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Volume 33, Number 6November/December 1982

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The Pillars

In every country, power and water are vital to economic development – the pillars, in fact, of such progress-and in this respect Saudi Arabia is no different from the rest. Where it does differ, however, is in the difficulties involved in providing enough of both to meet its rapidly rising requirements.

With an average rainfall of between 30 to 100 millimeters a year, for example (one to four inches), Saudi Arabia is one of the most arid countries on earth; as a result, people unable to survive in the desert have often had to migrate. Now, however, and for the first time, the country, despite limited water resources, must cope with an influx of hundreds of thousands of people-from Yemeni laborers to American business executives - drawn by the kingdom's economic boom.

The problems are compounded, furthermore, by the uneven geographic distribution of rainfall. The southwest mountain region of'Asir, for example - the region known as "Felix," or "Fortunate," Arabia -receives about 508 millimeters (20 inches) of rain a year from the monsoons that blow off the Indian Ocean. This area, consequently, is relatively green and fertile, while the southern deserts - the "Empty Quarter" - may receive no rain at all for up to 10 years.

But although it is predominantly dry on the surface - it has no perennial lakes, rivers or streams - the Arabian Peninsula has lots of water stored in enormous underground aquifers - geological strata of permeable rock and sand - located between 90 and 425 meters (300 and 1,400 feet) below ground.

Some of this - called "fossil" water because of its age - emerges on the surface through natural springs, and where it does - for example, at al-Hasa and Qatif in the Eastern Province - rich oases are to be found. But most of the water remains locked underground as it has been for thousands of years and will most probably stay there for some time to come; for although modern drilling techniques can now reach deep into the earth to get it, Saudi authorities are controlling the extraction of this water cautiously. Since this fossil water is irreplaceable, the government is going slowly until studies can determine just how much is there.

It is true that some wells have been drilled: 450 during the first four years of the second Five Year Development Plan, to supply 280 water projects in various parts of the kingdom. But for the time being, Saudi Arabia is concentrating on optimizing use of its renewable natural water resources —i.e., rain. This, however, means overcoming yet another problem: what little rain does fall tends to do so in sudden, torrential downpours that turn into flash floods and wash away topsoil, uproot trees, drown livestock and damage homes, then evaporate or disappear in the desert sands just as quickly as they came.

To hold back these flash floods and store water for limited periods, the Saudi Arab government has built more than 50 dams all over the kingdom; the largest are the Wadi Najran Dam, with a storage capacity of 85 billion liters (22.45 billion gallons) and the Jizan Dam, with a capacity of 51 billion liters (13.47 billion gallons) both in the southwest of the Peninsula.

These dams, in the words of one Saudi water official, have "reduced the risk to farmers' livelihoods [from flooding] by 100 per cent, and increased the certainty of them getting water to 90 per cent." In fact, farmers in 'Asir can now irrigate their lands five and even six times a year; whereas in the past they had no more than a few chances to harness a tiny fraction of the seasonal rains.

In addition, traditional dirt ditch irrigation methods - which lost 30 per cent of water through seepage and evaporation -are being replaced by elaborate networks of underground pipes and sprinklers and concrete-lined canals, reducing still further rain water wastage.

The lack of water is also a factor in the kingdom's need for electricity - and in its provision of electricity too. Lacking rivers and permanent lakes - even the dammed-up lakes dry up quickly after the rains -Saudi Arabia has no way to generate hydro-electric power. Yet, in solving its water problem, the kingdom also helps solve its power problem in a way uniquely practical on the Arabian Peninsula: because it is surrounded by seas, Saudi Arabia can produce both fresh water and electric power by de-salting seawater.

Desalination, as this process is known, did not begin in Saudi Arabia until 1969, but has been expanded considerably since. Today 11 plants are in operation: eight on the western Red Sea shore, and three on the eastern Gulf coast - including the largest desalination complex in the world, near Jubail.

At this complex - in an area called al-Wusta - some 832 million liters (220 million gallons) of water will be produced by 46 giant evaporators every day, and over half of it pumped by twin 152-centimeter diameter pipelines (60 inches) to Riyadh, 500 kilometers (310 miles) away, where a city feeder system - three 203-centimeter pipelines (80 inches) - will circulate it through Riyadh. Combined with water from the recently commissioned 197 million liter-a-day (52 million gallons) Wasia groundwater scheme, this should meet the capital's needs well into the future.

To meet future demand for water elsewhere, work is also underway on expanding existing desalination plants and constructing new ones. Already the kingdom's total production from these plants is more than 1.9 billion liters a day (500 million gallons)—releasing considerable quantities of natural water, now being consumed by the cities, for agricultural use.

The water itself, obviously, is vital, but the desalination process offers a bonus; these plants will also generate electricity from the waste heat. Already, in fact, they produce more than 4,000 megawatts of by-product electrical power, and are helping fulfill the late King Faisal's promise to his people that electricity would reach every house and every village in the kingdom.

In the West, where consumers now take electricity for granted, this might not seem worthy of note, but considering the size of Saudi Arabia and the fact that its first public power generating station was opened in Taif in the late 1940s, electrification is one of the kingdom's biggest success stories of the past decade. With power lines extended thousands of miles to outlying settlements, the supply has increased to meet the spiraling demands of new factories, hospitals, hotels and schools, as well as the millions of modern appliances installed in Saudi homes.

Initially, faced with steeply rising urban demand, private city-based power companies instituted huge expansion programs - funded mainly by interest-free government loans. In addition, the government itself implemented numerous projects to provide electricity to rural and remote areas not covered by the power companies.

Two government projects alone, in Asir and in the southwest, have electrified some 900 villages - while others in Ha'il, Najran and Namas bring power to 600 more.

But the biggest, boldest steps in the power picture have been the ones taken by the government in creating regional public utility companies by consolidating private firms. Such government-subsidized organizations are now providing power in the Eastern, Central, Western and Southern provinces of the kingdom — with a public utility for the Northern area on the drawing boards.

Beginning in 1977 with the establishment of the fust Saudi Consolidated Electric Company (SCECO) in the Eastern Province, massive electricity generation and supply programs are being tackled on a regional basis with the infusion of government funds to construct modern facilities and meet modern power demands head on.

Aramco provided assistance in the establishment of the original SCECO, which involved the consolidation of 26 private power companies in the Eastern Province and Aramco's own high voltage network and the bulk of its generating facilities into a single, efficient unit. In 1982, only a few villages in the 285,000-square-kilometer Eastern Province (110,000 square miles) remain without electricity.

During its first five years of operation, this utility boosted total generating capacity from 1,100 to 3,140 megawatts - with an additional 1,300 megawatts under construction - and more than doubled the number of customers from 90,000 to 195,000, many in remote villages which previously had no power.

One of the consolidated electric company's key payoffs can be seen in improved service. Today, when 100 per cent nighttime humidity and sand-laden high winds cause power outages, local maintenance crews set out, regardless of time and weather, to quickly locate and repair the fault; dispatchers in computerized control rooms watch remotely relayed weather data and, as temperatures climb, bring additional generators into service to meet anticipated increased consumption by air conditioners and water pumps - before it occurs; and tool-girded linemen proudly report to a district office that they have successfully installed a new section of feeder line over what has been called "impossible terrain."

SCECO in the Eastern Province, the oil-heart of the kingdom, must meet power demands both from that industry and a host of others - and their populations - exemplified by the industrial metropolis building at Jubail. Along with some 60 gas turbines and 25 diesel generators, SCECO East employs four giant 400-megawatt steam turbines at the kingdom's largest steam generation plant at Ghazlan on the Gulf coast. The latter is the hub of the province's 4,766 circuit-kilometers of transmission lines.

SCECO in the Central Province, founded in 1979, is built around the hub furnished by the Riyadh Electric Company and serves the kingdom's capital and a number of growing towns and villages. SCECO Central will be able to draw up to 200 megawatts from SCECO East in 1984 via a 230-kilovolt circuit which will be completed from Wasia to Riyadh - Saudi Arabia's first inter-regional circuit and the first step toward a national power grid.

In the Southern Province SCECO was established in 1980 - to oversee the electrification of numerous small villages in a predominantly agricultural area - and in the Western Province SCECO assumed responsibility for supplying power to the key port of Jiddah, the religious centers of Makkah and Medina (which see their population soar to 3,000,000 for two weeks every year at the time of the Hajj or Pilgrimage), the summer government headquarters of Taif and outlying villages. It was established in 1981.

Meanwhile, with an eye on the more distant future, the Saudi Arab government is investing vast sums of money in the development of solar power, including installation of a $16.5-million experimental solar energy system to electrify two villages north of Riyadh.

From oil lamps and backyard generators to thermal turbines and solar power systems is a great leap forward in less than a decade. In fact, electrification has probably had a greater impact on the everyday lives of rural Saudis than any other single element of the second Five Year Development Plan - making possible installation in their homes and on their farms such modern aids as air conditioners, refrigerators and water pumps, thereby greatly improving the quality of their lives.

This article appeared on pages 14-19 of the November/December 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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