Crossroads Arabia

Saudi Water: Time for Everyone to Pay?

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Arab News editorializes on Saudi water consumption, the government subsidy on water, and how it might be possible for people to actually be forced to pay for a vital resource that has, hitherto, been essentially free to them.

It’s clearly a serious issue, as the editorial spells out. But getting people to pay for something they consider both an entitlement and cheap is not going to be easy. The piece suggests a four-tiered system of billing, including a ‘free’ first 150 liters/day/person allotment, with prices ramping up with consumption. That’s likely workable, but would need the details worked out. As the piece notes, agriculture is a massively inefficient water consumer and so the country has turned away from ‘food independence’. But completely closing an entire sector runs against another policy priority: employment. While most farm workers in the Kingdom are foreign workers, there are Saudis involved, both directly and in the spin-off and support industries surrounding it.

It’s quite a quandary, but it’s a serious problem that requires serious answers.

Editorial: How we squander a precious asset

The water we use in the Kingdom is sold to us at a tiny fraction of what it actually costs to produce it.

The inevitable consequence is that consumers squander a precious asset. The demand for water, therefore, increases steadily, and with it the exorbitant bill the Kingdom must pick up for its production and transport.

For three years in succession at the Saudi Water and Power Forum in Jeddah, top management of the National Water Company (NWC) has indicated strongly that consumers were at last to be charged a commercial rate. CEO Loay Musallam says that, per capita, the Kingdom is the world’s third largest water consumer, using 286 liters daily. Its water production cost from desalinization is also among the world’s most expensive.

While food security remains an important government concern, it has become clear this cannot be achieved from local agricultural production. Nor, because of water costs, should it be. The figures simply do not stack up. Watering cereal crops sees 40 percent of the water evaporate before it even hits the ground. The result is that it takes 400 liters of water to produce a 200-gram loaf of bread. Similar skewed economics applies to milk and beef production. Accounting for every input, it takes 600 liters of water to produce a single liter of milk in the Kingdom and fully 6,000 liters to produce a single kilo of beef.

Then there are costs over and above the water subsidies. Desalinization, which accounts for 60 percent of the water we use, is both an energy-intensive and carbon gas-producing process. Saudi Arabia is, therefore, not only hugely subsidizing its water consumers, it is generously subsidizing a rising environmental cost.


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