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Privatisation, increased imports may solve Saudi water crisis

Privatisation, increased imports may solve Saudi water crisis

Saudi won’t meet its water demands by 2025. Privatisation and increased imports just may be the key solutions, proposes Roger Harrison.

June 1, 2011 3:22 by



Water is the most constraining factor in the growth of Arab countries and remains the Kingdom’s greatest challenge. Added pressure comes from population growth and climate change. The outcome of climate change is uncertain but, said Mohammed Al-Saud, deputy minister for water and electricity: “Change is certain.”

Al-Saud said that the strategic challenges were varied and included supply and demand management, environmental protection and water governance policy.

“What is needed is some ‘what if?’ thinking,” he said.

He included among the strategies the “implementation of an optimal productivity strategy that leads to the import of water through virtual water.”

This refers to importing food that is grown in water-rich countries and saving the importer’s national resources. Its inclusion in possible planning hints at a possible reduction of water-hungry agriculture in Saudi Arabia and a greater reliance on imports.

He supported this in his key presentation by noting that; “current abstractions (of groundwater) led to water shortages in the agricultural and urban areas.”

He said that privatisation of groundwater use was needed.

If it were privatized, it poses the question of whether agricultural users — which constitute 82 per cent of total water use according to the latest figures — would be charged a commercial rate for water use. If so, it predicates change in the national agriculture industry.

Al-Saud suggested that agriculture be oriented toward the production of “high value cash crops” as part of a drive toward more efficient water use.

CEO of the National Water Company Loay Al-Musallam stated that Saudi Arabia will not be able to meet its water supply needs by 2025 and that the use of recycled water was essential. Only six percent — 300 thousand cubic meters per day — was recycled in the Kingdom up to 2009.

“The benefits of recycled water should influence policy makers and institutions,” he said. “It will help a lot in facing the water challenges and scarce water resources.”

He noted that using recycled water is commercially viable and environmentally beneficial. Over the last two years, he had seen a 25 percent increase in demand for recycled water. Sewage effluent sold in the last two years totaled 500 thousand cubic meters, “but we expect this to reach 5 million cubic meters over the next ten years.”

Effluent is a valuable resource as it not only yields water, but dissolved metals and chemicals that can be removed and used in industry and agriculture, the solid waste being used for agriculture or detoxified for landfill.

Riyad Al-Ahmed, Resident Coordinator and Representative of the UNDP, supported Muallim in principle.

“Water is an economic good,” he said. “We must think about it as a an economic resource.”

Referring to leakages across the network, Muallim said that 20 percent of the network’s water was lost in transmission, 80 percent of it from domestic connections to the mains. The loss from the 67 million cubic meters a day supplied to the network was the equivalent to the output of nine desalination plants. He added that he wanted to see that reduced to five percent over the next six years or so. In private, two expert conferees put the leakage figure very much higher, particularly in Riyadh and Jeddah.

In response to a question from the floor concerning the delayed charging of an economic price for water to users, Musallim said that he continues to believe that it is “imminent.”

“It is the only way to control the ever increasing demand and to make sure that the consumer – agricultural, domestic, industrial and government.”

He added that to do this “you have to make sure your services are good.”



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