Saudi Arabia turns up temperature on water reduction plans

What you should know about Qatrah, Saudi Arabia’s latest plan to drastically reduce water use

Water rationalisation has been a high priority for the Saudi Arabian Government in recent years as it has repeatedly tried to address the stark imbalance of the country’s water consumption rates compared to its actual availability of resources. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s driest countries, but at the same time it’s the world’s third largest per capita consumer of water after the United States and Canada. Attempts to boost reserves while cutting consumption have long been on the agenda in response to this perennial problem that affects most Middle Eastern nations.

However, this month saw the launching of a new programme of water rationalisation in Saudi Arabia which underlines just how much the government wants to accelerate the solving of this essential issue. Earlier this month, the Minister of Environment, Water and Agriculture, Abdulrahman Al Fadley announced the Qatrah (droplet) programme. While Saudi Arabia has increasingly turned to desalination to make up for its lack of surface and ground water, Qatrah aims to balance the water production/consumption formula through a much wider variety of means.

Qatrah at a glance

In describing the mission statement of Qatrah, the minister outlined how the programme will help reduce the country’s daily per capita consumption rate from 263 litres to 200 by 2020 and then further reduce it to only 150 litres by 2030 – nearly half the current level. The key methods and pathways to greater water security for Saudi Arabia through Qatrah include:

  • Promoting greater water sustainability in agriculture – the industry responsible for 82% of all of non-renewable water consumption in Saudi Arabia in 2016.
  • Rationalising industrial and residential consumption through smarter water management, smart metering, etc.
  • Educating the Saudi population on the importance of water conservation.
  • Supporting efficiency gains in water desalination operations through technological innovation.

Unlocking the value of a multi-faceted approach

Even though the Qatrah programme has only just been announced and most of its plans are currently in the MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) phase, this still represents a major coup for future water security and sustainability efforts in Saudi Arabia. The announcement makes it abundantly clear that the Saudi Government is acting on two realisations on the future of water security: firstly, that desalination alone is not enough, due to its expense and other environmental concerns, and secondly that achieving sustainable water consumption levels will require deep and sustained cooperation between Saudi Arabia’s citizens, government authorities, businesses and international partners.

Tackling the agricultural industry’s unsustainable use of water is clearly a critical factor, one which may necessarily involve the kind of innovative agriculture technology (AgTech) approach that we’re currently seeing being taken up in the UAE. If anything, the broadness of Qatrah indicates that the Saudi Arabian Government is willing and even determined to try and emulate any technology-based successes regarding water sustainability as and when they emerge.

Another vital element of Qatrah worthy of further analysis is the education of Saudi citizens on the necessity for water conservation. Despite the huge expense on the supply side, 97% of Saudi Arabia’s population has access to potable water, traditionally at very cheap prices due to a long history of governmental subsidisation, giving them no great incentive to be mindful about their own personal consumption. This represents a welcome step in the right direction, where Saudi Arabians may ultimately be responsible for curbing consumption rates by reducing or eliminating their more wasteful habits. By making water sustainability a more publicised issue that everyone can contribute towards solving, Qatrah may signal a fresh start for water security in Saudi Arabia.