Saudi Arabia and Desalination

HIR Issue: 
Pressing Change

 The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which already produces 24 million cubic meters of water per day from desalination, about half the world’s total, is building the largest solar-powered water desalination plant in the world in the city of Al-Khafji on the shores of the Persian Gulf. The recent initiative in Saudi Arabia to enlarge its water desalination capacity using high-tech green technology is a smart move, multi-dimensionally strategic and future-oriented. 

This project constitutes an important part of the major ongoing effort to decrease oil use in water production in this oil-rich nation. Up until recently, 90 percent of all the water desalination plants in Saudi Arabia ran on oil or natural gas as the source of energy, which is economically unsound. A cubic meter of water costs between 40 and 90 US cents to produce, depending on the price of fuel; it would be more profitable to simply sell the oil to foreign trade partners. Currently, the Kingdom uses a tremendous amount of energy—1.5 million barrels of oil per day—to  provide power to the country’s 30 government-operated water desalination plants. As oil price have risen, the cost of desalinated water has increased as well, making this water production method even more economically unsound.

Since the 1970s Saudi Arabia has had to dig deeper into its oil reserves to keep up with the hugely increased demand for water. About 40 years ago, Saudi Arabia started to give massive agricultural subsidies to domestic farmers for growing wheat so that the nation could become self-sufficient in food. In the early 1990s, the country was paying farmers so much for wheat that it produced enough wheat to export to neighbors. Entering the 21st century, however, the Saudis have realized that this food security is not worth the resources and investment required to produce the water that goes into agriculture. For example, Saudi Arabia exports dairy products produced in some of the biggest dairy farms in the region, but it takes 1000 liters of water to produce just one liter of milk.

To address this problem, the Saudi government has resolved that the Kingdom will rely entirely on imports for food by 2016. Starting in 2008, the government has been reducing wheat purchases from local farmers by 12.5 percent a year and plans to continue withdrawing all agricultural subsidies to these farmers eventually.

Although this total food dependence may sound extreme, it is very rational. Since the introduction of government subsidies, food production has relied almost entirely on “fossil water,” or deep groundwater extracted from ancient aquifers in an energy-intense process. Unfortunately, using fossil water for any longer makes no business sense for multiple reasons. First, Saudi Arabia is capable of importing all of its wheat necessities using oil money. As long as food-exporting countries will trade for Saudi oil, the richest Arab nation has no reason to lose money by making its own wheat. Second, the kingdom can sell the very oil used to run the water plants to other countries and bring in more money. Finally, fossil water is realistically nonrenewable in the span of our human lives, so Saudi Arabia would do well not to entirely deplete its ancient fossil aquifers. According to estimates, about 70 percent of these aquifers, more than what is considered naturally recoverable, have been depleted already from the increased water production in the past decades. Though simply buying water directly with oil money would seem to be an obvious solution, even the oil-rich Saudi Arabia cannot count on its oil reserves forever. This means that reliance on oil for water and food itself, albeit convenient, is shortsighted. Even Saudi Arabia should look for alternative sources for water and food.

Hence, the Kingdom’s new reliance on the best alternative to fossil water: desalinated water, powered by the sun, not by oil. The country could consider nuclear power as another option, but this option would entail the political problem of introducing nuclear technology to the unstable Middle East. Reliance on nuclear power would also make Saudi Arabia dependent on uranium imports. Solar power, by contrast, is harmless, both politically and environmentally. Fortunately, the Saudis can afford to build many solar-powered desalination plants, enough even to completely support self-sufficiency in food production.

To build and the plants requires money and energy, and the Kingdom has plenty of both. In terms of the construction costs, Saudi Arabia would need to build enough plants to increase its water output by a factor of five to keep up with their annual two percent population growth. The cost for such an endeavor would be approximately US $200 billion. Producing the planned 15 billion cubic meters of water per year will require about 60 terawatts of energy annually, which means that about US $300 billion of 1 kilowatt-rated power photovoltaic panels are necessary. Considering that Saudi Arabia has been reaping a surplus of US $100 billion in oil trades every year, it can definitely afford to build and run enough new water desalination plants. Furthermore, this cost estimate reflects the most expensive technology available as of 2008; as technology becomes more advanced with time, the cost could decrease.

The Saudi government is proactively supporting this new high-tech project by privatizing the construction and operation of the water plants and by encouraging international collaboration on the necessary cutting-edge technology. For example, Saudi Arabia’s national research agency, the King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology, collaborated with IBM to create new chemicals for photovoltaic cells and for heat-cooling process that will allow the new plant in Al-Khafji to utilize triple the amount of solar power and filter water 25 to 50 percent faster than do the systems currently in use.

Building new solar power water desalination plants is strategically smart because it stops the bleeding of oil from the natural reserves while enabling the country to keep up with the needs of a growing population and increasing urbanization. With enough water production, Saudi Arabia will not have to be at foreign countries’ mercy for food imports. Furthermore, the Kingdom could benefit from pursuing this green technology by earning international recognition as one of the environmentally friendly developed countries, exporting water throughout the Middle East, selling desalination technology, and guaranteeing water security to citizens in rural areas who rely on the whims of unreliable trucked water sellers. With a sustained push for the development of high-tech water desalination plants, Saudi Arabia may well become not only an oil power, but a water power as well.