Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Water Challenges in KSA

Water Challenges in KSA Nawan dam
Photo 1: Nawan Dam, KSA. (Source: Abdullah Muhammed, Flickr)

Despite the fact that 99.84 % of Saudis have access to potable water,[1] KSA is classified as one of the most water-scarce nations in the world. The absolute water scarcity level is 500 m3/cap./yr, whereas KSA has only 89 m3/cap./yr. Additionally, the country experiences different water challenges at planning, operational and management levels. These are outlined below.

Inefficient water use: High water consumption rate and water use in agriculture

KSA has the third-highest per capita freshwater consumption in the world. As shown in Figure 1, daily per capita water consumption increased from 227 litres in 2009 to 278 litres in 2018. In addition, extensive agricultural development programmes have almost depleted the non-renewable groundwater and reduced water quality. As discussed in the water use section, agricultural use accounts for nearly 72% of the total water use.

Figure 1: Average water consumption in KSA.[2]

Costs associated with reliance on desalination

KSA has relied on desalinated water since the 1950s and has come to be the leading desalinated water producer in the world. Some 7.6 MCM is produced daily, accounting for 22% of global production in 2020.[3] However, this puts immense pressure on the environment and energy security. According to a 2013 World Bank report, the country burns 1.5 million barrels of crude oil equivalent daily to produce desalinated water and generate electricity. Moreover, desalination has a significant environmental impact, including damage to the marine environment caused by the discharge of brine and other chemicals into the sea as well as air pollution due to high emissions of CO2 and other harmful gases. The total production and transmission cost of desalinated water has increased from about $0.87/m3 in 2006 to about $1.09/m3 in 2010, with an average annual rate of 4.6%.[4]

Water losses

Water losses in networks are one of the major water challenges in KSA. Estimated water losses place KSA at a much lower level than international best practices. According to NWC data, water losses range between 25-40% in the main cities. The overall picture may be even worse, due to the lack of clarity when estimating water losses. Different sources indicate different quantities of technical and commercial losses, leakages and unaccounted for water. The variation contributes to ineffective control system insulations and data collection. Moreover, the areas in which meters are being installed have not been defined and the billing and collection system is not monitored effectively.[5]

Wastewater pollution

Untreated sewage discharge is one of the major environmental problems facing the Kingdom. The current capacity of WWTPs is insufficient. Moreover, the rainwater drainage system is connected to the sewage network. Therefore, the quantities of water reaching WWTPs exceed the plants’ capacity, which leads to the direct discharge of untreated wastewater during peak periods.[6]

Lack of policy development, planning and management of water resources

There is fragmentation in the development of policies and planning, with a lack of coordination between the main actors and sectors. Likewise, the long-term vision for the sector is incomplete. There is no comprehensive plan for the industrial sector, such as those in place for water use in the agricultural and urban sectors. The same applies to planning for demand management.

In addition, there is an urgent need to adopt an integrated approach to managing water resources to determine the optimal resources required to meet increasing demand. There are several gaps in current practices, as the sustainable extraction rates of non-renewable water resources have not been determined for each region. This comes at a time when water resources are planned and distributed without a comprehensive assessment of the main economic constraints and needs.[7]

Private sector participation

The private sector’s participation in water and sanitation is limited. In addition, the private sector’s role in the production of desalinated water is confined to independent production stations. Changes in the government’s investment strategy in light of the global economic slowdown have affected water desalination, and also impacted the risk-sharing between private investors and the government.

At the same time, the late enactment of structural regulatory changes, including tariff reform and regulated compensation, has affected the distribution and collection of water.[8]

[1] General Authority of Statistics, 2019. Statistical indicators for sustainable development goals.
[2] General Authority of Statistics, 2018. Environmental indicators.
[3] US-Saudi Business Council, 2021. Water in Saudi Arabia: Desalination, wastewater and privatization.
[4] Ghanim, AA, 2019. Water resources crisis in Saudi Arabia, challenges and possible management options: An analytic review. World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Environmental and Ecological Engineering 13(2).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.