Notion of free water must evaporate

Pathik Root & Roger Harrison | Arab News

JEDDAH: The average human is a frail creature that cannot last very long without water, especially in a hot, arid climate like Saudi Arabia’s.

According to an unreleased report prepared for Minister of Water and Electricity, the Kingdom uses 1.5 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water each year to support 20 million palm trees. That is three times that amount of water that Jeddah consumes annually. Although the number may seem justifiable, the economic impact of such water use might not be.

The consumer in Saudi Arabia buys water for domestic use under heavily subsidized pricing. It is a sweet deal for consumers because they can use as much as they wish and pay low monthly bills.

Desalination plants supply 60 percent of this urban water use, with the other 40 percent coming from groundwater. According to an industry expert, production and transmission costs amount to SR4/cm for desalinated water, and SR2/cm for ground water. But these prices exclude two hidden costs.

One overlooked cost comes from the use of government-subsidized oil in the desalination process. If the plants were to use market priced oil, it would add an estimated SR2 /cm to the production costs. Furthermore, the above transmission cost only includes getting the water from the source to the municipal distribution network. Distributing this water to each household adds another two riyals to the cost of both desalinated, and ground water, according to this industry expert who did not want his name published.

All things considered, the government is paying SR8 /cm for desalinated water, and SR4 /cm for ground water; but they only charge 10-15 halalas. Considering the cost of production, letting any of this valuable resource go to waste seems like an unwise economic decision.

Unfortunately, figures from the 2008 World Bank report show that leakage from pipe and transmission systems stands at 1.1 million cubic meters a day, or roughly the combined output from the nine biggest desalination plants. In reality, average leakage could be as high as 40 percent and the loss could quite conceivably be as high as 2.2 million cubic meters a day — but no one really knows.

Taking the lower figure for water loss, the price for these leakages amounts to at least SR3.2 billion each year. After all of the numbers are crunched, the government spends SR668 per person, per year for the water that comes out of the tap. The yearly water bill amounts to SR18 billion.

The news only gets worse. Once the agricultural sector is factored in, overall water costs go from unsustainable to astronomical.

According to a water expert at King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology, household consumption accounts for only seven percent of total water use. The commercial sector accounts for three percent, and the agricultural sector accounts for an overwhelming 90 percent of water use.

Currently, large farms are using reserve water tables to fuel their growth. They are using 25 billion cubic meters per year, but these ancient aquifers are refilling at only one to five percent of that rate. The current perception is that water is free or very nearly so; and that when a consumer turns on a tap, water comes out. This may be the case now, but if conservation efforts do not improve, the consumers dream could soon end.

As water reserves start to dwindle, the Kingdom will have to turn to desalinated water for agricultural use. Imagine adding another SR200 billion to government’s water bill; it just isn’t possible. Especially if the Kingdom is hit by decreased oil revenue over the next 50 years. So what can be done to keep from going down this dangerous path?

The Kingdom can do a lot now to save itself from serious financial and political water challenges in the future. The creation of the National Water Company was the first big step. It has started combating the leakage problem, while increasing water accessibility to millions of Saudis. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has directed vast amounts of money to support nanotechnology, which, among other things, could increase the efficiency of the desalination process.

There was also a recent request for bids to start treating the sewage water in Misk Lake; which should recover millions of cubic meters of water. Recycling this valuable resource is currently at a very low level; 16 percent nationally and as low as 6 percent in Riyadh. The Ministry of Water and Electricity is even running an impressive water conservation campaign aimed at getting consumers to reduce their personal water use.

It seems that, although there is a lot of work to be done, the domestic water industry is headed in the right direction. But overall water management efforts must be coordinated, and kicked into high gear.

If the large farm owners were to upgrade to modern irrigation technology they could significantly reduce their water consumption. Low Energy Precision Application technology puts the water on the ground right by the crops, and overcomes the 40 percent evaporation characteristic of the current spray application. Trials have shown that, done with care and accurate pressure control and metering, water use can be reduced by as much as 80 percent for the same crop yields.

In addition, if water capture systems were installed in Abha, the government could avoid the high cost of pumping water into the mountains. Or the Kingdom could adopt already available desalination technology such as Ultra Filtration Membranes — which are relatively cheap and very environmentally friendly — as it continues to research alternatives. So why has no one invested in this simple and easily available technology?

Although, many people might consider access to water an inherent right, this ‘right’ is now sold as an economic good and its extraction, manufacture and delivery are rapidly being privatized. Counter intuitively; privatization can actually lead to benefits for all. It could finally catalyze a much-needed shift in public perception surrounding water use.

A change in the public perception about the use of water, turning it from a virtually free resource to an intrinsically valuable one, will, over the coming decades, save trillions of riyals. But then again, it’s only money.