Wastewater recycling initiatives are expected to play an important part in Saudi Arabia’s efforts to meet rising demand and maximise output, both of which are seen as key ingredients for driving forward the Kingdom’s economic expansion.
The move toward recycling forms part of a broader bid by Saudi Arabia to ease the strain on its existing water supplies and conserve dwindling resources, while helping to address environmental concerns.
In a study carried by the Arabian Journal for Science and Engineering in February, scientists warned of the impact that rising temperatures triggered by climate change could have on Saudi Arabia. The study said temperatures could edge up four degrees Celsius by 2050, which estimates suggest would produce a 15% increase in demand for water from the agricultural sector alone, based on current production levels.
With agriculture already accounting for up to 90% of all water consumption in Saudi Arabia, any further increase is likely to put pressure on the other sectors of the Kingdom’s economy whose demands are also growing.
Concerns about the impact on the Kingdom’s economy of falling groundwater supplies, coupled with the demand that crop irrigation was making on resources, prompted Saudi Arabia to rethink its bid to become self sufficient in grain production five years ago. The country embarked on a policy of scaling back agricultural production in 2008, which will see cultivation of wheat phased out completely within the next four years.
However, despite the decision to cut back on crop production, demand for water is still set to rise, with calls on desalinisation plants expected to double by 2025. Saudi Arabia is moving to address its water shortages by building a number of new desalination plants to operate alongside its current facilities, which number around 25 and are located along the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf coastline. The Kingdom has earmarked around $66bn for these projects, which will be rolled out over the next decade.
While the new facilities will help address water shortages, they will also increase the negative impact that the country’s desalinisation plants are already having on the environment, particularly marine life, by pumping more salt into the sea, according to SUSTG, the Saudi-US Trade Group.
The Kingdom’s desalination programme also utilises oil, which adds to the country’s carbon footprint and could otherwise be exported. The daily fuel requirement for the existing plants alone has been estimated to stand at around 300,000 barrels of oil per day, SUSTG wrote in March.
As a result, Saudi Arabia is increasingly looking at solar energy to power future desalination plants, and officials are promoting higher levels of wastewater recycling across both the public and private sectors in a bid to encourage the population to conserve resources and soften the impact on the environment.
By improving wastewater treatment levels, the Kingdom will be addressing environmental concerns, while driving down costs and easing the pressure on existing supplies. According to studies, up to 800,000 cu metres of wastewater is discharged into the Red Sea every day from the city of Jeddah alone. Nutrients, chemicals and other waste products are all contributing to higher levels of pollution in the waters off the city, which are damaging the coral reefs and reducing fish stock, the Saudi Gazette reported in mid-April.
The risk to the Red Sea ecosystem posed by wastewater from Jeddah and other major industrial centres will increase in the coming years as Saudi Arabia’s manufacturing expansion programme gains pace.
In mid-April, the minister of water and electricity, Abdullah Al Hussayen, said Saudi Arabia was targeting conservation and recycling measures as part of a major government strategy aimed at addressing the water shortage issue. “We have to find additional resources to meet the growing demand for water, such as water desalination and the development of technologies for the reuse of treated waste water for agricultural, industrial and commercial purposes,” he told English-language Arab News last month.
In early April, the state-owned National Water Company utility took a step forward in sourcing additional resources and bolstering environmental protection, announcing it had signed a contract with Middle East Paper (MEP) to treat the 5000 cu metres of wastewater produced daily by the firm’s Jeddah plant. Under the deal, worth $27m over a 20-year term, the treated water will be reused rather than pumped into the sea, after travelling through a pipeline that will connect MEP’s plant to National Water’s Jeddah treatment facility.
According to National Water’s chief executive officer, Luay Al Musallam, the initiative will help preserve groundwater and protect the environment. “Treated water is the perfect choice for industrial, commercial and agricultural sectors, as it has the cost advantage compared to the desalinated water intended for drinking,” Al Musallam said.
Although processing and recycling will not solve Saudi Arabia’s water shortage, such initiatives will certainly make a difference. Well over half the Kingdom’s wastewater currently remains uncollected or untreated, according to SUSTG, indicating the significant potential for both conservation and savings that exists.