RIYADH: Desalination doubled in Saudi Arabia over the past decade to reach 2.2 billion cubic meters in 2021, compared to 1.1 billion cubic meters annually in 2010, thanks to the comprehensive overhaul of some existing plants and the introduction of new technologies.
For example, Jubail 2, one of the largest desalination plants in the Kingdom serving Riyadh and Jubail, increased its annual production capacity by about 30% to reach 380 million cubic meters in 2021 from less than 300 million cubic meters in 2014.
However, to meet the growing domestic demand for water, the Kingdom’s desalination industry is preparing to consider another breakthrough.
The brief history below shows that desalination plays a vital role in the Kingdom’s economy.
The desalination process in the Kingdom dates back to the early 20th century, when Jeddah became the first city to install two privately owned distillation condensers to meet the city’s growing demand.
Yanbu and Jazan, the other coastal cities in the Kingdom, followed the same approach in developing their seawater distillation condensate until the entire industry was nationalized and regulated under the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture in 1965.
When the method began to gain popularity in the region, the Saline Water Desalination Corporation was established as an independent governmental entity in 1974 to promote and regulate water distillation operations in the Kingdom.
Although it started out as expensive and inefficient, it was essential to the kingdom’s growing population needs.
Moreover, its geographical location puts it at a disadvantage in accessing different types of water resources such as, for example, precipitation.
Therefore, its options were limited to shallow and deep groundwater and desalinated water.
A rise in the population to 33.5 million in 2018 from just 25.2 million in 2007 has led to a 70 percent increase in the demand for drinking water, according to a research report published in the Journal of Water Treatment Engineering in 2019.
The report added that it would be impossible for groundwater to last 50 years at this rate of consumption, highlighting the desalination option, which has been strategically considered and implemented by the government.
In 2010, the Corporation produced about 1.1 billion cubic meters of water in 30 desalination plants located on the eastern and western coasts of the Kingdom, which met nearly 50 percent of the Kingdom’s domestic water demand.
The company also improved its capacity to 5.2 million cubic meters per day of water or 1.9 billion cubic meters per year in 2018.
In 2021, the Corporation produced 2.2 billion cubic meters of water and operated 32 production plants. As a by-product of water distillation, it produced 47 million megawatt-hours of electricity.
In major cities, the share of desalinated water in total water consumption is very high, especially in cities such as Makkah, Jeddah and Taif where almost all drinking water comes from nearby desalination plants.
The share of Riyadh and the Kingdom was 63-64% in 2020.
Thermal distillation and reverse osmosis are the two most common methods for converting seawater into potable water.
The first uses heat to vaporize sea water, separating the salt from the water, and then the evaporated gas is cooled into water through condensation.
The latter passes seawater through a semi-permeable membrane that separates the salt from the water, wasting less energy in the process.
Furthermore, the Corporation has been involved in two renewable energy projects that are being developed in line with the Vision 2030 blueprint.
The future of desalination in Saudi Arabia looks promising and challenging at the same time. Therefore, the corporation aims to take more renewable sources for water desalination projects, to reduce the cost of conversion, thus improving conversion efficiency and reducing carbon emissions simultaneously.
Assuming current population growth rates continue over the next 10 to 15 years, the kingdom may need a desalinated water capacity of 4.5 billion cubic meters per year in 2040, according to a deep research report released in 2014. In fact, output will be required to double Other than the production level for 2021.
Regardless of how efficient or productive desalination methods are, Saudi Arabia at this rate will have to resort to methods of reducing demand, whether it is through awareness campaigns or taxing high water use.