Water Scarcity in Saudi Arabia

Water Scarcity in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia could run out of water in the next 20 years after decades of mismanagement of domestic resources

Everyone, including the Saudi government, is agreed that the country and its population of 32 million – including an estimated nine million non-nationals – are facing immense water-shortage challenges. With demand rising at five per cent per annum, the country is in danger of running dry within the next 20 years. Predicted lower rainfall in future and increased temperatures caused by climate change are likely to exacerbate the problem. Saudi Arabia is part of one of the hottest and driest regions on the planet, receiving on average about 100mm of rain per year.

Due to generous government subsidies, Saudis - living in a land dominated by desert with no natural rivers or lakes - have become used to paying virtually nothing for their water. As a result, they are among the world’s most prolific consumers, using on average up to 350 litres of water per person per day. In Europe the equivalent figure is about 130 litres per day.

Agriculture accounts for more than 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s water usage. In the late 1970s and '80s, a programme of food self-sufficiency was pursued. The government subsidised pumps and energy so farmers could suck out underground water. Irrigation methods were primitive, with vast tracts of desert flooded for crops.

The country became one of the world’s biggest wheat producers. On average it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of wheat. Large herds of cattle were kept in air-conditioned pens. In recent years the self-sufficiency programme has been abandoned: the government says it will stop subsidising and buying domestically produced wheat and many other crops this year. Instead, Saudis have been urged to invest in land and water resources overseas as part of the King Abdullah Initiative for Saudi Agriculture Investment Abroad. 

To cope with an ever more parlous water problem, the desert kingdom has become increasingly reliant on production from desalination plants. Saudi Arabia is by far the world’s biggest user of desalination technology, with its more than 30 plants on the coast processing millions of gallons of water each day, then piping it hundreds of kilometres to Riyadh and other population centres. Over-dependence on desalination creates its own set of problems. Saudi officials are trying to curtail state spending but desalination is an expensive business. Estimates are that to keep up with water demand, as much as $29bn needs to be invested in desalination over the next 15 years. The desalination process requires large amounts of energy. To fuel its desalination plants, Saudi Arabia uses up to 1.5 million barrels of oil per day – more than the entire daily oil consumption of the UK.