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"Desalination in Saudi Arabia: using technology to fight geography"

Interview - July 12, 2013
Dr Abdulrahman Al Ibrahim, Governor of the Saline Water Conversion Company (SWCC), speaks with PM Communications about how Saudi Arabia produces high-quality potable water, the use of renewable energy in the process, and the leading firm’s collaboration with SMEs to boost the industry
I would like to start by discussing water security as a priority in poverty alleviation and in climate change mitigation globally. It is estimated that 700 million people face water shortages every day. This is even more of an issue in the GCC because of the shortage of resources, the fast growing economies and also the above average per capita consumption of water. With this in mind, I would like to ask you to share your reflections on water security in the GCC and in Saudi Arabia in particular.
First of all thank you for this opportunity. Let me start with a little bit of controversial picture that can lead us towards the security issue.
If an alien from outer space decided to land on planet Earth, he definitely would never pick Saudi Arabia to live in because it is a place where there are no water resources, no means for sustainable living.
If someone wants to migrate from one country to the other, they will definitely never pick Saudi Arabia to be their home. It’s a place where there are no rivers and very limited water resources. But the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has decided to make this land into a piece of heaven and the major way to achieve that is to provide adequate water supplies. Adequate and clean water in terms of quantity, in terms of quality, in terms of availability, therefore water has to be available for all the cities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 
At this moment there are two major sources of drinkable water, which comes primarily from natural aquifers and secondly from desalination. Desalination is something that started almost 50 years ago. We started with almost 300 cubic meters of water a day and now we produce more than 5 million cubic meters per day. So there is a tremendous reliance on desalination.
We found that although it is very expensive to produce water through a desalination system, our water is more reliable and more secure to provide sustainable living in our cities. The two sources are basically natural aquifers as well as desalination. Currently we produce 53% of water from desalination and 47% from natural aquifers.
There is a third mean to produce water that is the dams. That would be the third one, which we have not utilised yet. But a dam has been built already and we are looking to establish a common network towards providing adequate water for the urban areas. 
Artificial dams?
Dams to collect those rain waters. We have plenty of rainwater in some areas in the kingdom like the south region. So if no one collects it, it will go right away to the sea, when it is a nice way to provide water for urban usage.
Previously, the means to provide water was meant to have what’s called source and a city. We have a plant on the sea and then we desalinate the water and migrate that water through a pipeline to a city next to it or a little bit further, but a specific city. So, we used to have dedicated water manufacturing desalination stations for specific cities.
But ultimately, we are working to develop a network water system that will hook up all three resources into one. A network of water towards urban usage and then, from that urban usage, we will use waste treatment for industrial application and from there we can recycle it for agriculture. This is our ultimate goal, to have a network that is able to utilise our natural resources and wastewater for a more effective usage.
Speaking of agriculture, the kingdom is looking at eliminating its subsidies for agriculture altogether because of the pressure it’s putting on the aquifer system. Do you think desalination will be a solution to revive the agriculture sector?
Speaking of desalination specifically, it is a very expensive process. No matter how much you spend to reduce the cost of it, it is still a little bit more expensive to utilise it in agriculture. This is a very precious product that needs to be used mindfully. 
However, we are thinking very carefully about the various sources of water for agriculture. One of them is what I mentioned earlier, the use of treated water, which can come from desalination or not. Also, we are looking very carefully at specific types of crops because there are crops that need very little water, which we will be able to afford. 
Desalination relies heavily on a fuel usage and we share the world’s interest to preserve the fuel availability for our future generations, whether in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the globe. 
You mentioned fuel use and this brings me to the main topic. SWCC is looking at using alternative energy sources namely solar power to fuel this process and the first solar-powered reverse osmosis plant is about to start production briefly.
The total fuel used to produce water and electricity in Saudi Arabia is 1.3 to 1.5 million barrels of oil equivalent a day. Desalination accounts for 0.3 million of oil equivalent per day, and uses gas and liquid fuel.
Going back to the diversifying our portfolio of energy and using multiple sources, we previously were only concerned with producing enough water to satisfy the needs of the population. A year ago, we came up with a much more comprehensive set of objectives within SWCC. We have developed seven global strategic objectives to be attained while we are operating. 
We are no longer concerned with merely producing water, although this remains our number one priority. The strategic objective number two is operation excellence, so while we want to produce water reliably and securely, we also want to operate more efficiently. So if there is any way to reduce our energy consumption, or increase the efficiency output, we reduce the cost of production, we enhance our efficiency and streamline the utilisation of the available resources. 
We can help create a multi-billion industry adjacent to us in addition to producing desalinated water. We can utilise the salty water to produce more salt and other minerals. 
The third one is to enrich our portfolio of energy. At the moment, we rely heavily on liquid fuel that is crude oil or HFO heavy fuel oil and we use the natural gas, and we want to enrich it with other type of fuel like solar energy. 
I believe that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an energy kingdom. It has the largest solar radiance in the whole world and therefore it’s a strength of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which we need to utilise and build upon heavily. At the same time, we have the largest solar power desalination plants in the world, and this is another strength that we have. 
If the two strengths, solar and desalination are coupled together, the benefits will be multiplied in many ways. There is one nice thing about solar desalination. Normally, one of the difficulties of solar power is storing it, but desalination does not require electrical or mechanical storage because water itself is the storage system. That reduces costs considerably, reliability is much higher, and the synchronisation with other types of energy is made easier.
Solar tends to have three barriers or limitations. One of them is the economic, whether it is affordable or not. Before the economic variable comes the technical variable, which concerns the technical viability of the process. The third issue is that of security and reliability, meaning that if you have something that is technically viable and economically affordable, you need to rely on it 24 hours that is a big issue and I’m sure we will be able to do it in the solar desalination.
So all three barriers that face solar power generation have been eliminated here in Saudi Arabia and I expect Saudi Arabia to be the global hub for solar desalination in the future.
I wanted to ask you specifically about solar power. Right now, the kingdom is employing PV more than concentrated solar power in desalination.
We are looking at employing both technologies. We are not limited to a specific technology, although the first plant that we started with, the Al Khafji plant, is 30,000 cubic metre, photovoltaic plant coupled with a membrane RO system. 
In a second phase, we are looking at 300,000 cubic metres per day. It might not be one plant, it may be multiple plants, but definitely we are looking very carefully at employing thermal energy, as well as natural, geothermal and wind energy. We are testing all technologies, so we will be able to look at it very carefully.
Is that done through SWCC or through the Research Institute that you operate?
SWCC is in charge of the R&D Institute; however, they have the liberty to do their own projects. They are an entity in themselves and liaise with institutions around the globe. At home, they are focusing on testing their products and generating new ideas.  
Since the foundation of the SWDRI – Saline Water Desalination Research Institute – we made it to be a hub of R&D not limited to SWCC requirements, but for regional activities in the kingdom, as well as the Gulf and MENA-wide as well.
The institute collaborates with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology  (KACST) and sponsors desalination research positions.
Yes, they collaborate here with local research institutes, but also abroad, whether it be with Dell, Hitachi or Alstom. 
I’d like to move on to another topic, which is privatisation or private participation in the water sector. I know that the National Water Company is seeking to invest $66 billion in the coming decade in upgrading its plants and building new ones. Your institution has also announced plans to expand in into nine new water projects. Are you seeking private sector participation in all these or are they going to be mainly government driven?
Ultimately, the objective of any process is to achieve sustainability and reliability in the supply of water. We are looking at enhancing the process in itself, to have more advanced mechanisms to manage our assets, to build up on those experiences and to be able to rely on them. Regarding private participation, we believe that we are not the only player, and, although we are a leader in the industry, our leadership does not mean that we cannot forge partnerships with the private sector. 
We are keen to develop SMEs operating in conjunction with us in order to create a desalination industry.
Can you give some examples of the operations that these SMEs would engage in?
We’ve listed all of our spare parts and all chemicals that we are using as an operation on an annual basis. We started almost 10 years ago when we made that list available on our website and we gave it to all the business owners in the kingdom to inform them about their potential participation in an industry that is worth almost SAR 800 million (£141 million) annually. We are looking for long-term partners.
When we were building our plants, we requested that all contractors and subcontractors employ local workforce and use locally produced goods. A more recent example concerns a contract that we signed only six months ago, whereby there are eight evaporators to be built and we asked that one or two minimum have to be built locally, with local materials. 
The potential is there and if they are not meeting your requirements part of your obligation is to be able to build capacity locally. Almost a year ago, we had a chat with all the governors and the best advice that was given to me was “your success will be attained through the success of your partners and contractors, you will never be able to attain your success without enabling them to succeed.”
From that point on, I contacted all the vendors and all the contractors that are reliable and I said, “I’m no longer interested in hit and run projects.” We are now looking for a partnership. There are three criteria that I always announce for anyone interested in joining our network partnership. 
The first is that we want transfer of technology, especially at a time like this when the intellectual properties laws are changing and the environment is propitious. Apart from the transfer of technology, training our engineers is very important. We send our people to our partners' manufacturing facilities to learn how to operate the technology we are using. Energy efficiency and high technology is the second criterion. We want to have an advanced technology and specifically energy-efficient technology, because we care about energy as much as we care about producing water.
Third, we want to have reliable technologies. We are not looking for technologies that are not tested; we want to have reliable ones that are able to run throughout their lifetime.
The per capita consumption of water and energy in the kingdom are very high, partly because there are no price incentives to drive efficiency in the residential sector. What are the solutions to combat this tendency?
The SWCC has decided to be more proactive in this area, despite the fact that distribution is conducted by the National Water Company and, through our new Corporate Social Responsibility platform, we are carefully identifying what are the topics that are beneficial and will enable us to attain our objectives. Part of those CSR measures concern water and energy conservation activities. We share with the water distribution network some of the campaigns in order to reduce water consumption and raise awareness about how much it costs to deliver water to cities.
I was amazed myself that it takes three days to deliver one single drop of water from Jubail to Riyadh, so if you make people aware of the fact that the water they are consuming made a journey of five to six days to reach their tap, it might make them more mindful about their use of it. 
Could you convey one last message about the importance of desalination to Saudi Arabia?
Water is the commodity that brings people, nations, countries together. Water is a common goal for all faiths and nationalities. As Muslims, we believe that providing water is more rewarding than charity. It is a basic act of goodwill to give a glass of water to a thirsty person, and SWCC operates with that belief in mind.