Saudi Arabia Faces Marked Decline in Groundwater

March 8, 2004

Saudi Arabia seems to be running out of groundwater. According to Deputy Minister for Water and Electricity Abdullah Al Hussayen, no one really knows how much water is left.

The most recent study on groundwater was done 25 years ago, and test wells show there are marked declines in water level, a report in local daily Arab News explained.

"We have to initiate programs, and we have hired hydrological consultants to study the two major aquifers in the Kingdom. Within two years, we shall be in a better position to assess," Al Hussayen said.

Agricultural projects, many of which were designed to encourage Bed-ouin settlement, have increased water resource exploitation. Historically, improperly drilled wells reduced their effectiveness by leaching the lands they were meant to irrigate.

In 1987, about 90 percent of the total water demand in the Kingdom was consumed by agriculture. That figure has not changed significantly.

In the early 1990s, large-scale agricultural projects relied mainly on such underground aquifers, which then provided more than 80 percent of the water for agricultural use.

Attempts were made to cut down on agricultural production; subsidy to wheat was drastically cut. Now production is restricted to domestic consumption. However, reduction in wheat has given rise to an increase in fodder crops, and the reduction in consumption has been minimal.

"There is still concern for agricultural consumption," Al Hussayen said. "There are two plans: the National Water Plan — to assess the reserves — and other studies. This will let us know our status."

"We hope to have more balance between domestic and agricultural requirements," Al Hussayen continued. "Groundwater can fulfill a lot of the domestic requirement. It is a lot cheaper (than desalinated water), and in many cases, closer to the consumption center."

Stopping most domestic agricultural production could one day become the only option, he indicated. "Everything," he added, "is up for investigation."

Research into new technologies for desalination is only part of the total water package.

The research and development center at the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) has patented a nanofiltration process. Using it, "production increased by more than 40 percent," the minister said. "It is a very promising technology," he added.

Source: AFP