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Water – a precious resource

Unlike here in the UK, where we never seem to be short of rain for very long, water has always been a scarce and extremely precious resource in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom is the largest country in the world with no permanent rivers or freshwater lakes. Rainfall is scarce, and highly variable year on year. Due to the hot temperatures, evaporation is high, but it hasn’t always been this way. Due to continental drift, 200 million years ago, Arabia was situated on the Equator, and things were very different. Even as recently as two million years ago, a series of great rivers drained the landscape, flowing east from the western mountains to the shallow Arabian Gulf. Today, all that remains of these once great rivers are dried-up riverbeds known as Wadis.

The impact of a small population on the water supply in the Kingdom was minimal, but as population has rapidly increased, urban life, industry and, above all, agriculture, consume far more water than traditional life in the deserts and towns ever required. Saudi Arabia has used its water resources in many different ways to support its development. The country's water demand, as in other areas of the world, has been increasing steadily over the past two decades, reaching around 81 billion cubic feet by the year 2000.

Did you know?Where does the water come from?

Deep under the surface of Saudi Arabia, extensive reservoirs of water are stored in the rock. These aquifers, or water-bearing layers of sedimentary rock, constitute the country's major source of water, known as groundwater. Water has accumulated in these areas over a period of 40,000 years, and the government has drilled many deep wells throughout much of the desert to supply the Bedouin and numerous agricultural wells in the more fertile valleys. This source of water has been the largest and most important for many years, but in current climate conditions is considered non-renewable, and under severe threat through increasing population and agriculture.

An increasingly important source of water is from the sea. Saudi Arabia is now the world's largest producer of desalinated water, producing 30% of the global total, and over 80% of all that is produced in the Middle East. Every day, the country's 30 desalination plants pump almost 600 million gallons of water through nearly 2,000 miles of pipeline, meeting 70 per cent of the Kingdom's needs for drinking water. More such plants are planned to cope with the increasing demand.

Except in the mountains of the south-west, surface water is not a reliable source due to the lack of rainfall. To catch the rains that do fall, the government has built over 200 dams, both to catch the run-off water, and to reduce the impact of flash floods. The larger dams, such as those in the Wadi Jizan, Wadi Fatima, Wadi Bisha and Najran, supply irrigation water for thousands of acres of cultivated land. The Wadi Bisha dam, the second largest in the Middle East, has a reservoir capacity of 86 billion gallons and supplies water for both agricultural and urban use.

Another expanding source of water is treated urban wastewater. It is estimated that approximately 40 per cent of the water used for domestic purposes in urban areas could be recycled. The Ministry of Agriculture and Water has constructed a recycling plant in Riyadh that provides more than seven million cubic feet of treated wastewater.

National Water Plan

Other ideas have been considered to solve the Kingdom’s worries about water, ranging from towing icebergs from Antarctica, to shipping tankers of water from areas of plenty, the cost of which is thought to be no less expensive than desalination.

In 1985, Saudi Arabia recognised the need to focus on ways to economise and control the use of water, through something called the National Water Plan. The plan provided for conservation, greater coordination between agriculture and water policies, intensive use of reclaimed waste and surface water, and better coordination of supply and distribution. Rapidly rising populations have since demanded a clear and more comprehensive plan for the future. Such is the importance of water to the Kingdom that in September 2002, Dr Ghazi Algosaibi, then Ambassador to London, was chosen to head a new Ministry of Electricity and Water.

mOre Links to find out more about water:

Saudi Ministry of Agriculture and Water:

United Nations International Year of Freshwater:

The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington D.C.:

Photographs courtesy of Peter Sanders.

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