Water-hungry Saudi Arabia faces high cost of desalination | ET REALITY


Solar panels absorb the blinding midday rays that help power a water desalination facility in eastern Saudi Arabia, a step toward making the notoriously emissions-heavy process less burdensome on the environment.

The Jazlah plant in the city of Jubail applies the latest technological advances in a country that first turned to desalination more than a century ago, when Ottoman-era administrators readied filtration machines for Hajj pilgrims threatened by the drought and cholera.

Lacking lakes, rivers and regular rainfall, Saudi Arabia today relies on dozens of facilities that transform water from the Gulf and Red Sea into something drinkable, supplying cities and towns that would not otherwise survive.

But the kingdom’s growing desalination needs, fueled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dreams of presiding over a global business and tourism hub, risk clashing with its sustainability goals, including achieving net-zero emissions by 2060.

Projects like Jazlah, the first plant to integrate desalination with solar power on a large scale, are aimed at easing that conflict: officials say the panels will help save about 60,000 tons of carbon emissions a year.

It’s the kind of innovation that needs to scale up quickly, and Prince Mohammed is aiming for a population of 100 million people by 2040, up from 32.2 million today.

“Normally, the population grows and then the population’s quality of life grows,” requiring more and more water, said ACWA Power CEO Marco Arcelli, who runs Jazlah.

Using desalination to keep pace is a “life or death” challenge, said historian Michael Christopher Low of the University of Utah, who has studied the kingdom’s struggle with water shortages.

“This is existential for the Gulf States. So when someone is somewhat critical about what they are doing in terms of ecological consequences, I shake my head a little bit,” he said.

At the same time, he added, “there are limits” to how green desalination can be.

– Drinking the sea –

The search for clean water plagued Saudi Arabia in the first decades after its founding in 1932, prompting geological studies that contributed to the mapping of its enormous oil reserves.

Prince Mohammed al-Faisal, son of King Faisal whom Low has nicknamed the “Prince of Water”, at one point even explored the possibility of towing icebergs from Antarctica to quench the kingdom’s growing thirst, prompting widespread ridicule. .

But Prince Mohammed also oversaw the birth of the kingdom’s modern desalination infrastructure starting in the 1970s.

The National Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) now reports production capacity of 11.5 million cubic meters per day at 30 facilities.

That growth has come at a cost, especially in thermal plants that run on fossil fuels.

In 2010, Saudi desalination facilities consumed 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, more than 15 percent of current production.

The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture did not respond to AFP’s request for comment on current energy consumption at desalination plants.

Looking ahead, there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia will be able to build the infrastructure necessary to produce the water it needs.

“They have already done this in some of the most challenging scenarios, such as massive desalination in the Red Sea and the delivery of desalinated water up to the highlands of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina,” said Laurent Lambert of the Institute for Studies on Doha Postgraduate.

– Is it going green? –

The question is how much the environmental cost will continue to rise.

The SWCC says it wants to reduce 37 million metric tons of carbon emissions by 2025.

This will largely be achieved by transitioning thermal plants to plants like Jazlah, which use reverse osmosis powered by electricity.

Meanwhile, solar power will expand to 770 megawatts from the current 120 megawatts, according to the SWCC’s latest sustainability report, although the timeline is unclear.

“Unfortunately, it will still consume a lot of energy, but compared to what?” Lambert said.

“Compared to countries where water flows naturally from major rivers or falls from the sky for free? Yes, of course, there will always be more.”

At desalination plants across the kingdom, Saudi employees understand how crucial their work is to the survival of the population.

The Ras al-Khair plant produces 1.1 million cubic meters of water per day (740,000 through thermal technology, the rest through reverse osmosis) and struggles to keep reserve tanks full due to high demand.

Much of the water goes to Riyadh, which needs 1.6 million cubic meters a day and could need up to six million by the end of the decade, said an employee who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

Looking at the pipes that carry seawater from the Gulf to the plant, he described the work as high risk, with clear implications for national security.

If the plant did not exist, he said, “Riyadh would die.”


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