How is Saudi Arabia’s water infrastructure changing to meet the needs of its population and ambitious megaprojects?
Saudi Arabia, with a population of 35 million, has a desert climate, characterized by warm temperatures, arid terrain, and absence of vegetation in most places.
The yearly rainfall in the country is just under 100mm—one of the lowest precipitation rates recorded in the world. And with the exception of wadis (seasonal oases), there are no freshwater lakes or rivers, either.
Nevertheless, the country does not seem to be affected by water shortage, if its rapid urban growth is any indication, especially as the tariffs are negligible for residential consumers.
So, from where does the Middle East’s largest economy get its fresh water?
Since the second half of the 20th century, Saudi Arabia has been investing in innovative ways to supply water, and the country is finally reaping the benefits.
Aquifers were the first water resources that Saudi Arabia tapped into. Despite being a desert, the Arabian peninsula is sitting atop at least 500 billion cubic meters of ground water—also known known as fossil water.
Around 1970, as the modernization of Saudi Arabia was gathering momentum, the exploration of underground water reservoirs turned into a hot topic.
Local and international experts were called upon to map the water reservoirs underneath the peninsula.
The agricultural boom of the 1980s which led to self-sufficiency in wheat, vegetables, and dairy products happened thanks to the drilling projects which opened up many aquifers.
However, with the exhaustion of groundwater reservoirs over the last half a century, a new water resource was needed.
Saudi Arabia’s larger cities are mostly located along its eastern and western coasts, the main exception being Riyadh.
Given their situation, Saudis quickly saw the logic in turning the abundantly available sea water into fresh water.
Today, the kingdom is the world’s number one producer of desalinated water, investing millions of dollar in state-of-the-art desalination technologies.
The world’s largest desalination project, Ras Al-Khair, operated by the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) is pumping out 1 million cubic meters of water a day.
Desalination plants across the kingdom produce 7.5 million cubic meters altogether, accounting for over 70% of drinking water consumed in the country.
An official resolution issued in 2002 paved the way for the private sector to enter the market. Since 2009, private businesses have launched desalination plants using the build-operate-transfer framework.
Desalination technologies are routinely upgraded with the awarding of contracts to local and international companies. The Rabigh III plant, which employs the cutting-edge reverse osmosis technology, began its operations in 2021 and was recognized as the largest of its kind in the world in 2022.
Originally developed by the Spanish company, Acciona SA, Rabigh III is now over 40% localized, in keeping with “Made in Saudi” campaign.
Given its cost of purification, desalinated water is usually intended for urban use only.
For agricultural and industrial uses, Saudi Arabia relies on an array of 200 dams that collect runoff surface water.
It is estimated that 2 million cubic meters of runoff water can be captured each year with the right infrastructure.
The majority of runoff water comes from seasonal floods and flash floods. Rainfall is also a viable resource in the southwest, especially the province of ‘Asir.
To raise the precipitation rate in other provinces, the government has approved a plan for experimental cloud-seeding projects, according to Arab News.
The first cloud-seeding flights over the Najd plateau in central Saudi Arabia began in June, 2022. The spraying of silver iodine reportedly caused crystallization in the clouds, which triggers precipitation.
As Saudi Arabia’s ambitious mega-projects such as the smart city of NEOM go ahead, the country will need even more water resources for the its citizens and the expats it is planning to attract.
For the time being, desalination seems to be the centerpiece of the kingdom’s water portfolio, but cloud-seeding will continue as an alternative solution.