although there is plenty of water on earth the resource is not always available in the right place or may be unavailable when needed.

The current world population is within the 7 billion range and it has been projected that by 2050 this number is likely to have expanded to 9.4 billion (Sipes 1). Many scientists have indicated concerns over this information owing to the fact the existing water resources may not be able to accommodate this massive growth in numbers. Some statistics currently indicate that more than 1 billion people lack safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people are in need of safe sanitation (Sipes 2). Based on this it is clear to see that water is already in short supply in many parts of the world. In addition to that it has been noted that with the climatic changes continuing to affect the hydrologic cycle the problem appears more likely to get worse in the near future.

It may be important to point out that the issue is not simply about availability but also about the quality of the water available. The quality of water available is increasingly becoming a major concern. The health toll that could be attributed to poor water supply and sanitation is very high due to the fact that much of our water is polluted to the point it is no longer safe for use (Sipes 2).

Having provided a general outlook on the scenario of water resources globally the report now turns its attention to the situation in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is located in a fairly arid region where the average rainfall is in the range of 25mm to 150 mm. In contract to this it has been observed that the average potential annual evaporation is from 2500mm to 4500mm (UNESCO 298). In the absence of river water, ground water and rainfall it becomes an important issue to find adequate water resources to meet the national demand.

Within the borders of Saudi Arabia reports indicate that in the region of Jabal Tuwayq there are many artesian wells. Similar conditions exist in Al Ahsa where there are a large number of deep pools that are replenished by underground springs (FRD 91). However, there are also regions where water is very scarce and as such presents a problem to the population located in such regions. In response to the needs due to a growing population and increased industrial development the nation has considered desalination as an approach to meet the water needs within its borders. With the aid of modern technology used in the oil industry, it is possible through exploration to locate much of the underground water in the country. The use of technicians employed with oil companies has led to location of deep aquifers in many areas in the northern and eastern regions of the country (FRD 91)

This Kingdom noted a marked increase in oil revenues in 1975 which in turn made it possible to pursue an ambitious development approach in social, agricultural and industrial sectors (UNESCO 298). Owing to this sudden burst in terms of development the demand for water resources also rose sharply. This is evident in the statistics that indicate that domestic water demand rose from 6% to the country’s total water use in 1997 to 10% in the year 2000 as a result of growth in urban population (UNESCO 298).

The increased economic resources also saw the government undertake agricultural projects that relied on irrigation to meet growing food demands and settle nomads in prosperous agricultural communities (UNESCO 298). Owing to this the cultivated area expanded massively and water used in irrigating these lands still represents a large proportion of the national water use. Besides increased agricultural demands due to rapid expansion the industrial demand for water resources has also grown in the past two decades.

The main sources of the water currently in use in the Kingdom can be traced to underground water and desalination plants located in the country. Owing to this it has been noted that the dependence on non renewable ground water has increased significantly in the country (UNESCO 298). This demand has created the need for suitable solutions to address the need for water. Among the possible solutions include the treatment and reuse of waste water. Another solution that has become increasingly popular in the country is the use of desalination technology as a partial solution to the struggle for water (UNESCO 298).

Owing to the desalination initiative large treatment plants have been established on the Gulf and Red Sea coasts to process sea water to produce safe drinking water (UNESCO 298). In addition to this pipelines have been constructed to transport the treated water to coastal towns and inland cities. It has been reported that in 1997, there were a total of 35 desalination plants in place with capacities that represented between 33 and 38 percent of the total domestic and industrial demands respectively (UNESCO 298). It has been projected that by 2025 desalinated water should be able to satisfy almost 54% of the demands within the country.

Water Resources in Saudi Arabia and Arid Regions

The Arabian Peninsula is located in the south west Asian region and has an estimated population of almost 49 million people (Alsharhan et al. 1). The region is home to several different political units including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman. One common characteristic of this entire region is the fact that it lies within an arid-semi-arid zone and largely lacks renewable surface water. The only surface water that exists in the region is that associated with the Tigris and Euphrates river system which become saline upon entering the Arabian Gulf region (Alsharhan et al. 1).

The deserts of the Arabian region, Rub al Khali and Hijaz pass into marginal zone of pasture, which has been subject to over grazing and deforestation in search of fuel (Alsharhan et al. 1). As a result of over grazing, the region has lost much of the edible plants and instead has given rise to inedible thorny and perennial species that deny livestock inexpensive fodder. This has led to an increase in the process of desertification owing to increased loss of soil due to wind erosion and water erosion during the rare rainstorms (Alsharhan et al. 1).

Given this climatic condition it is apparent that the conservation of groundwater resources is a major and important task throughout this region. In Saudi Arabia rainfall supported agriculture is only possible in the south western region and in Oman where the presence of mountains causes the areas to receive higher rainfall (Alsharhan et al. 1). Another problem in the region is due to increased soil salinity which has arisen due to the soils drawing up saline water by capillary action from rivers and underground water resources (Alsharhan et al. 1).

Due to the aridity of the region the local population had adapted to the climate and was originally relatively small and restricted to oases (Alsharhan et al. 1). The population was concentrated around better watered uplands that could support livestock and crops. Due to the rapid population growth and discovery and exploitation of hydrocarbon resources found in the region a much larger volume of ground water is required. The rapid depletion and use of the ground water and aquifer resources in the Gulf area suggests that the entire region is facing a major water crisis (Alsharhan et al. 1).

The countries that are in the region generally lack permanent and renewable surface water resources such as lakes, streams because they are located in an arid belt of the earth (Alsharhan et al. 1). The high temperatures in the region coupled with the relatively low surface rainfall that characterizes the region causes especially high evaporation rates. Due to these factors there is an increased severity in the aridity of the region, enhanced soil erosion and accelerated desertification.

Due to the lack of surface water within the region many countries rely heavily on water extracted from the ground normally in shallow and deep aquifers, springs and falajes (Alsharhan et al. 1). The water available from springs and falajes has in recent times been over exploited and it appears these resources are rapidly being depleted. The main reason for this has been due to excessive pumping and poor maintenance (Alsharhan et al. 1). Because of the large volumes of water required to support agricultural activities, groundwater is rapidly facing depletion within several Gulf States.

The majority of Gulf States depend heavily on several natural water bearing formations for their groundwater resources. It has been estimated that there are approximately 30 aquifers composed mainly of sandstone and limestone (Alsharhan et al. 1). The names of these aquifers vary from region to region though it is possible to find a same name referring to a single aquifer in several neighboring countries. The most important deep aquifers in the region include the Wajid, Saq, Minjur, Wasia, Ummer Radhuma, Dammam and the Neogene aquifers (Alsharhan et al. 1).

Most of these aquifers are located in Saudi Arabia with a few located in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. There are also a few aquifers located in the UAE and Bahrain (See Appendix A). Due to the fact that neither the amount nor quality of underground water satisfies the demands within these regions some countries began desalination of saline water in the 70’s (Alsharhan et al. 1). This process saw the establishment of coastal and inland processing plants in many countries. The coastal plants rely on the sea water from the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman while inland plants utilize brackish and saline groundwater (Alsharhan et al. 1).

During the rainy season, some of the rain and flood water is retained behind dams and also recharges shallow aquifers (Alsharhan et al. 1). Despite limited use, sewage water processing also acts as an additional water resource within the region. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the procedure of desalination is relatively expensive thus restricting its use for agricultural purposes.

Due to an exponential increase in the demand for water in the Gulf States that began in the 80’s a large amount of the water deficit in the region was satisfied by desalination. One problem with desalination is whereas it can be used as an approach to satisfy the ever increasing domestic demand for water it is not an economically feasible solution for agricultural purposes (Alsharhan et al. 2). The main cause water problems in these countries stems from depletion of aquifers, saline intrusion problems and water quality problems that are associated with the oil industry and agricultural activity (Alsharhan et al. 2).

Due to the fact that agriculture consumes as much as 75-85% of the total water resources in the Gulf Region, conservation and management areas are particularly concerned with this particular sector (Alsharhan et al. 2). As a result of the need for the resource there is a lot spent in efforts to conserve and properly manage the resource in the Gulf. This is because improved water management can result in conservation of water, maintenance of better quality water and restoration of deteriorated aquifer systems in the region as a whole (Alsharhan et al. 2).

It has been suggested that this may be possible through the use of advanced irrigation technology, construction of recharge dams and growing salt tolerant crops that can thrive in the region (Alsharhan et al. 2). This has led to development of human resources as a priority within this field with training being offered training in water related fields in the region (Alsharhan et al. 2). In addition to that there has been increased activity in development of data banks and research in advanced groundwater modeling techniques as powerful management options.

Among the issues to be challenged by such advanced water management approaches include reduction of water loss. For example, it has been observed that the loss of drinking water is the difference between the amount produced and the amount recorded by water meters in the region (Alsharhan et al. 2). Among the reasons behind such losses include losses that can take place on the distribution network itself. Some reports indicate that losses that take place on the network can account for as much as 30% of the water produced (Alsharhan et al. 2). This happens due to faults such as broken pipes, improperly functioning equipment among other reasons.

Other causes of water loss can be attributed to irrigation water losses and this can be measured by comparing water used and water required by plants (Alsharhan et al. 2). The reasons for such losses in irrigation can be attributed to factors such as evaporation and seepage from water channels. It has already been established that traditional irrigation techniques lead to huge losses of water and are thus not feasible for Gulf States (Alsharhan et al. 2). This situation suggests a need to offer training to farmers on proper water management to assist in conservation of this vital resource in the region.

As earlier mentioned the agricultural sector in Saudi Arabia depends mainly on groundwater. This is mainly due to the fact that rain-supported agriculture is limited to only the southwestern part of the country (Alsharhan et al. 3). The rainfall in Saudi Arabia exhibits a wide variation in space and time. Because of this occasional short but heavy rainstorms cause floods in the soil rich wadi channels. To control and suitably use this floodwater the Ministry in charge of Agriculture and Water has constructed over 190 dams with varying sizes and capacities (Alsharhan et al. 3).

The total storage capacity of these dams in Saudi Arabia has been reported to be in the region of 850Mm3 (Alsharhan et al. 3). The main purpose behind the construction of these dams is the retention of floodwater for irrigation and recharging aquifers. In addition to that, with the proper treatment measures such water can also be used for both domestic and drinking purposes (Alsharhan et al. 3). In areas such as Al Hofuf, Al Qatif and Al Aflaj, spring waters are used for irrigation of arable land. There are a number of small springs in the western region of Saudi Arabia and this water is mainly used for drinking.

Shallow aquifers are normally considered as those that are 5-50m deep while deep aquifers are regards as those 50-200m deep (Alsharhan et al. 3). Both shallow and deep aquifers are used in Saudi Arabia for a wide variety of purposes. The water in shallow aquifers seems renewable as rainwater and the occasional floods may recharge them. Groundwater satisfies 70% of the water need in the country and is supported by drilled wells that numbered over 78,000 in 1995 (Alsharhan et al. 4).

Currently Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water across the globe. This fact is attributed to the steady rise in demand for water due to rising population and rising standard of living (Alsharhan et al. 4). In addition to this is the increased industrial and urban growth suggests an increased need for water resources. In 1995, 23 desalination plants were established across Saudi Arabia to satisfy the needs of 40 cities and villages along the eastern and western coasts of the country (Alsharhan et al. 4).

These plants produced 2.2Mm3 of water with as much as 57% of this water being served to towns on the eastern coast with 43% being served to towns on the western coast (Alsharhan et al. 4). Another four desalination plants were later established with an approximate capacity of 380,000 m3 have been established since that period. Upon completion of these plants the Saudi daily water production is expected to reach 3Mm3/d (Alsharhan et al. 4). In addition to these a further 15 additional projects were also under evaluation for future work.

The main purpose the desalinated water serves is domestic use in the country. On some occasions the desalinated water is mixed with groundwater to improve the quality. In addition to desalinated water sewage treated water is also used in the country for irrigation in some farms in Riyadh city (Alsharhan et al. 4). The treatment plant that handles sewage water produces a quantity greater than 220,000 m3/d. This water is supplied to farms over pipelines that connect the plant to the local network.

Treated Waste Water

Given the scarcity of water resources in the Gulf States it is clear that every drop of the essential commodity must be used in a careful and economically feasible manner. This position suggests that no higher quality water should be used for purposes that can tolerate lower quality water (Alsharhan et al. 142). In the countries in this region treated waste water is now widely accepted as a non conventional source of water. This water is considered a viable supplement for traditional water resources and desalinated water (Alsharhan et al. 142).

For this reason since the early 80’s the region has seen an increased use of treated waste water in irrigation and landscaping. This is due to the fact that there are relatively large volumes of this water available following the establishment of urban wastewater treatment facilities (Alsharhan et al. 142). In addition to treatment facilities there has been a major expansion of the sewage networks in most cities within the Gulf region. Due to the environmental hazards associated with this kind of water the treatment facilities process this water completely regardless of the purpose for which it is intended (Alsharhan et al. 142).

As a suitable substitute to natural water resources this wastewater can reduce the current and long term demand versus supply imbalance (Alsharhan et al. 142). Already reports indicate that treated waste water has an important role to play in water management initiatives in the Gulf States. This is evident in data that indicates that in 1997, the Gulf States recycled no more than 35% of their total treated waste water (Alsharhan et al. 142). This contributed as much as 2.2% of the total water supply in the region. This water is currently used for landscaping, fodder crop irrigation as well as some industrial uses.

However, the main challenges with respect to treatment and use of waste water can be attributed psychological and technical concerns (Alsharhan et al. 142). This is due to the risk associated with possible microbial pollution and the accumulation of heavy metals found in irrigated soils. It has been estimated that if 50% of domestic water supplies were treated and recycled a major percentage of the Gulf States water needs could be satisfied (Alsharhan et al. 142). For example, this water can meet as much as 11% of the Gulf States total water demands and 14% of the agricultural sector demands (Alsharhan et al. 142). This approach alone may reduce the withdrawal of underground water by as much as 15% by the year 2020 (Alsharhan et al. 142).

This is due to the fact that the total treated sewage water annually produced in the UAE is estimated at 80 Mm3 (Alsharhan et al. 142). Tertiary treated sewage water can thus be used to act as an irrigation supplement after the removal of poisons and heavy metals in the water. The waste water produced within these processing plants can be put to use recharging aquifers, for crop irrigation and can also serve other industrial purposes. This of course will require an assurance as to the quality of the water (Alsharhan et al. 142).

The economic feasibility of such a project to treat and use waste water depend on the cost of treatment, degree of treatment required, and the cost of production from an alternative source to serve the same purpose (Alsharhan et al. 142). Taking this consideration in mind at present it has been noted that the cost of producing 1m3 of desalinated water is 5 Dirham’s, while the cost of producing 1m3 of treated sewage water is 2 Dirham’s (Alsharhan et al. 142). Despite the major difference in cost there still remains a question as to the degree of treatment.

It has been established the possibility for chemical and biological pollution to the plants, soil and groundwater remain where waste water is used (Alsharhan et al. 142). However, these concerns can be addressed through safe treatment procedures which can adequately eliminate pollution and purify the system for ideal water treatment. For this to succeed there must be periodical analysis and field analysis to ensure standards are maintained and to educate the community on adverse effects (Alsharhan et al. 142).

The application of treated waste water into the regular water management regimen was introduced in the early 80’s (Alsharhan et al. 142). This resource is steadily becoming more important within the Gulf States with the expansion of sewage treatment facilities and increases in the volumes of water produced (Alsharhan et al. 142). This water is completely or partially treated to satisfy environmental requirements regardless of the purposes for which it is utilized. At present all six states in the Gulf Region have waste water management plants (See Appendix B).

The total treatment capacity of the facilities mentioned above is 728Mm3.yr. The recycled volume of these waters represents about 252 Mm3/yr which represents almost 35% of the total treated waste water produced (Alsharhan et al. 142). In most of the countries the surplus of the unused waste water discharges into the sea. Recycling is mainly used in urban areas for garden irrigation, fodder crop irrigation and highways landscaping (Alsharhan et al. 142). In the next section the discussion will attempt to highlight the role of waste water in the entire water management system within the Gulf States.

Contribution of Treated Waste Water

As it has been mentioned in the beginning of this report it was noted that groundwater represents the main source of water in most of these countries (89.3%) (Alsharhan et al. 142). This water is mainly used for agricultural purposes and is supplemented by 8.5% desalinated water produced at plants for domestic use and drinking. Waste water on the other hand contributes 1.4% of the total in Saudi Arabia and as much as 21% in Kuwait. Overall data indicates that in terms of total utilization throughout Gulf States waste water accounts for 2.2% (Alsharhan et al. 143).

Based on this data it is possible to deduce that the usage of waste water is still at the stage of infancy in the Gulf States. Despite this position it has been noted that most Gulf States have ambitious plans for expansion in the use of treated waste water (Alsharhan et al. 143). For example, reports indicate that Bahrain was planning to use 42Mm3/yr of its tertiary treated waste water in crop irrigation, industry, landscaping and groundwater artificial recharge by the year 2010 (Alsharhan et al. 143). In a similar fashion Kuwait was also making plans to utilize 140Mm3/yr of its tertiary treated waste water for irrigation and landscaping by 2010. Saudi Arabia was also planning to increase usage of reclaimed waste water to about 254Mm3/yr for the purposes of crop irrigation and landscaping (Alsharhan et al. 143).

Advantages of Waste Water Reuse

This source of water is worthwhile for several reasons. For example, in addition to its role as an additional water resource this water is cheap in comparison to desalinated water (Alsharhan et al. 143). Based on data from other practitioners on the subject of recycling waste water, it was noted that the cost of waste water in Bahrain was 0.164 US$/m3 and its tertiary treatment costs were approximately 0.317 US$/m3 (Alsharhan et al. 143). On the contrary in Bahrain desalinated water cost ranges from 0.661 US$/m3 and 1.164 US$/m3. This provides an average cost of 0.794 US$/m3 (Alsharhan et al. 143).

It is important to keep in mind that agriculture consumes as much as 80-90% of the total water used in the Gulf States (Alsharhan et al. 143). The bulk of this water is drawn from aquifers which are suffering from serious depletion issues. Based on this fact it is clear to see that reclaimed water can be used as an alternative source that can seriously alleviate the pressure laid on ground water sources (Alsharhan et al. 143). In addition to this it has been noted in several Gulf States that the tertiary waste water has better quality than the actual ground water used for irrigation. It is also worth noting most soils in the Arabian Peninsula are sandy and efficient of organic matter and major nutrients. The use of treated waste water can ensure nutrients are provided to plants. This is especially true for nitrogen and phosphorus, and can result in reduction in the amount of fertilizer applied (Alsharhan et al. 143).

It has been reported that water for industrial use can be treated to satisfy three levels. The first level is used for cleaning, landscaping, greenery irrigation and fir fighting. The second level is process water used for crude oil desalting and cooling tower use. The third level is high quality feed water for boilers. It has been observed that since most of the water provided to industries in Gulf States is used for cooling, industries can recycle their own waste water or rely on urban treated waste water for operation (Alsharhan et al. 143). One of the best examples of treated waste water utilization by industry is the Riyadh Refinery. Approximately 7.3 Mm3/yr of Riyadh waste water treatment plant is pumped to the Refinery’s water reclamation plant (Alsharhan et al. 143).

Recharging of ground water with treated waste water has been suggested as an appropriate solution for the control of salt water intrusion in the coastal areas. This is especially useful given that a large number of Gulf State aquifers are experiencing deterioration in quality due to seawater intrusion or up coning (Alsharhan et al. 143). It has been noted that at present large volumes of waste water are discharged into the sea. Instead of this, it has been suggested that this water can be used in recharging underground water and combat saline water intrusion (Alsharhan et al. 143). It has been suggested that this water must be given time of >400 days for natural self purification prior to extraction (Alsharhan et al. 143).

Disadvantages of Waste Water Usage

With regard to the reuse of treated waste water in the Gulf States there are two main constraints namely, public attitude and technical problems (Alsharhan et al. 145). First, observation indicates that the attitude of the public towards the usage of treated waste water is generally negative. In an assessment of public attitude towards use of treated waste water in Bahrain, it was observed that most respondents bore a strong opposition towards its use regardless of the degree of purity (Alsharhan et al. 145). The reports indicate the public were willing to pay even more to avoid using such water. The main reasons provided in support of the decision include health risks, psychological repugnance and religious stand. However, it has been suggested that this is possible due to a low level of public awareness on the issue.

This became evident when it was revealed that treated waste water was of a better quality than some of the groundwater extracted. Due to this revelation farmers in Bahrain became willing to apply the treated waste water for irrigation purposes (Alsharhan et al. 145). In addition to this information it was noted that conveyance of this water via the public distribution system acted as a further incentive for its use.

The second major problem in relation to treated waste water in the Gulf States can be traced to the issue regarding microbial pollution. It has been reported that research has identified major concerns in relation to diseases associated with use of treated waste water for irrigation (Alsharhan et al. 145). It has been reported that treated waste water poses a number of potential health risks via consumption or exposure to pathogenic organisms (Zaidi 300). This type of water may also contain unacceptable levels of heavy metals and harmful organic chemicals (See Appendix C). It is known that household sewage contains a large percentage of organic materials and pathogenic microorganisms (Zaidi 300). Due to these risks it becomes difficult to maintain the quality of waste water given that the quality of the source water is not always constant and thus degree of treatment must change constantly to accommodate these changes.

The situation in relation to water in the Kingdom and Long term risks

It should be noted that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes up 80% of the Arabian Peninsula (Bowen 2). It shares its borders with eight other countries in the region and its territory is mostly desert climate. However, despite the high degree of aridity there is a slight degree of diversity in the region’s climatic conditions. The region in the south west that borders Yemen has reasonable amounts of rainfall and farmers are able to grow wheat and barley without irrigation (Bowen 2).

This region which is mountainous is unique in the Peninsula and provides minimum requirements for the residents. The rest of the country is dry though there are significant differences between the high rocky deserts of Hijaz, and the low sandy desert of the south and south east. Within the country even the coastal areas in the east and west which experience relatively high humidity of between 85-100%, there is comparatively little precipitation (Bowen 2). Over half of the country is uninhabitable desert that is capable of producing furious dust storms that are capable of blanketing even major cities for days. The largest of these deserts is known as Rub al Khali or Empty Quarter which makes up approximately a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s territory (Bowen 2).

In this region clean water is almost as valuable as oil and is extremely rare most of the year. There are some riverbeds that flow seasonally and flash flooding can take place during the rare rainstorms (Bowen 2). However, the entire region lacks any permanent rivers, lakes, streams or other fresh water bodies. Based on this the region is the largest country in the world that lacks year-round fresh surface water (Bowen 2). Within the coastal areas there is very little rainfall with the average annual estimate in the range 5 inches. In addition to this precarious position it has been reported that less than 2% of the land is arable. The soils in the region are largely unsuitable for agricultural activity with less than a tenth of 1% being able to support sustained agricultural activity (Bowen 2).

The situation is expected to get worse due to the problem of increased desertification in the region that arises from over grazing and perpetual drought (Bowen 2). The excessive use of underground aquifers has led to a decline in the quality and availability of water in the region and there is a pressing need to find alternative water sources in the region. The situation with regard to water was so desperate that in the 70’s the government over a million dollars in research into the use of icebergs from the Antarctic to supplement water (Bowen 2).

This vast nation which is just over one fifth the size of the United States has a population of about 27 million (Bowen 3). The annual population growth rate in the country is estimated at 2% and as a result the young population in the country is putting great pressure on the country’s resources (Bowen 3). The government has initiated a large number of projects that have restructured the landscape and as a result a modern landscape is emerging in the otherwise difficult terrain. In addition to changes in the appearance, the country has also changed in composition as the country has a large number of foreigners working within its borders.

During the past three decades the Saudi government has made significant efforts to improve the provision of household water and sanitation services within its borders (See Appendix D). However, despite these efforts it has been reported that comparatively municipal connections were still inadequate. Based on this data it can be seen that 47% of the Saudi population had access to municipal water connections (Elhadj 96). The remaining 53% of the population had no such connections but relied on various other sources for water including, wells, water trucks and containers. However, the situation in cities is different as it is reported that in Riyadh as much as 65% of the population having a connection to the municipal water network (Elhadj 96).

It has been suggested that the position with regard to inadequate water and sewage facilities can be attributed to poor planning on the part of the government. This case is proposed given that the oil revenues generated by the country and government expenditure have at times appeared questionable (Elhadj 97). In addition to this the high population growth rates in the country and its urban areas have created an increase in the urgency of addressing these issues within the country. It has been estimated that between 1974 and 2001 there was a 304% increase in population within this country. In relation to this, in the same duration the urban population grew by 462% thus placing even greater pressure on existing water distribution and waste management facilities (Elhadj 97). Based on this position therefore, the situation in relation to water is both an economic problem and a strategic vulnerability that urgently requires to be addressed (Cordesman 299).

This is as a result of the fact that the annual rainfall in most areas within the country is below 100mm. In addition to that the country has only about 2.33 million cubic kilometers of internal renewable water resources to meet the national demand (Cordesman 299). These resources are so scant they can only provide minimal amounts of water even for the current population. With these resources the distribution results in about 156 cubic meters per person which is less than one seventh of the total for a citizen in the United States (Cordesman 299).

It is estimated that 82% of the water used at present in Saudi Arabia consists of non renewable fossil water obtained from deep wells. Of the balance 14% of the demand is met by shallow or surface water while another 4% is obtained from desalination plants within the country (Cordesman 299). There is also a percentage attributed to processed waste water but that still falls below 1% of the total usage in the country. As a result of this situation Saudi Arabia is steadily increasing the number of dams available in the country by undertaking major construction activity to create and increase the number of dams. However, these have a limited value in terms of alleviating the water crisis given that they are absolutely dependant on rainfall which is little or in some cases absent.

It has been noted that despite the construction of a large number of desalination plants within the country, 75% of the water used in the eastern and central regions comes from non renewable underground lakes (Cordesman 301). It has further been suggested that if the current extraction rates are sustained these resources can be exhausted within the next eighty years. It should be noted that as population continues to increase it is also possible extraction rates will increase thus exhausting resources much sooner than projected. In addition to the issue of depletion there is major concern owing to the increased salinisation of the aquifers. It would appear that unless urgent action is taken soon the situation is likely to get worse.

The complications regarding water distribution and quality have also been complicated by the fact that the Kingdom has for a long duration of time priced water way below reasonable estimates (Cordesman 301). This is observed in estimates that indicate that in 1998, the Kingdom officially sold thirty five cubic feet of water at 0.3 Riyals which is approximately $0.08 (Cordesman 301). This price is considered especially unrealistic given that it is covers less than 50% of the costs used in production, distribution and maintenance. During this same duration it was observed that many homes were not even billed for the services.

In 2001, the price of water per square meter still ranged at between 0.6 Riyals and 6.0 Riyals. It should be noted that the higher rate was mainly charged where consumption was in excess of 300 square meters per month. Even then this higher rate was still rarely charged and most industries reported paying different rates (Cordesman 301). As a result of this position in relation to cost, it has also been noted that water use in the country is relatively high given the degree of economic development. It has been suggested by experts that the average usage of the resource per person is in the range of ninety gallons per person per day. This estimate alone suggests a usage that is almost twice the international average (Cordesman 301).

Another problem in relation to water resources and their use in the country can be traced to agriculture. This results from poor allocation of water resources and a poorly managed agricultural policy (Cordesman 303). Since the 70’s the country has maintained a policy that has seen the government invest heavily in agriculture to promote self sufficiency. Due to this policy the government provides significant subsidies to farmers as an incentive. It was reported that between 1970 and 1997 the government subsidies for agriculture accounted for 55% of the total government subsidies in the country. As a result the amount of cultivated land rose from 0.5 million hectares to 1.6 million hectares (Cordesman 303).

Despite achieving self sufficiency in production of staples such as wheat in 1984 the government did not stop efforts for expansion and only cut the subsidy in half in the same year (Cordesman 303). Due to the government aid provided to farmers it has been observed that there was excessive use of water. This arose due to the fact that the government provided free access to deep wells and low cost diesel pumps to assist in channeling the water.

In 1995, the Saudi government made changes to the subsidies but still kept the cost of the service so low that farmers had no reason to become efficient. Due to this trend of excess the total water use continued to increase and wheat production grew so much that in 1988 the country was exporting 600,000 tons. The amount of wheat exported reached a peak of 2.4 million tons in 1992 (Cordesman 303). Due to the continued waste of the vital resource it is estimated that with every ton of wheat exported the government was losing $300. This trend was very disturbing and had to be brought to an end.

In response the government made a sharp reaction beginning with a restriction on the wheat subsidy. In addition to that the government had to set a limit to the amount of wheat it was going to purchase from individual farmers (Cordesman 303). This prompted the desired reaction and wheat production dropped from 907,000 hectares in 1992 to 268,000 hectares in the years following the decision. This reduction in production has also resulted in a significant reduction the use of the vital water resources within the country.

Given the importance of freshwater and food security in the current global economic climate it is not surprising that many observers consider the absence of freshwater as a possible cause for violent conflict (Lorey 71). This situation is particularly likely in the Middle East given that many States are already in short supply of this vital resource. Intelligence reports from international agencies in the mid 80’s suggested that there were several locations where armed conflict could surface over shared water resources (Lorey 71).The majority of nations that were reported to be facing this dilemma were in the Middle East and this is further complicated by the fact that several countries in the region are reaching a point where all surface and groundwater supplies are fully utilized.

Based on these intelligence reports there are a number of nations in North Africa and the Middle East facing a situation that requires urgent investment, controls and regulations to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population (Lorey 72). Despite of these serious problems in the region it is still noted that poor practice and lack of cooperation continue to prevail in the region. For example, while neighboring territories spill surplus water into the sea, the UAE is reported to be using natural gas by products for distillation of water. Instead of this waste of resources it may be wiser to spend some of the oil revenue to purchase water from poorer countries (Lorey 72). This approach would both save their energy resources and reduce the environmental degradation.

The population growth rate throughout the Middle Eastern region has been estimated at 3% annually. With such a significant growth rate it has been suggested that adequate waste and water management measures need to be implemented urgently in the near future (Lorey 72). For example, reports indicate that all the water used in Jordan for various purposes is almost equal to the waste water produced in the Greater Cairo region. The prospect of over flowing sewage in the region alone appears to be capable of stirring an armed conflict if left unchecked (Lorey 73). Given that Iraq invaded Kuwait due to allegations of over pumping shared oil reserves it is not impossible for a similar situation to arise over shared water. For this reason it would appear that Saudi Arabia and other States in the Arabian Peninsula need to seek urgent measures to address the water crisis before further problems arise.

History of desalination in Saudi Arabia and Possible Problems

Owing to the serious need in relation to water resources the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia resorted to the production of water through desalination plants within its borders (Alsharhan 4). This approach has seen the Kingdom become the largest producer of desalinated water in the world. The rising demand for water in the country comes as a result of steadily growing population and rising standard of living in the region. Owing to these pressures the government initially proposed to set up a number of desalination plants and established a distribution network connecting the plants to various sites (Alsharhan 4).

As of 1995, there were already 23 desalination plants in operation that were aimed to serve the needs of at least 40 cities and villages along the distribution network (Alsharhan 4). These plants were responsible for producing 2.2 m3/d of water that was to be distributed within the country. Of this water 57% served towns along the eastern coast while the remaining 43% served towns along the western coast of the country. In 2000, there was an additional 4 plants being constructed with an approximate capacity of 380,000 m3/d (Alsharhan 4). It is estimated that upon completion of these projects the daily projection for water production in Saudi Arabia is expected to reach 3 Mm3/d. At the same time there are approximately fifteen projects under evaluation.

The desalinated water produced within Saudi Arabia mainly serves the purpose of domestic use. In some cases the desalinated water is mixed with groundwater to improve its quality. Desalination is an activity that refers to any of the processes that is used to remove the excess salt and minerals from water with a view to obtaining fresh water suitable for consumption and irrigation (Mays 37). There are several methods that can be used for desalination including multi stage flash method, multiple effect, vapor compression, evaporation/condensation, electro dialysis reversal and reverse osmosis (Mays 38). However, the more commonly used approach in Saudi Arabia is the multi-stage flash process.

Though desalination of seawater is a rather unconventional method of dealing with water supply, it is fast gaining popularity especially in arid and semi arid regions. Due to the large amount of energy reserves in the Middle East this approach can be used as a supplement even for water used in agriculture. Taking the case of Saudi Arabia, it has been reported that the plants located here alone account for 24% of the global desalination capacity (Mays 38). In addition to that, the water produced by these desalination plants accounts for 70% of the country’s drinking water needs. This water is supplied to both urban and rural areas through a network of pipes approximately 2,300 miles long (Mays 38).

Currently the world’s largest desalination plant is the Shoaiba plant capable of producing 150 million cubic meters of water annually (Mays 38). Based on the position within the country regarding population there are plans for development of desalination plants that will make the total number facilities fall within the range of 30 plants. Of the desalination plants found in Saudi Arabia 11% of them are located in the Persian Gulf, 12% are located in the Red Sea and a further 2% are unaccounted for (Cipollina, Micale and Rizutti 274). As much as 81% of the desalinated water that is produced within the Gulf region is produced using the multi-stage flash process. Minor processes such as multi-effect distillation and reverse osmosis account for 13% and 6% the total desalinated water produced within the region (Cipollina, Micale and Rizutti 274).

The establishment of desalination plants has been a source of concern within environmental circles owing to the potential of such plants in relation to environmental degradation. The main concerns are attributed to the potential of the plants to destroy the marine habitat and the discharge of chemicals into the sea which may have adverse effects on the water and sediment quality (Cipollina, Micale and Rizutti 277).

The construction of intakes above or below the sea floor has the potential to cause a disturbance to the compaction of sediments on the sea floor (Cipollina, Micale and Rizutti 277). In addition to that it has been observed that the intake of large quantities of sea water is likely to affect the current especially in areas with low currents. The intakes are also prone to cause losses in the larvae and eggs of fish breeding the water close to the coastline. This is especially the case in relation to plankton organisms that are generally prevalent in coastal surface waters (Cipollina, Micale and Rizutti 277). These organisms do not lay large numbers of eggs as fish and other marine organisms.

In addition to the above mentioned possibilities it has been mentioned that the construction activity associated with construction of intake facilities can have adverse effects on the marine environment. The construction will affect water quality owing to the introduction of sediment or pollutants which are known to have adverse effects on the marine habitat (Cipollina, Micale and Rizutti 278).

It has also been noted that the increased turbidity may have short term effects on marine life during the construction. This case is especially true upon consideration of filter feeding organisms (Cipollina, Micale and Rizutti 278). The increased sediment and pollutants introduced into the water during construction are likely to have adverse effects on such organisms. It is suggested that more severe is the damage of habitats along the benthic corridor due to construction activities (Cipollina, Micale and Rizutti 278). This construction activity is also likely to affect reefs and other structures which exist below the surface and act as a natural habitat to several organisms. For the above reasons it would appear that there is a need to undertake further research into the potential adverse effects of desalination on the environment so as to begin providing suitable counter measures that can assist restore the habitats.

Conclusion and Recommendation

In beginning of this report on desalination activities in Saudi Arabia, it was mentioned that 70% of the earth surface is covered with water. Of this water it has further been established that 98% is in oceans and as such is largely unsuitable for domestic consumption (Sipes 1).

In a similar fashion it was mentioned that Saudi Arabia is located in an arid region of the earth with very little access to fresh groundwater. In addition to aridity the report also mentioned that the country has been forced to contend with a rapidly growing population in recent times.

Due to these pressures and the need to find a lasting solution to the growing water crisis, Saudi Arabia has resorted to desalination of sea water to meet its domestic needs. Given that sea water is in abundance as mentioned in the introduction it would appear such an initiative is very positive if the issue of cost could be addressed.

Given that treated waste water has been found to have the potential of satisfying over 10% of the country’s need for water it would appear that it is wise to implement this as a supplement. This could be done while undertaking public awareness campaigns are made within the country to promote the use of this water for specific purposes. These campaigns could focus on information indicating that treated waste water is of even higher quality than the ground water in some cases.

In addition to that it has also been noted that the water crisis affects a large region neighboring Saudi Arabia. Reports have indicated that conflicts over water are likely to arise if the situation is not addressed. This report suggests Saudi Arabia should take the lead within the region in taking these discussions to the next level.

Works Cited

Alsharhan, A. S., Z. A. Rizk, A. E. M. Nairn, D. W. Bakhit and S. A. Alhajari. Hydrogeology of an Arid Region: The Arabian Gulf and Adjoining Areas. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science B.V., 2001. Print.

Bowen, Wayne H. The History of Saudi Arabia. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc., 2008. Print.

Cipollina, Andrea, Giorgio Micale, and Lucio Rizzuti. Seawater Desalination: Conventional and Renewable Energy Processes. Palermo: Springer, 2009. Print.

Cordesman, Anthony H. Saudi Arabia enters the 21st Century. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2003. Print.

Elhadj, Elie. Experiments in Achieving Water and Food Self Sufficiency in the Middle East: The Consequences of Contrasting Endowments, Ideologies, and Investment Policies in Saudi Arabia and Syria. Boca Raton:, 2006. Print.

Federal Research Division (FRD). Saudi Arabia: A Country Study. Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. Print.

Lorey, David E. Environmental Challenges of the Twenty-First Century: Resources, Consumption, and Sustainable Solutions. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2003. Print.

Mays, Larry W. Integrated Urban Water Management: Arid and Semi Arid Regions. Leiden: Taylor & Francis The Netherlands, 2009. Print.

Sipes, James L. Sustainable Solutions for Water Resources: Policies, Planning, Design and Implementation. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2010. Print.

UNESCO. Water for People, Water for Life. Barcelona: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2003. Print.

Zaidi, Mohammed K. Decision-Making and Environmental Security. Istanbul: Springer, 2006. Print.


Appendix A: Water Resources in Arabian Peninsula

Water Resources in Arabian Peninsula

Appendix B: Waste Water in Gulf States

Waste Water in Gulf States

Appendix C: Permitted Maximum Contaminant Levels in Treated Waste within Gulf States

Permitted Maximum Contaminant Levels in Treated Waste within Gulf States

Appendix D: Water and Sanitation Services in Saudi Arabia

Water and Sanitation Services in Saudi Arabia

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