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Saudi Arabia’s new water organisation must define its terms

There are decisive limits for the kingdom that need to be recognised

Water used for health and sanitation accounts for just 3% of global use, and has a dedicated UN body Pexels/Hamza Awan
Water used for health and sanitation accounts for just 3% of global use, and has a dedicated UN body

On September 4, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud announced that Saudi Arabia was setting up a global water organisation headquartered in Riyadh. 

The new body “plans to exchange expertise, advance technology, foster innovation, and share research and development experiences,” the Saudi press agency said.

Abdul Rahman al Fadhli, the kingdom’s minister of environment, water and agriculture, added: “This initiative is not just about creating a research and policy platform. We aim to ensure that every international voice contributes to shaping the dialogue and decision-making process in water resource management.”

Other than that, details are sparse.

The Saudi initiative nonetheless comes at an interesting moment. The kingdom receives only four inches of rainwater on average a year – in comparison, the UK received 43 inches in 2022 – and has no naturally occurring lakes or rivers.

Historically, it has relied on accessing aquifers and desalination to feed its sizeable agricultural sector, including its notable “wheat circles” – circular wheat fields, so shaped to make best use of irrigation systems.

Saudi wheat circlesCreative Commons – Axelspace Corporation
Saudi Arabia uses aquifers and desalination to irrigate its circular wheat fields

The water usage came at a cost. In 2017, National Geographic reported that four-fifths of Saudi Arabia’s “fossil” water underground had been depleted.

Fighting fragmentation

Globally, water issues suffer from fragmented governance. While UN-Water in New York is responsible for issues around water, health and sanitation – known as WASH – the International Water Management Institute carries out research and gives some policy advice on agricultural issues but has no mandate to discuss water on the global stage. 

A flurry of international initiatives from business have devoted time and effort to work on water, among them the CEO Water Mandate, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and the World Economic Forum.

It is no surprise that the New York Water Week in March called for the establishment of a special envoy to increase water’s profile on the global stage. However, no tangible outcome has been achieved as of now. 

Before embarking on new governance modes, building new headquarters or hiring expensive staff, the Saudi authorities need to define the terms of their new body. They should aim to generate impact within a short period of time because the world urgently needs to address its water challenges. 

Focus on farming

When looking at water, one needs to understand where the problems are located.

While WASH consumes about 3 percent of water globally after taking return flows into account and 4 percent is consumed by industry, a staggering 92 percent is used by agriculture. 

Saudi Arabia and its allies in the new organisation therefore need to devote substantial efforts to focusing on agriculture and improving water use efficiency in that sector.

However, agriculture is usually managed by disparate stakeholders. And, when it comes to water, those who use the most and should be the subject of consultation and regulation – farmers – are often absent. 

In most countries, with the notable exception of the UAE, agriculture and water are addressed by two different tribes of policymakers located in separate ministries.

In addition, the energy ministries may play a part, as either consumers or polluters of substantial amounts of water.

A crop irrigation rig spraying cornUnsplash/Lumin Osity
Agriculture accounts for 92% of global water use, and must be a focus of the new organisation

The new organisation will have to bring together stakeholders from these disparate ministries and backgrounds.     

The needs are manifold. Some estimates say that global water infrastructure needs around $30 trillion in investment over the next decade. Much water infrastructure both in developing and industrialised countries has become heavily degraded. The US alone needs to invest approximately $750 billion over the next 10 years.

Many countries, especially in the quickly growing African continent and in India, also need new infrastructure. This includes dams, desalination plants, treatment facilities, irrigation networks, and smart management using artificial intelligence among other technologies. 

Finance and funding

A good way for the Saudis to bring together these disparate stakeholders is to use a “carrot” approach. To that end, the new organisation should provide a financing mechanism for governments, private sector companies and farmers to invest in infrastructure upgrades. 

The GCC states are geographically well located for such a body because the majority of water-risk hotspots such as in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South Asia, Western Asia and the Mediterranean region, are nearby. It also allows the Arab region to increase its geopolitical standing globally. 

At the same time, there are decisive limits for Saudi Arabia that need to be recognised.

It is unlikely that the Western world will give up its control over regulatory issues. China is also far ahead in terms of technological innovation.

The best option for a GCC country is therefore that it becomes a global investment partner in upgrading the world’s water infrastructure.

Funding is crucial for any undertaking of this kind.

The various forms of investment options range from blended capital mechanisms to micro-credit for farmers to global crop insurance to protect farmers from climate-related water events such as floods and droughts.

Saudi Arabia must be prepared to provide seed funding of at least $100 billion to generate impact. This can then fund a global water investment bank that puts the kingdom in the prime position of global action. 

Martin Keulertz is a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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