Right remedy for Saudi groundwater crisis
- From: Vol 10, Issue 2 (February 2009)
- Category: General
- Region: Middle East
- Country: Saudi Arabia
- Related Companies: King Saud University, Ministry of Water and Electricity and National Water Company
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The new deputy minister for planning and development Mohammed Al-Saud thinks water rights might help control agricultural water use in the kingdom. Not before time.
The creation of the National Water Company left a large gap in Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Water and Electricity. At a stroke, responsibility for water and wastewater services in the four largest cities in the kingdom was transferred out of the ministry, while the deputy minister for planning and development, Loay Al-Musallam, was also transferred to the new company.
His replacement, on a three-year secondment from King Saud University, is Dr Mohammed Al-Saud. For those focused on the utility side of the ministry’s work, the appointment begs the question: what is he going to do? For those aware of Saudi Arabia’s broader water crisis, Al-Saud’s appointment is a stroke of brilliance.
Dr Al-Saud’s area of academic expertise is agriculture, irrigation and water management, and this, more than the performance of utilities, is the greatest challenge facing the kingdom. “There is a conflict of interest between agriculture and water. If you want to develop agriculture it will be on the shoulders of water, and if you want to preserve water it will affect agriculture.”
He remembers how wheat production in the kingdom rose from “almost nothing” to 4 million tons a year during the 1980s and early 1990s. The water for this expansion came from non-renewable sources. “I remember there were some lakes south of Riyadh in the 1980s where you could jetski, and now they have totally disappeared. It is due to the amount of water we have used – more than 450 billion m3 – just for agriculture. That is a huge amount of water to use in the desert where there is no significant renewable water.”
The government announced last year that it will phase out subsidies to farmers growing wheat by 2015. “They will reduce the amount of wheat they buy from farmers by 12.5% each year, and they are also banning exports of wheat,” Al-Saud remarks. In fact, wheat growers may be forced to cut their production by that much anyway: there is simply not enough groundwater to maintain current levels of production. “My question is ‘what is sustainable agriculture?’ It is not sustainable if you are using non-renewable water or fossil water. If we can block that, then we can have a very great success.”
The root of the problem is that farmers can take water from the ground without restriction. “Before putting a price on water, we need to create water rights. Otherwise there is no way of putting a price on water.”
Al-Saud studied for his doctorate at Colorado State University, so he is well aware of the way water rights are managed in the western United States. He sees scope to introduce a new system of water rights based on the Islamic principle that once you have enough water for yourself, you should let it flow to the next farm. “Regulation could start by first creating a quota, which balances the water between users. If someone is using more than their quota, then you can charge them for that. It would be the first stage of charging for water, because people are getting water for free.”
The quotas would be based on the availability of renewable water. Renewable water resources in the kingdom amount to around 8 billion m3/year, and desalination generates a further 1 billion m3/year, but agricultural usage totals around 22 billion m3/year. It is little surprise, then, that it will take some time to finalise the new system of water rights.
In the meantime, the ministry will continue to promote water conservation. Its programmes have proved remarkably successful, and commercial water users have shown the most progress. “We give out fines if they do not use water-saving equipment in their establishments. That is the stick. The carrot is that this equipment is free to them.” The scheme has resulted in a 45% reduction in water usage in some areas.
Besides tackling the big issue of water resources, Al-Saud has four other areas in which his department is active. First, it has been investing in human resources and training. Second, it has been undergoing re-engineering to take account of the changes that have taken place with the establishment of the National Water Company. Third, it has established a quality programme and, finally, it has been driving the introduction of e-government.
This latter campaign is likely to have a significant impact on utility management. “All our customers will be able to access their bills and water services through the internet, and hopefully we can also read the meters electronically through AMR [automated meter reading]. That means less labour, and controlling the leakage in the networks and controlling or knowing the amount of water entering and leaving the cities is essential. We are looking for private partners to help us in this.”
With all these activities on his plate, Al-Saud is in no hurry to move on the privatisation of water services in the second-tier cities in the kingdom. “We are trying to make the other cities ready for private contracts in future. However in the short term, we are not looking for other operators. It may change depending on the performance of the National Water Company and the private sector.”
The whole business of running a government department is new to Al-Saud. “It is a good experience. I think I would like to stay for three or four years, if it were my choice. It is good to plan, and to see some of the results of the things I am starting.”