The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Awash in oil, short on water
Recent weeks have seen a severe water crisis in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, with residents of the oil rich region turning on their faucets--only to find them dry. This, despite the fact that the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the world’s number one producer of oil as well as the world leader in water desalination, with more than three million cubic meters of desalinated water produced daily. As a result of the shortage, an estimated 15 neighborhoods in the city have suffered from lack of sufficient water supply for more than a month according to local press sources.
Industry experts in the city of Jeddah maintain that despite Saudi Arabia’s impressive wealth, the problem lies in the simple fact that growth in demand for potable water in the city has outstripped output in recent years. Other reports claim that the city’s aging water pipe system has only worsened the crisis.
According to industry expert Feheid Al Sharief, governor of the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC), Saudi Arabia will need an additional six million cubic meters of water per day over the coming two decades years due to the population increase and urban development, said reports in Arab News.
The situation has brought about a new and highly illegal phenomenon of “black market water merchants,” marketing bottled water to desperate residents at astronomical prices. In addition to the high cost for consumers, it is nearly impossible to be certain of the quality or source of the water being sold, or for that matter, whether or not it is suitable for drinking. Moreover, with each passing day the number of consumers turning to local “water distribution centers” in the hopes of acquiring a minimum amount of potable water for themselves and their families skyrockets. Residents can wait in line for hours for a single bottle of water. In other cases, foul play has added to the suffering of residents, as water tanker drivers have been known to abandon people who have paid for water and then run off with a truckload of water.
Immediate solutions for the crisis have yet to be found. The Saudi Water and Electricity Minister recently called for transfer of water to Jeddah from other cities across the Kingdom, and ordered massive water storage containers for the purpose. However, even according to the Ministry, such solutions were only temporary, and other long-term plans would need to be found if the solution was to be resolved once and for all.
There is hope, however. In the Water Minister’s words, a long-term solution to Jeddah’s water crisis lies some 100 kilometers south of the city, where work is underway to construct the new “Shueiba 3” water desalination plant. Others, though, feel that wastewater treatment could also help ease the problem significantly along with desalination. Such a solution, though, has only relatively recently come to the attention of authorities, with the development of the ‘Riyadh River,’ created by recycling industrial wastewater into a lake.
Other aspects of solving the current problem have also arisen, including the participation of the private sector in helping to solutions. Dr. Riaz Ahmed, the technical adviser and ground water exploration manager at Abunayyan Drilling Co. stressed that the private sector should play a more active role in establishing desalination plants on a BOT (build, operate, transfer) basis. He added that the government should encourage such private sector participation.
“The government alone cannot shoulder the entire responsibility. The international trend is to involve the private sector,” Ahmed pointed out.
Despite the many possible ways of solving the solution and the staggering revenue which Saudi authorities continue to reap from oil sales, it is the residents of cities like Jeddah who remain waiting in the meantime for the most basic resource of all, water.