How Saudi Arabia is acting to stabilize and replenish its groundwater reserves

Special How Saudi Arabia is acting to stabilize and replenish its groundwater reserves
A view of the desalination plant owned by the Saline Water Conversion Corporation in Ras al-Khair in the Kingdom's Eastern Province. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)
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Updated 23 March 2024
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How Saudi Arabia is acting to stabilize and replenish its groundwater reserves

How Saudi Arabia is acting to stabilize and replenish its groundwater reserves
  • The Kingdom is among the most arid countries in the world due to its minimal rainfall and high evaporation rates
  • To combat water scarcity, Saudi Arabia has made substantial investments in conservation and desalination infrastructure

DUBAI: Groundwater levels are in significant decline around the world, particularly in agricultural regions with dry climates that experience severe water deficiency. Saudi Arabia is one of several Middle Eastern nations that struggle with water scarcity.

The Kingdom is among the most arid countries in the world due to its minimal rainfall and high evaporation rates. Its climate exposes it to temperature fluctuations, little annual precipitation, no natural perennial flow, and few groundwater supplies.

However, over the last few years, especially within the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, work has been done to stabilize and even recover Saudi Arabia’s groundwater levels as well as develop plans to maintain the nation’s water resources at a sustainable level.

Due to the discovery of lucrative fossil fuels around four decades ago, the Kingdom has experienced an exceptional period of economic growth and is rapidly transforming its economy and society further under Vision 2030, launched in 2016 by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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  • World Water Day is an annual UN observance day held on March 22 that highlights the importance of freshwater.

Saudi Arabia’s economic boom has resulted in a higher standard of living for its people as well as large-scale urban migration and an increase in population growth. The country grew from 4 million in 1960 to around 36.9 million in 2022, according to the General Authority for Statistics, also known as GASTAT.

The Kingdom is now, according to GASTAT, the 41st most populous country in the world.

While Saudi Arabia’s economic boom, increased opportunities, and population growth are positive gains for the country on its road to socio-economic transformation, such successes have also placed the country’s scarce water resources under extreme pressure.

Presently, the Kingdom relies on three basic sources for water extraction: Desalinated seawater, groundwater, and recycled water regularly used in electricity production.

Saudi Arabia derives some of its water from the sea. This is done through the process of desalination, which involves transforming brackish seawater into potable water. The Kingdom is now officially the world’s largest producer of desalinated water.




A view of the Jubail Desalination Plant at the Jubail Industrial City in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province overlooking the Arabian Gulf. (AFP)

Groundwater aquifers, both renewable and non-renewable, are considered the most important resource for freshwater in the Kingdom. Aquifers in Saudi Arabia supply more than 90 percent of the agricultural sector’s water needs and around 35 percent of urban water needs.

“Actions are being taken but more are needed,” Saleh bin Dakhil, a spokesperson for MEWA, told Arab News. “Saudi Arabia is spearheading initiatives locally to mitigate the impact of high water demand mostly to agriculture.”

Aquifers have long been a major source of water in Saudi Arabia and comprise vast underground reservoirs of water.

During the 1970s, the government undertook a major effort to locate and map such aquifers and estimate their capacity. It then drilled tens of thousands of deep tube wells in areas with the most potential for both urban and agricultural use.




In the oases of Al-Ahsa in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, scientists have found that traditional farming techniques stretching back centuries helped preserve one of the region’s green gems. (Supplied)

“Groundwater is a critical resource for irrigated agriculture, livestock farming and other agricultural activities, including food processing,” Jippe Hoogeveen, senior land and water officer in the Land and Water Division at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told Arab News.

“In order to meet global water and agricultural demands by 2050, including an estimated 50 percent increase in food, feed and biofuel demand relative to 2012 levels, it is of critical importance to increase agricultural productivity through the sustainable intensification of groundwater abstraction, while decreasing the water and environmental footprints of agricultural production.”

Where a perennial and reliable source of shallow groundwater exists, groundwater can be an important source for smallholder farmers, said Hoogeveen.




Over the last few years, especially within the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, work has been done to stabilize and even recover Saudi Arabia’s groundwater levels, as well as develop plans to maintain the nation’s water resources at a sustainable level. (Shutterstock)

Regions heavily reliant on groundwater for irrigation include North America and South Asia, where 59 percent and 57 percent of the areas equipped for irrigation use groundwater, respectively.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the opportunities offered by the vast shallow aquifers remain largely underexploited, only 5 percent of the area equipped for irrigation uses groundwater.

Saudi Arabia’s water shortage impacts sustainable agriculture, industrial development and the well-being of the population.

The Kingdom uses 80 percent of its water for agricultural purposes, with groundwater extraction accounting for most of this demand, which is not sustainable, according to a 2023 research paper titled: “Water Scarcity Management to Ensure Food Scarcity through Sustainable Resources Management in Saudi Arabia.”




The Kingdom has launched its National Water Strategy 2030, which has been prepared according to the principles of integrated water resource management and aims to restructure the country’s water sector and transform it into a more sustainable and efficient one. (MEWA photo)

Another three-year study by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the US shows that groundwater is declining around the world. It found that groundwater is dropping rapidly in more than two-thirds of the aquifers, or 71 percent, of 1,700 aquifers studied — three times as many as expected.

Having declined in the 1980s and 1990s, depletion rates have since sped up in the last two decades. In some countries, such as Iran, groundwater decline is widespread. But in parts of Saudi Arabia, groundwater levels have stabilized or even recovered, the report found.

The report demonstrated how the declines of the 1980s and 90s had reversed in 16 percent of the aquifer systems the authors had data for.

For a water-stressed country like Saudi Arabia, substantial public and private sector investment has been made into water and desalination infrastructure to create as much usable water as possible.

One initiative, bin Dakhil said, is the Upper Mega Aquifer System, which is one of the largest aquifer systems in the world. It underlies the extreme deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and crosses borders between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Yemen and the UAE.




Simplified geological map of the Arabian Peninsula showing the extent and outcrop of the principal aquifers of the Upper Mega Aquifer System in Saudi Arabia, considered as one of the largest aquifer systems in the world. (Infographic courtesy of the Hydrogeology Journal)

It is built of several bedrock aquifers or sandstone and karstified limestone aquifers that are then imperfectly hydraulically connected to one another. The main ones are the Wasia-Biyadh sandstone aquifer, and the karstified Umm Er Radhuma and Dammam limestone aquifers.

However, due to good water quality and high yield, these aquifers have been intensively exploited, leading to the depletion of groundwater resources.

In central Saudi Arabia, groundwater levels have declined for decades, but evidence is now emerging that these declines are slowing down due to policy changes. Bin Dakhil told Arab News that the amount of water lost from aquifers is now being reduced.

“Secondly, there has been a lessening of the impact from groundwater withdrawal on rates,” he added, emphasizing the major governmental measures and decrees passed to mitigate the challenge of water scarcity.

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The Kingdom has launched the National Water Strategy 2030, prepared according to the principles of integrated water resource management, with aims to restructure the country’s water sector and transform it into a more sustainable and efficient one.

The strategy, bin Dakhil said, involves a variety of initiatives, including ones that call for irrigation efficiency and water-reducing agriculture practices.

Evidence suggests that laws and regulations to prevent or limit diffuse groundwater pollution from agriculture, and especially their enforcement, are “generally weak,” Hoogeveen said.

“Policies addressing water pollution in agriculture should be part of an overarching agriculture and water policy framework at the national, river basin and aquifer scale,” he added.

In terms of groundwater development, rural electrification has been a principal driver, said Hoogeveen, especially where rural power grids have been extended into areas that would otherwise have relied on diesel fuel or wind energy.

Additionally, advances in solar technology have witnessed the development of solar-powered irrigation systems, adopted at scale to service farming operations.

“However, there is a risk of unsustainable water use if SPIS implementation is not adequately managed and regulated,” he said.

In Saudi Arabia, bin Dakhil said “the deeply rooted use of non-conventional water to mitigate the depletion of non-renewable groundwater by an increased use of renewable water for irrigation.”




CaptionFirst Solar Saudi Arabia and Al Watania Agricultural Company completed a pilot project that uses solar energy to power an irrigation at a farm spread over 300 square kilometers in the Kingdom's northern province of Al Jouf. (Supplied/File)

An example is renewable water that is being pumped from the Dammam region into the agricultural area of Al-Ahsa in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province through a pipeline with a volume exceeding 200 thousand cubic meters per day by the Saudi Irrigation Organization.

Additionally, technical and legislature governance tools have been put in place that include hundreds of groundwater observation wells augmented by the implementation of water by-laws through licenses, metering of groundwater withdrawal and tracking of drilling rigs using smart technology to monitor and measure water quality, conserve water supplies and enable citizens to function efficiently.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is increasing the amount of rainwater harvesting through new dams and efficiently managing existing dams to allocate water to agriculture.

“The Kingdom has also established a center for water efficiency and rationing whose policies target increasing the efficiency of groundwater use and rationing its withdrawals,” said bin Dakhil.




King Fahd Dam, located in Bisha governorate in Asir province, is one of the largest concrete dams in the Middle East. (SPA)

All these measures demonstrate the Kingdom’s steadfast attention to not only its own issues with water scarcity but also the global challenge to use water sustainably.

One of the Kingdom’s main obstacles to achieving sustainable development is the dearth of renewable water resources and the rising demand for water.

With the dedicated measures being taken by both the private and public sectors, the Kingdom has the potential to turn its lack of water into a long-term success story — one that could serve as a model for other countries struggling with water scarcity.

 


Hajj pilgrims from Uzbekistan, Morocco, Niger and Iraq latest to arrive in Saudi Arabia

Hajj pilgrims from Uzbekistan, Morocco, Niger and Iraq latest to arrive in Saudi Arabia
Updated 24 May 2024
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Hajj pilgrims from Uzbekistan, Morocco, Niger and Iraq latest to arrive in Saudi Arabia

Hajj pilgrims from Uzbekistan, Morocco, Niger and Iraq latest to arrive in Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: The first group of pilgrims from Uzbekistan, 950 in total, arrived in Makkah on Thursday ahead of Hajj.

Several expressed “gratitude to the Kingdom’s government for the services and facilities that have been provided to make their pilgrimage safe and reassuring,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Meanwhile, the Saudi ambassador to Morocco, Sami Al-Saleh, attended a farewell ceremony at Rabat-Sale Airport as the first group of Hajj pilgrims from the country set off for the Kingdom. He was accompanied by the Moroccan minister of endowments and Islamic affairs, Ahmed Toufiq, and other senior government officials.

Similarly, the Saudi ambassador to Niger, Zaid Al-Harbi, saw off the first group of Nigerien pilgrims as they departed from the capital, Niamey. The country’s prime minister, Ali Lamine Zeine, was also present.

Closer to home, a second group of Hajj pilgrims from Iraq arrived at the Arar border crossing in the Northern Borders Province on Thursday, where authorities said they received a warm welcome and benefited from a range of services and procedures designed to streamline entry procedures.

The Iraqi pilgrims expressed their thanks and “commended the Kingdom’s leadership for the generous hospitality and exceptional services provided by the authorities responsible for Hajj affairs,” SPA reported. 

They also praised the facilities at the crossing, which officials said will operate around the clock throughout the Hajj season to provide the best possible pilgrimage experience.


Saudi FM discusses Gaza, West Bank with Palestinian PM

Saudi FM discusses Gaza, West Bank with Palestinian PM
Updated 23 May 2024
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Saudi FM discusses Gaza, West Bank with Palestinian PM

Saudi FM discusses Gaza, West Bank with Palestinian PM

RIYADH: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan on Thursday spoke to Palestinian Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Mustafa by telephone, the Kingdom’s Foreign Ministry said.

They discussed developments in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and its surrounding areas.


Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority issues statement following Riyadh food poisoning incident

Riyadh experienced a wave of food poisoning cases caused by clostridium botulinum at the end of April. (File/Shutterstock)
Riyadh experienced a wave of food poisoning cases caused by clostridium botulinum at the end of April. (File/Shutterstock)
Updated 23 May 2024
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Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority issues statement following Riyadh food poisoning incident

Riyadh experienced a wave of food poisoning cases caused by clostridium botulinum at the end of April. (File/Shutterstock)
  • Nazaha says royal directives mandate the holding of all responsible officials accountable

RIYADH: Following the recent food poisoning incident at a Riyadh restaurant, the Kingdom’s Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority has said anyone found to be negligent in ensuring public health and safety will be held accountable.

The authority, also known as Nazaha, added on Thursday that measures will be taken against anyone found to have obstructed the investigation into the incident and concealed crucial information regarding the cause of poisoning.

Riyadh experienced a wave of food poisoning cases caused by clostridium botulinum at the end of April.

The outbreak was linked to the consumption of food from a Hamburgini fast-food restaurant and led to several hospitalizations and one death.

The Ministry of Municipal, Rural Affairs and Housing later announced that a Saudi Food and Drug Authority laboratory test found clostridium botulinum in the Bon Tum mayonnaise brand used by the food chain.

As a result, the distribution of the mayonnaise product was suspended and it was withdrawn from markets and food facilities across all cities in the Kingdom.

Operations at the Bon Tum factory producing the mayonnaise were halted in preparation for implementing statutory procedures.

Initial investigations by Nazaha “revealed attempts to conceal or destroy evidence, suggesting potential collusion by a small number of unscrupulous food establishment inspectors who prioritized personal gain over public health and safety,” the authority said on Thursday.

Nazaha said that royal directives mandate the holding of all responsible officials accountable, regardless of position.

“This applies to those who neglected or delayed fulfilling their duties, actions which may have contributed to the poisoning or hindered response efforts. Consequently, a high-level committee has been established to verify and oversee the implementation of these directives,” Nazaha said.

Nazaha added that comprehensive reports detailing the circumstances, causes, and those potentially responsible for the poisoning were produced around the clock after the incident.

The reports encompassed laboratory analyses of samples from various establishments and details of medical care provided to suspected victims, it said.

Precise laboratory testing, conducted by local and international foodborne illness specialists, swiftly identified the type and cause of the poisoning, the authority said.

Nazaha said the incident was contained and has been resolved.


Saudi Arabia secures membership in International Transport Forum

Saudi Arabia secures membership in International Transport Forum
Updated 23 May 2024
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Saudi Arabia secures membership in International Transport Forum

Saudi Arabia secures membership in International Transport Forum

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia secured membership in the International Transport Forum on the sidelines of the event held in Leipzig, Germany.

Saudi Minister of Transport and Logistics Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser said that the membership symbolizes the Kingdom’s commitment to addressing transportation challenges through innovative and sustainable solutions. It also supports the Kingdom’s established role in developing the transport and logistics sector, he added, highlighting the Saudi Vision 2030 goal of benefiting from the country’s strategic location to become a global logistics center.

Al-Jasser said that the Kingdom has made significant strides in logistics, jumping 17 places to reach 38th place globally in the logistics services performance index. Additionally, the Kingdom achieved 13th place globally in the IATA’s international air connectivity index and 16th in the maritime navigation network connectivity index. He also noted the launch of a new air carrier, Riyadh Air, aimed at connecting the Kingdom to more than 250 international destinations.

The Kingdom is committed to enhancing the resilience of its transport infrastructure, promoting sustainable mobility and ensuring equitable access to transport services for all, Al-Jasser said.

Saudi membership of the ITF confirms its prominent position in the global transport sector, the minister added. This membership will enable the Kingdom to contribute to enacting legislation and regulations that improve and develop transportation on an international scale, he said.


Italian shipbuilding giant floats Saudi Arabia partnership plan

Italian shipbuilding giant floats Saudi Arabia partnership plan
Updated 23 May 2024
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Italian shipbuilding giant floats Saudi Arabia partnership plan

Italian shipbuilding giant floats Saudi Arabia partnership plan
  • Fincantieri stands out in the shipbuilding industry for its innovation, says CEO

RIYADH: One of the world’s biggest shipbuilders will work in partnership with Saudi Arabia to strengthen the Kingdom’s maritime sector, with a focus on sustainability and the development of “green shipping.”

Fincantieri, an Italian company and Europe’s largest shipbuilding group, highlighted its commitment to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 agenda at a conference under the theme “Where Vision Meets Maritime Excellence” held in Riyadh on Wednesday.

Saudi decisionmakers from related sectors in Riyadh joined Italian officials in a range of sessions at the forum.

During the event, Fincantieri CEO Pierroberto Folgiero outlined the shipbuilder’s plans to collaborate with Saudi companies in line with Vision 2030.

“Our commitment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is steadfast,” he said.

Fincantieri stands out in the shipbuilding industry for its innovation, and has a leading role in the naval, cruise, and oil and gas sectors, Folgiero said.

The CEO highlighted the importance of developing green ships, designed to minimize the environmental impact of maritime operations, as part of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2060.

Digitizing shipyard operations through innovations such as AI also aligns with the goals of Vision 2030, Folgiero said.

“Today, the shipping industry and the maritime industry, in general, is coping with environmental regulation. For us, it is not only a source of compliance, but also a source of distinctiveness. So, we believe that in the maritime sector, in the shipbuilding sector, mastering energy transition and new technologies will be a source of competitiveness and distinctiveness,” he said.

“That is why we are engaged in all the solutions (regarding) energy transition at sea. We are a new engine. We are in biofuels. We are in methanol. We are in LNG. We are in ammonia. We are in hydrogen. We are everywhere there is innovation at sea.”

Maria Tripodi, undersecretary of state for foreign affairs at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, discussed the significance of keeping operations and businesses sustainable.

Fincantieri’s ships are built to produce zero carbon emissions, which helps to protect the environment and marine ecosystem, she said.

Khalil Ibrahim bin Salamah, deputy minister for industry affairs at the Saudi Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources, said: “Localization for us is a key factor. Key components are crucial, but the whole supply chain is equally important.”