Water supply and sanitation in Saudi Arabia

Water supply and sanitation in Saudi Arabia

Water supply and sanitation in Saudi Arabia differs from most other countries in three significant aspects. First, it relies almost exclusively on two sources that are absent in most other countries: desalination and fossil water. Second, given the substantial oil wealth of the country, water is provided almost for free. Third, there is no separation between institutions in charge of policy and regulation on the one hand, and those in charge of providing services on the other.

Other aspects of the sector are reminiscent of the situation of many developing countries. First, despite massive investments substantial inequities remain. Those not connected to the drinking water system have to rely on expensive water provided by private trucks. Second, institutional capacity and governance in the sector are weak, reflecting general weaknesses in the public sector in Saudi Arabia.


There are no reliable and up-to date data on access to drinking water supply and sanitation in Saudi Arabia.

According to the WHO, the latest reliable source is the 1993 census. It indicates that in urban areas, where 88% of the population lives, 97% had access to drinking water from house connections and 100% had access to improved sanitation. Urban sanitation was primarily through on-site solutions and only 43% of the urban population was connected to sewers. In rural areas, however, only 63% had access to an improved source of water supply. There are no reliable figures on access to sanitation in rural areas. [ WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program. [http://www.wssinfo.org/pdf/country/SAU_wat.pdf Water] and [http://www.wssinfo.org/pdf/country/SAU_san.pdf Sanitation] ] However, according to a 2004 study of Elie Elhadj from the School of Oriental and African Studies “one half of Saudi householders still have no municipal water connections and two thirds are without sanitation connections”. Also, Saudi cities have no rainwater drainage systems to deal with the brief and occasional, but severe deluges of winters. [ [http://www.ciaonet.org/wps/soas015/ Household water and sanitation services in Saudi Arabia: an analysis of economic, political and ecological issues] ]

Service quality

The quality of service is relatively good in the major cities, but overall it remains below the standards of OECD countries. For example, the discontinuity of service is a serious problem. Few cities enjoy continued service, and water pressure is often inadequate. There are no systematic data on service quality.

There are no publicly available data on the quality of drinking water or treated wastewater.

Most desalination plants in Saudi Arabia use distillation technologies, such as multi-stage flash distillation, which remove all minerals from the water. The water thus needs to receive post-treatment to add minerals before it is being distributed.

There are 33 wastewater treatment plants with a capacity of 748 million cubic meters per year, and 15 more are under construction. Much of the treated wastewater is being reused to water green spaces in the cities (landscaping), for irrigation in agriculture and other uses.

Water Use

Total municipal water use in Saudi Arabia has been estimated at 2.1 billion cubic meters (BCM) per year in 2004, or 9% of total water use. Agriculture accounts for 88% of water use and industry for only 3%.

Demand has been growing at the rate of 4.3% per annum (average for the period 1999-2004), in tandem with urban population growth (around 3%).

Water supply is usually not metered, neither at the source nor the distribution point. It is tentatively estimated that average water consumption for those connected to the network ranges between 200 to 280 liters per capita per day, a level similar to the United States.

Water reuse in Saudi Arabia is growing, both at the level of buildings and at the level of cities. For example, ablution water in mosques is being reused for the flushing of toilets. [ [http://www.idrc.ca/en/ev-93954-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html Abderrahman: Water demand management] ] At the city level, treated wastewater is being reused for landscaping, irrigation and in industries such as refining.

An unknown, but large proportion of the population is dependent on supply through water tankers at a much higher cost, and at much lower levels of consumption, than those connected to the network.

Water resources

Saudi Arabia is one of the driest regions in the world, with no perennial rivers. Water is obtained from four distinct sources:

* non-renewable groundwater from the deep fossil aquifers
* desalinated water
* surface water
* renewable groundwater from shallow alluvial aquifers

Only the last two sources are renewable. Their volume, however, is minimal. Current levels of groundwater abstraction far exceed the level of natural recharge: Groundwater is being “mined”. For example, the Al-Ahsa aquifer in the Eastern Province experienced a drop of 150 meters over the past 25 years. Since the usable volume of the aquifers is not known, it is not clear how long groundwater mining can be sustained.

Overview of water resources

Fossil aquifers. Estimates of the groundwater stored in the principal aquifers are controversial. Ongoing resource assessments are expected to provide reliable estimates of the volume of water left in storage in each aquifer, and estimates of the portion of that volume that can be extracted on a sustainable basis.

Desalination. In 2004 the volume of water supplied by the country’s 30 government-operated desalination plants reached 1.1 BCM. 6 plants are located on the East Coast and 24 plants on the Red Sea Coast. By the year 2009, new plants will add an additional 0.58 BCM of water per year. Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world.

Surface water and alluvial aquifers. The country’s mean annual surface runoff has been estimated at more than 2 billion cubic meters per year. The country has eleven renewable alluvial aquifers with an estimated combined mean annual recharge of nearly 1 billion cubic meters per year. According to the World Resources Institute the renewable groundwater and surface water resources overlap, i.e. the entire renewable groundwater resources originate in recharge from rivers (Wadis) so that total renewable water resources are in the order of 2 BCM/year. [ [http://earthtrends.wri.org/text/water-resources/country-profile-156.html WRI] and “Water Resources of Saudi Arabia”, Volume I of the “National Water Plan” prepared by the British Arabian Advisory Company and the Water Resources Development Department, May 1979. There are no more recent estimates available. ] Surface resources and renewable aquifers are concentrated in the west and southwest, where rainfall is higher.

Sources of water for municipal supply

Desalination plants provide about half the country’s drinking water. About 40% comes from groundwater. The remainder comes from surface water (9%) and reclaimed wastewater (1%). Desalinated water is prevalent along the coasts, surface water in the southwest region and groundwater elsewhere. The capital Riyadh, however, is supplied to a great extent with desalinated water pumped from the Persian Gulf over 467 km to the city located in the heart of the country.

Responsibility for water supply and sanitation

Unlike in most other countries, there is no clear separation between institutions in charge of policy and regulation on the one hand, and service provision on the other. Instead all key sector functions are the responsibility of a single Ministry, the Ministry of Water and Electricity.

The quality and efficiency of service provision are hampered by the many weaknesses afflicting the public sector in Saudi Arabia in general. These include an inadequate civil servants recruitment policy, insufficient salaries, limited skills, no accountability for action taken (or not taken), a lack of strategic planning, and ad-hoc investment decisions.

Policy and regulation

Since 2003 the Ministry of Water and Electricity (MOWE) is responsible for policy and regulation of water and sanitation services. There is no separate regulatory agency for the sector. The recently established Electricity and Co-generation Regulatory Authority (ECRA) only regulates privately owned desalination plants.

The functions of the Ministry of Agriculture overlap with those of MOWE, since agriculture is by far the main water user in the country and contributes in the depletion of fossil aquifers on which a large share of the country’s drinking water supply depends. There is also some overlap between the two Ministries in the area of wastewater reuse.

There is no Ministry of Environment in Saudi Arabia.

Service provision

Services are provided by 13 regional directorates of MOWE, which are further divided into 47 branches throughout the Kingdom, each differing greatly in size and geographical coverage. Local government, which in charge of service provision in most countries of the world, has no role in service provision in Saudi Arabia.

In early 2008 a National Water Company (NWC) was created, thus separating service provision on the one hand from policy and regulation under MOWE. According to MOWE, the company is valued at Saudi Rial 22 billion (US$ 5.87 billion). It will take over service provision from the regional MOWE directorates over a three-year period. According to MOWE some shares of NWC would be offered in an IPO "at some point in the future". [ Water 21, Magazine of the International Water Association, April 2008, p. 9 ]

The Saline Water Conversion Corporation

The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC), an entity under the authority of the Ministry, is in charge of operating the country’s 30 publicly-owned desalination plants and operating a network of pumping stations, reservoirs and convert|2300|mi|km of pipes to transport the water in bulk from the plants to the major consumption centers, some of them located far inland such as Riyadh. SWCC is not an independent company run on commercial principles, but rather a branch of the government. Its water is provided for free to the branches of MOWE.

SWCC has a research department and a training center. It also carried out "a national plan to make the citizens aware of the importance of rationalizing water consumption". [ [http://saudinf.com/main/y8661.htm Saudi Arabia Information 2005] ]

Private participation in infrastructure

The role of the private sector is, in most cases, confined to engineering studies and construction of infrastructure. However, MOWE branches contract out some specific services. A private management contract, which would transfer more responsibility to the private sector, is in the process of being contracted for Riyadh and more management contracts are envisaged for other cities.

In May 2002 the first wastewater sector BOT contract in Saudi Arabia was awarded to a consortium of local firms. The consortium would rehabilitate, operate, maintain and upgrade the wastewater system of the Jeddah Industrial City over a period of 20 years and invest US$32 million. [ www.psiru.org/reports/2002-10-W-Mena.doc PSIRU MENA ] The government has awarded many more BOT wastewater treatment contracts since then.

In the field of desalination, Saudi Arabia has recently invited the private sector not only to build, but also to finance and operate new desalination plants. An example is the Shoaiba III Integrated Water and Power Plant (IWPP), which is the country's largest desalination plant with a production capacity of 150 million cubic meters per year, built at a cost of US$ 1.06 billion and completed in 2005. [ [http://www.water-technology.net/projects/shuaiba/ Water Technology Net] ] It is located on the Red Sea and provides water to Jiddah, Mecca and Taif. A Water and Energy Corporation (WEC) has been established as an off-taker that would buy the water from the IWPP. The government fully guarantees the payments due from WEC to IWPP. This follows the example of the Gulf countries, which had introduced IWPPs several years before.

Saudi Arabia plans to launch ten IWPPs by 2016 at a total investment of $16 billion. The first phase of this plan, to be completed by 2009 at an approximate cost of US$7.3 billion, will consist of three IWPPs:

* Shuqaiq, Phase II - a US$2.5 billion project to produce 850 MW of electricity and 212 million cubic meters of desalinated water per day. Shuqaiq II will be modeled after the Shuaiba III IWPP project, with similar guarantees and a 20-year power and water purchase agreement (PWPA).
* Ras Azzour - a US$2.4 billion project to produce 2,500 MW of power and 176 million gallons of desalinated water per day.
* Jubail, Phase III – The project will produce 1,100 MW of electricity and 25,000 gallons of desalinated water per day. [http://www.export.gov/articles/Saudi_MoM.asp US Department of Commerce 2007] ]


The operational efficiency of water and sanitation services is typically measured through the level of non-revenue water and the ratio of staff per 1,000 connections.

Because of the low level of metering it is difficult to estimate the level of non-revenue water in Saudi Arabia. Only in the case of Riyadh, where meters exist, a meaningful estimate has been done, resulting in an estimated 58% of non-revenue water. It is broken down into 21% physical losses; 13% commercial losses from undermetering, illegal connections and authorized unbilled consumption such as for mosques; and 24% billed consumption that is not being paid. The overall level is high by international standards.

A recent benchmarking study showed that the regional directorates are employing 10,500 people to serve 5.7 million customers. This corresponds to about 10 staff per 1,000 connections, which is more than three times higher than in the case of efficiently run utilities. The actual number of people employed in service provision is even higher because many directorates contract out specific services.

History and recent developments

The Saudi water sector, like the entire country, has undergone tremendous changes over the past decades from a system based on the use of local renewable water resources for small-scale irrigation and limited domestic uses to a system largely based on the use of desalinated water and fossil groundwater for large-scale irrigation and domestic, commercial and industrial uses at a level comparable to developed countries.

The Saline Water Conversion Corporation, created in 1965, has been an important player in this process of change.

Until 1994 domestic water use was entirely free in Saudi Arabia. Only then the very moderate tariff that is in place until today has been introduced.

The main public institutions in charge of overseeing this transformation were, until recently, two separate Ministries: The Ministry of Agricultural and Water was in charge of irrigation and water resources management; and the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs was in charge of water supply and sanitation. With the creation of the Ministry of Water and Electricity in 2003 the water functions from these two Ministries were transferred to this new Ministry, which is now the sole Ministry in charge of the water sector in the country.

Subsidies promoting irrigation of cereals have recently been reduced, resulting in a reduction of water use for irrigation and reduced pressure on fossil aquifers.

The government has launched an ambitious program to promote the participation of the private sector in the water sector, in particular in desalination and in wastewater treatment through BOT contracts.

Tariffs and cost recovery

Average water tariffs range from US$0.06 to US$0.10/m3, which are among the lowest in the world. The Kingdom has an increasing block tariff structure, but the majority of the consumers fall in the first two blocks where water charges are minimal. Customers with a water use of less than 100 cubic meter per month pay hardly anything for water. In other countries where increasing-block tariffs are used, the lifeline consumption benefiting from a lower tariff level is typically set at 20 cubic meters per month or less.

The tariff level and structure, combined with a low share of metering, provide little or no incentive to conserve water. Proposals for water tariff adjustments have been formulated, but so far no decision has been taken. There is no recovery of the cost of wastewater collection and treatment.

A cubic meter of water supplied by a water tanker may cost as much as 6 Riyals (US$ 1.50), or about 20 times more than water supplied through the network. The combination of low tariffs for those connected and low coverage forces non-served citizens, which are often poor, to pay up to 40 times more for water than connected households.

Few – if any – of the regional branches of MOWE have sufficient revenues to recover costs, despite the fact that they receive desalinated water for free. For example, the Riyadh branch – probably one of the best performing branches - had revenues of 370 million Riyals in 2004, but expenses of 570 million Riyals. On average, regional utilities recover less than 5% of their operation and maintenance cost.

Investment and financing

All investment for water and sanitation, including desalination, is funded directly by the central government’s budget. The 7th and 8th Development Plans allocations for water (including irrigation), covering a period of ten years, amounted to Saudi Riyal 34.9 billion (US$9.2 billion) and Saudi Riyal 41.6 billion (US$11.1 billion), equivalent to US$ 2 billion per year. This corresponds to almost 0.7% of GDP and more than US$ 80/capita/year. This level of investment is similar to investment levels in OECD countries - higher than in the USA, but lower than in the UK or Germany - on a per capita basis.

According to the US Department of Commerce the need for investments in water and sanitation in Saudi Arabia over the next 20 years is US$93 billion, or almost US$ 5 billion per year.

ee also

* Zamzam Well



* WHO/UNICEF: [http://www.wssinfo.org Joint Monitoring Program for Water and Sanitation]
* [http://www.ib-net.org/ International Benchmarking Network (IB-Net) for water and sanitation]
* [http://earthtrends.wri.org/text/water-resources/country-profile-156.html World Resources Institute Saudi Arabia Water Profile]
* [http://www.idrc.ca/en/ev-93954-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html Walid A. Abderrahman: Water demand management in Saudi Arabia, in: Water Management in Islam, IDRC, 2001, Edited by Naser I. Faruqui, Asit K. Biswas, and Murad J. Bino]
* World Bank / Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: The Water Sector of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2007.

External links

* [http://www.mowe.gov.sa/ Ministry of Water and Electricity] (in Arabic)
* [http://www.swcc.gov.sa/ Saline Water Conversion Corporation]

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