California looks to Saudi Arabia for desalination expertise

The Carlsbad desalination plant in California. America’s largest seawater desalination plant, the $1 billion facility produces 50 million gallons of drinking water for the San Diego area each day, but at a cost double the price of other sources. (Reuters)
Updated 30 March 2018
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California looks to Saudi Arabia for desalination expertise

SAN FRANCISCO: As water shortages become a reality across the globe, authorities in drought-prone areas are looking to Saudi Arabia’s desalination industry for inspiration.
The Kingdom produces more desalinated water than any other nation, with 27 plants transforming sea brine into five million cubic meters of fresh water a day.
The industry has grown rapidly in recent years. In January, the Kingdom announced plans to invest more than $500 million (SR1.874 billion) to build nine plants in Jeddah.
It is not the only area trying to meet the needs of a growing population demanding more fresh water. After experiencing acute drought between 2011 and 2017, the US state of California is expanding desalination projects. Grants of $35 million were approved this year for a variety of desalination ventures as municipalities across the state seek to diversify water portfolios.
Experts in California have been studying the Kingdom’s desalination projects. “The value of what is going on in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world is the recognition that water … is necessary for both long-term community and economic survival, and that good planning is key,” said Paul Kelley, the executive director of CalDesal, a not-for-profit advocacy group. He added that Saudi Arabia’s foresight in planning for a “water resilient” future was a lesson that California would do well to follow.
Increasing both the volume and efficiency of water production is among the many goals laid out in Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Program (NTP) 2020 and Vision 2030, which seeks to wean the country from oil reliance, and build a more sustainable economy. At a conference last month, the Minister of Environment and Agriculture announced a $1.3 billion investment in water technology projects to upgrade and further develop infrastructure.
While cutting-edge desalination technology has been developed in California’s top research institutions for decades, complicated regulatory frameworks and politicians have hindered the broader application of the process, said Yoram Cohen, director of the Water Technology Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s one thing to develop the technology, it’s another to actually push for its deployment,” he added.
While acknowledging that the water needs of California vary greatly from those in Saudi Arabia, Cohen said the golden state could learn much from the political will shown in the Kingdom to prioritize desalination. “They’re moving forward,” he said of counterparts in Saudi Arabia.
In California, which sets strict limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, critics of desalination have long cited its environmental footprint as massive inputs of energy are required to run the plants separating salt from water.
However the industry may be moving toward a greener, future. In February, Saudi Arabia announced plans to develop a $58 million solar-powered desalination plant near King Abdullah Economic City. Construction began on the project this month, with the plant scheduled to be up and running by 2020.
It is an important step forward, Cohen said: “It illustrates that one can move toward sustainability in a dual mode — where you use renewable energy and you use renewable sea water.
“You don’t want to continue desalinating using precious energy sources, including petroleum or gas: solar energy is the way to go. That’s an investment in the future.”
Creativity and good-planning will be necessary as both Saudi Arabia and California develop resource-management plans for the future, Kelley said. While Saudi Arabia has been “pushing the innovative envelope” by investing in desalination projects and research, examples of poor governance abound.
Aside from the dramatic water shortages seen in California during the recent drought, the recent admission by municipal leaders that Cape Town would run out of potable water by this summer has renewed calls for investment in desalination. “They could well have done some desalination and followed the model of Saudi Arabia and other places around the world to make sure that at least a third of their water supply was drought-resistant,” Kelley said of Cape Town.
With global warming increasing temperatures worldwide and once-predictable weather patterns thrown into flux, the Kingdom’s commitment to reliable supplies will be “very applicable to the rest of the world,” he added.


Motherly advice from Dr. Thoraya Obaid

Updated 21 March 2019
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Motherly advice from Dr. Thoraya Obaid

  • n an exclusive interview for Mother’s Day in the Arab world, the woman who paved the way for a new generation of Saudi women shares her life lessons
  • ‘Have faith in Allah, and believe in yourself and that you were created to bring good to the world,’ she advises

RIYADH: The first Saudi to head a UN agency, the first Saudi female to graduate from a US university on a government scholarship, one of 30 women to be appointed to the Shoura Council for the first time, one of 100 notable “Muslim Builders of World Civilization and Culture,” and editor of “The Oxford Dictionary of Islam.” These are just a few achievements on the remarkable CV of Dr. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid. 

For years she politely declined media requests for interviews, saying it was time for the next generation to take the spotlight. But after a year of attempts by Arab News, she finally granted the newspaper an interview. 


 

As the Arab world marks Mother’s Day on March 21, Arab News decided it was a good occasion to sit down with Obaid, a mother of two girls, because she has been a role model to so many young Saudi women.

 

She has been an advocate for women’s rights worldwide, most notably as under-secretary-general and executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) from 2001 to 2010. 

But what most people do not know is how humble she is. “Please don’t call me Dr. Thoraya, call me auntie,” she said in a soft voice.

Early beginnings 

“I was 7 when I left for Cairo (to study at a boarding school). There were no girls’ schools in Saudi Arabia at the time, in September 1951, and my father had the same principles for his sons and daughter. He followed our Islamic teaching that advocated education for all,” she said.

“I started crying when he took me to the school in Cairo and told the teacher to take me away.”

Years later, she asked her father how he felt at that time. He told her: “I felt that if I let my fatherly emotions take over, I’d have bundled you up and taken you away.” 

But he decided against it, realizing that this moment would make or break her future, and he wanted to empower her through education.  

That moment, Obaid said, helped her cope anywhere in the world. 

She learned to make a new family through bonds with other students and teachers at the boarding school. 

She went on to get a PhD in English literature, with a minor in cultural anthropology, from Wayne State University in Detroit.

“My generation was focused on education,” she said. “You learn that education isn’t only for you, but also for you to serve others.” 

Working life

Obaid has lived and worked most of her life outside her country, in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and the US. 

During her time with the UN, she travelled the world. After her meetings in various countries, she would insist on going to villages and poor urban areas where the UNFPA supported government projects, so she could meet the people there. 

“These are the real people that must be empowered to change their own lives, not the ones we meet in the ministries,” she said. “Unless you go and see the poor, the sick and the very basic human rights violations, you won’t know what the country is about, especially if you’re stuck in nice hotels.” 

Even though she sought to visit these impoverished areas, heart-wrenching scenes would always get to her. At the UN they called her the “crying executive director,” but she was not ashamed of her tears. 

In one African country, while checking maternal programs in the village, she encountered a sickly woman who was thrown out of her home by her husband. She told her story to Obaid, both of them with tears streaming down their cheeks. 

In South Africa, she visited the cell in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 17 years. The guides were all former political prisoners, who said they kept the prison open in order to demonstrate that apartheid should not exist anymore. As she cried silently, she told them: “You know, there’s another apartheid happening again, in Palestine.” 

Life lessons

Obaid’s experiences taught her much about life. When it comes to family, she had this advice: “For young girls in families, don’t ask for everything and at the same time. Be selective, and have a strategic goal that you want to achieve in your life; focus on that.”

She said: “My most important request was going to university, a goal that’s now taken for granted by the young generation. So I tell girls to have a strategic objective in life. If you work toward it and achieve it, it will change your life.”

She advises daughters not to be inflexible with parents regarding their demands. “When you grow up, you’ll realize the issues weren’t worth it,” she said. “It’s even more obvious when you become a parent yourself.” 

Obaid, who worked hard to realize her dreams, added: “We, as human beings, don’t have unlimited energy, so direct your energy to what will make a difference in your life.” 

As for being Saudi, she said there is no place like home, adding: “I’ve lived 58 years out of my country and returned voluntarily. I’ve never really felt home except in my home, Saudi Arabia, with all its frustrations and complications.” 

It never crossed her mind to get another passport or residency permit, she said. “I learned that one’s dignity lies in their homeland. Wherever you go and however long you stay, you’ll always feel like an outsider. Even if you integrate in the community, you’re still an outsider,” she added. 

When asked what advice she would give youths, she said: “Have faith in Allah, and believe in yourself and that you were created to bring good to the world.”