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Runaway water consumption alarming for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia represents for many the epitome in arid condition. It receives very with little rain, has no rivers or lakes, and is endowed with only limited groundwater reservoirs, which are quickly depleting. With such conditions, one would think that we would come up with the best water conservation methods. Not so. We consumer water at a rate twice the world average, using much more water than countries endowed with plentiful and replenishable resources.
Our ancestors were acutely aware of the value of water. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) repeatedly instructed Muslims to conserve water “even when sitting by a running river.” Our forefathers composed love poems about the rain and were careful not to waste a drop of water. They domesticated the camel, the most rational water consumer in the world. They cultivated the palm tree, which survives on very little water of any quality.
We have abandoned our old, time-honed conservation practices and adopted a profligate way of using water, despite the fact that our arid conditions have stayed the same, and our groundwater reservoirs are shrinking by the minute.
Last Wednesday (July 31), the Saudi minister of water and electricity raised the alarm about reaching a new threshold of water consumption.
According to the Saudi Press Agency, which carried the minister’s remarks, water consumption (by households) exceeded eight million cubic meters per day, a record for Saudi Arabia. Divided by a population of nearly (30) million, this amounts to a daily rate of about (265) liters per person.
Although the minister’s message was somewhat garbled in some media outlets, he was clearly speaking about the frightening pace of water consumption by households in Saudi Arabia. Saudis are consuming water at an alarming rate, twice the world average. Demand for water by households is growing by (7.5) percent annually, or three times the Saudi population rate of growth.
This picture is bad enough, but when you keep in mind that water consumed by households is mostly (about 60 percent) desalinated sea water, it becomes tragic, because the cost of desalinating seawater is staggering, both financially and environmentally. The rest (about 40 percent) comes from groundwater aquifers that are being depleted at alarming rates as well.
Because of limited ground and surface water resources, there is increasing reliance on water desalination. Demand for desalinated water is growing by around (14.5) annually, nearly twice the overall demand for water and six times the growth rate of the population.
But desalination is costly and unsustainable. It costs about $1 per cubic meter to produce and consumes eight times more energy than groundwater projects. It accounts for ten to 20 percent energy consumption in Saudi Arabia. In addition, there are great environmental challenges associated with the whole process.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, accounting for about 18 percent of the total world output. Currently, there are 30 desalination plants in the country supplying drinking water to principal urban centers via a network of over 5,000 kilometers of pipelines.
To face the increasing demand, there are plans to double desalination capacity over the next decade, and to spend an additional $70 billion on new water projects.
Why are we consuming so much water? Experts attribute the phenomenon to several reasons, including:
Although desalinated water is costly to produce, it is being given away for almost free. The low fees households pay for water disguise its real cost. As there is no financial incentive for households to conserve water, they make little effort. The government has given away some conservation kits for free, but they is little demand for them, because of the artificially low cost of water.
There is little awareness among consumers of the value of conservation or practical ways to do it.
Inefficiency of the water network that supplies households with water. Some networks are aging and in bad need of repair or replacement.
Leakages from the network are estimated to be nearly 50 percent in some areas. Because of the way pipes are laid down, they are difficult to repair in the cases of leaks and broken pipes, because they are buried deep in the ground, not laid down in easily accessible tunnels. In some cases, it may take weeks or months to repair a broken pipe.
Judging from other countries’ experience, the most effective way to face the runaway water consumption is through creating public awareness.
There are some limited efforts in schools and media, but the message has not reached the main targets. Moms and dads, let alone household staff, are rarely interested enough in conservation to make the arrangements necessary to achieve it. Saudis’ favorite way of cleaning their cars and homes is to hose them down with fresh water from the tap.
Next, there needs to be faithful implementation of stricter regulations about the efficiency of everyday fixtures including faucets, showerheads and toilet. If needed, the cost of replacing existing inefficient fixtures could be subsidized or borne by the government. The savings in water conservation could easily compensate for such subsidies.
Third, no conservation plan could work fully without addressing the price of water, which has to be meaningful enough to encourage consumers to conserve.
Today, I talked about the runaway water consumption by households, which represents only 13 percent of overall water consumption in Saudi Arabia. The rest is consumed by agriculture and industry. More on that later.