Saudi Arabia is a dry place. In many areas, people there depend on turning saltwater from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea into drinkable, fresh water. That process is called desalination.
Desalination centers supply drinking water to cities and towns in the kingdom. However, observers say the process of desalination is not good for the environment because it mostly uses oil and gas.
One goal of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is to make Saudia Arabia a leader in business and tourism. For this, the country must meet growing demands for water.
But Saudi Arabia’s environmental goal is to reach net-zero emissions by 2060. So, the country’s leaders say they want to reduce the amount of carbon gases produced. Some people say carbon gases are warming the Earth’s atmosphere.
A desalination plant in the eastern part of the country uses solar panels. The Jazlah plant is the first in Saudi Arabia to use solar power for desalination on a large scale. Officials said the panels will help save 60,000 tons of carbon emissions each year.
More projects like Jazlah are needed because Prince Mohammed has another goal. He wants to increase the population to 100 million people by 2040. The country’s current population is about 32.2 million.
Marco Arcelli is chief of ACWA Power, the company that operates the Jazlah plant. He said, usually "the population grows, and then the quality of life of the population grows." That means more water will be needed in the future.
Using desalination is a "do or die" issue, said historian Michael Christopher Low. He has studied the kingdom's struggle with water at the University of Utah in the United States. Low said this issue is a matter of survival for Saudia Arabia. At the same time, he added, "there are limits" to how desalination can be done so that it does not affect the environment.
Current use of fossil fuels
The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (or SWCC) is a government company that operates desalination and power plants in Saudi Arabia. The company says it produces 11.5 million cubic meters each day at 30 centers. But growth has come at a cost, especially at centers that use oil or gas.
The AFP press agency reports that, by 2010, Saudi desalination plants were using 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. That is more than 15 percent of today's production.
The SWCC said it wants to cut 37 million metric tons of carbon emissions by 2025. The company hopes to do this by moving away from plants that use heat to separate water from salt to plants like Jazlah that use solar electricity-powered systems.
The SWCC said in its latest report that solar power is expected to expand to 770 megawatts compared to 120 megawatts today. But how long that will take is unclear.
In the future, there is little doubt Saudi Arabia will be able to build the systems required to produce the water it needs.
"They have already done it in some of the most challenging settings, like massively desalinating on the Red Sea and providing desalinated water up to the highlands of the holy cities in Mecca and Medina," said Laurent Lambert. He is with the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
At desalination plants across the kingdom, Saudi employees understand how important their work is.
The Ras Al-Khair center produces 1.1 million cubic meters of water per day with 740,000 from heat technology and the rest from another process. The plant struggles to make enough fresh water because of high demand.
Much of the water goes to Riyadh. That city requires 1.6 million cubic meters per day. It could require as much as 6 million cubic meters a day by 2030, said one employee who was not permitted to talk to the media and remains unidentified.
A short history of Saudi desalination
Saudi Arabia first turned to desalination more than 100 years ago. During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, administrators used filtration machines for Muslim travelers observing the Hajj who had to deal with a lack of water and cholera.
Drinking water has been a problem for Saudi Arabia since its founding in 1932. This led to geological studies that also helped identify the country’s huge supplies of oil and gas. Leaders since have supervised the birth of the kingdom's modern desalination systems beginning in 1970.
I’m Anna Matteo.