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RIYADH: Water desalination in Saudi Arabia has doubled over the past decade to 2.2 billion cubic meters in 2021 from 1.1 billion cubic meters per year in 2010, thanks to a major overhaul of some existing factories and the introduction of new technologies.

For example, Jubail 2, one of the largest water desalination plants in the Kingdom which serves Riyadh and Jubail, has increased its annual production capacity by around 30% to 380 million cubic meters in 2021, compared to less than 300 million cubic meters in 2014.

However, to meet growing domestic water demand, the Kingdom’s desalination industry is ready to consider making another breakthrough.

A brief history described below shows that water desalination plays a vital role in the economy of the Kingdom.

The process of water desalination in the Kingdom dates back to the early 1900s, when Jeddah became the first city to install two private distillation condensers to meet the city’s growing demand.

Yanbu and Jazan, the other coastal cities of the Kingdom, followed the same approach of developing their private seawater distillation condensers until the entire industry was nationalized and regulated by the Ministry of Environment, of Water and Agriculture in 1965.

As the method began to gain popularity in the region, the Saline Water Conversion Corp. was founded as an independent government entity in 1974 to promote and regulate water distillation operations in the Kingdom.

Although it started off as expensive and inefficient, it was crucial to the growing needs of the Kingdom’s population.

In addition, its geographical location puts it at a disadvantage in terms of access to different types of water resources such as, for example, rainfall.

Therefore, his options were limited to shallow and deep groundwater and desalinated water.

The increase in population to 33.5 million in 2018 from just 25.2 million in 2007 has led to a 70% increase in demand for drinking water, according to a research report published in the Journal of Water Process Engineering in 2019.

The report adds that it would be impossible for groundwater to last 50 years at this rate of consumption, highlighting the option of water desalination, which has been strategically considered and implemented by the government.

In 2010, SWCC produced some 1.1 billion cubic meters of water from its 30 desalination plants located on the east and west coasts of the Kingdom, which satisfied around 50% of the Kingdom’s domestic water demand.

The company further improved its capacity to 5.2 million cubic meters of water per day or 1.9 billion cubic meters per year, in 2018.

In 2021, SWCC produced 2.2 billion cubic meters of water and operated 32 production plants. As a byproduct of water distillation, it generated 47 million megawatts per hour of electricity.

In major cities, the desalinated share of total water consumption is quite high, especially in cities like Makkah, Jeddah, and Taif where almost all of their 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 popular methods used to convert seawater into drinking water.

The first uses heat to vaporize the seawater, separating the salt from the water, then the vaporized gas is cooled in the water by condensation.

The latter passes seawater through a semi-permeable membrane that separates the salt from the water, wasting less energy in the process.

Additionally, SWCC participated in two renewable energy projects under development in line with the Vision 2030 plan.

The future of water desalination in Saudi Arabia looks both promising and exciting. Therefore, SWCC aims to use more renewable sources for its water desalination projects, to reduce conversion costs, thereby improving conversion efficiency and simultaneously reducing carbon emissions.

Assuming current population growth rates continue over the next 10-15 years, the Kingdom could need desalinated water capacity of up to 4.5 billion cubic meters per year by 2040, report says extensive research published in 2014. Indeed, production will have to double further compared to the production level of 2021.

No matter how efficient or productive water desalination methods are, at this rate, Saudi Arabia will have to resort to demand reduction methods, whether through awareness campaigns or imposing taxes on high water consumption.


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