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Jon Freedman: How Water-Starved Saudi Arabia Is Quenching Its Thirst

As demand for water increasingly outstrips supply, countries like Saudi Arabia are charting a course for sustainability with innovative water reuse policies.

 

Water, one of the most basic necessities for human life, is growing increasingly scarce. Rising water demand from the global economic and population growth is making water scarcity a reality in many parts of the world, according to the 2030 Water Resources Group. The group has estimated that global water demand would surpass existing sustainable, reliable water supply by 40 percent by 2030.

In many ways, we’re seeing this imbalance play out across our newspapers headlines. In Brazil, a country with 13 percent of the world’s freshwater resources, the taps are running dry in large cities like Sao Paulo, The New York Times recently reported. In China, the Ministry of Land & Resources recently released a report showing that in 60 percent of the cities it’s monitoring, the water is too polluted to drink without treatment — in some cases, so polluted that it can’t even be used for drinking after treatment. And here in the U.S., of course, California is now in the fourth year of its worst drought in the past 500 years.

But there is a path forward. First of all, we can look for ways to conserve water and use it more efficiently. Beyond that, we can harness and clean wastewater so that it can be reused for productive purposes like agriculture, industry and even drinking. However, all too often, we aren’t reusing water — even in the face of scarcity. While there are many reasons for this, the fact is that technology exists to treat most sources of wastewater for safe reuse. Typically, it is possible to recover 70 percent to 85 percent of wastewater through membrane-based technologies and advanced chemistries. You can achieve more than 98 percent recovery through crystallization and evaporative technologies.

So what is standing in the way of more reuse? There are many barriers — ranging from public concern about safety, to a lack of clear standards, to pricing systems that charge less per unit of water as more water is being used. Overall, economics is probably the principal barrier to reuse globally. In other words, it is often cheaper to take water from the ground, or a river, or even a potable municipal system, than it is to buy and implement water reuse technologies.

So what can we do to promote greater water reuse? During a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, we presented a white paper highlighting many of the impressive actions the Saudis are taking to promote reuse, as well as other examples of successful policies from around the world — including recent oil and gas-related efforts in Canada and Bahrain.

There are really four mains things that governments can do to promote greater reuse: education and outreach; removing barriers; providing incentives, and establishing mandates and regulations.

Education and outreach is the starting point, and the foundation upon which all other policies rest.  It is essential to communicate that reuse is important and safe. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia deserves to be commended for its efforts on this front. The country has made water reuse a national priority and has set aggressive long-term goals of increasing water reuse to more than 65 percent by 2020 and more than 90 percent by 2040 — all by transforming more of its existing and planned wastewater treatment assets into source water suppliers across all sectors. Saudi Arabia is also targeting 100 percent reclamation of wastewater from cities with 5,000 inhabitants or greater by 2025.

If Saudi Arabia — one of the most water-scarce countries in the world — can find innovative ways to meet its people’s demand for water, the rest of the world certainly can. One drop at a time.

 

Jon Freedman is Global Government Relations Leader at GE Water & Process Technologies, based in Washington, DC.

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