Beehives of Saudi Arabia’s Maysan believed to be over 1,000 years old

How solar desalination enables Saudi Arabia to produce drinking water sustainably

RIYADH: In regions with limited rainfall, desalination is a practical means of providing abundant water for agriculture and human consumption. However, the process of turning seawater into fresh water is notoriously energy-intensive.

Indeed, desalination contributes significantly to carbon emissions in the water-scarce Arabian Peninsula. That is why Saudi Arabia has invested in green energy sources to power its desalination plants.

“Using renewable energies for desalination is crucial because it helps reduce the carbon footprint of the operation and water production costs,” Sultan Al-Rajhi, spokesman for the Saudi Water Authority, told Arab News.

With fresh water resources scarce in a region with a rapidly growing population, seawater desalination is essential to keep up with demand, he added.

“Saudi Arabia depends on seawater desalination due to the nature of the desert climate, where the presence of surface water and natural rivers is rare,” Al-Rajhi said.

In fact, desalination accounts for about 75 percent of the Kingdom’s water supply.

“Therefore, investments are being made in seawater desalination to meet the population demand and economic growth seen in the Gulf region as a whole.”

Each year, the Kingdom requires an average of 5.5 billion cubic meters of fresh water. The need for water is particularly high during the Hajj and Umrah season, when over a million pilgrims arrive from around the world.

Home to more than 37 million people, the Kingdom is the world’s third largest user of water per capita. Agriculture alone accounts for approximately 84% of total water consumption.

An alfalfa farm in Wadi Ad-Dawasir governorate of Riyadh region. (Provided)

Desalination is a complex process that involves removing salt and other impurities from seawater. As the process requires a significant amount of energy, adopting renewable sources such as solar to power these facilities has become a top priority.

“To develop a climate-resilient infrastructure for sustainable desalination, Saudi Arabia should prioritize innovative and renewable technologies,” Abdulaziz Daghestani, Regional Sales Director of Water Utilities and Country Director at Grundfos, told Arab News.

Grundfos is a Danish company that works with regional states to provide innovative pumping solutions for water supply, wastewater management, heating and cooling and industrial processes.

According to Daghestani, the integration of advanced monitoring systems can help optimize desalination operations and increase efficiency.

“Using real-time data and analytics, we can improve water management practices and make timely adjustments to meet fluctuating demand for human consumption and agriculture,” he said.

The Qatrah program, which means “drop” in Arabic, was launched by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture in 2020 and aims to reduce excess water use by eliminating waste and encouraging the conservation and reuse of existing fresh water.

Its objective is to reduce daily per capita water consumption from 263 liters to 150 liters by 2030. To do this, the ministry has created a unified framework, known as the National Water Strategy, to the country.

However, despite these efforts to improve the sustainability of water systems, desalination remains a crucial means of meeting water demand, making the adoption of clean energy sources and efficient production techniques a critical priority.

youKNOW?

• In 2023, Saudi Arabia had a desalination capacity of 13.2 million cubic meters per day.

• 7 million cubic meters of desalinated water was generated by the Al-Khafji plant.

• Desalination accounts for 60% of the urban water supply in Saudi Arabia.

• Agriculture accounts for 84% of the Kingdom’s water needs.

The Al-Khafji Desalination Plant, located in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, is the world’s largest solar-powered water desalination project, providing the region’s water needs through an innovative and environmentally friendly approach.

The plant can generate up to 90,000 cubic meters of fresh water per day using innovative technology created by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology.

His new method of reverse osmosis with solar saline water uses a process known as ultrafiltration during the pretreatment phase.

A view of the Ras al-Khair water desalination plant, owned by the Saudi government’s Saline Water Conversion Corporation, along the Gulf coast in eastern Saudi Arabia. (AFP)

The method involves forcing seawater through a semi-permeable membrane that allows only water molecules to pass through, while blocking out salt and other contaminants. The resulting purified water is then collected for distribution.

Since its launch in 2018, more than 7 million cubic meters of fresh water produced by the plant have already been used.

“The use of reverse osmosis technology is considered to have the lowest carbon emission rates as a result of increased energy efficiency through the development of this field in recent years,” said Al-Rajhi.

“The carbon emission rate per cubic meter in some desalination systems has been reduced by 91% compared to thermal desalination systems.”

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Solar is not the only source of renewable energy that can be adopted to power the desalination process.

“This is in addition to the prospective use of hydraulic turbines to convert the kinetic energy resulting from water flow into electricity to generate clean energy,” Al-Rajhi said.

This shift to renewables not only addresses the high energy costs associated with desalination, but also supports Saudi Arabia’s commitment to sustainable development.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, praised the Kingdom’s water conservation agenda, which is an integral part of its environmental mission, the Saudi Green Initiative.

A farm in Wadi bin Hashbal, Saudi Arabia, was recently recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest sustainable farm. (Provided)

Saudi Arabia is right to prioritize “doesn’t overextract and is very smart about environmental management.”

“That’s why we are quite impressed with the Saudi Green Initiative,” she told Arab News.

This transition to cleaner energy sources reflects a strategic decision to increase the Kingdom’s energy efficiency and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, while addressing the challenges of climate change.

The integration of renewable energy into desalination processes marks a significant step towards achieving a more sustainable and environmentally conscious approach to water production.

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