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Water, oil and food – a crisis for Saudi Arabia and the world

A water crisis is unfolding in Saudi Arabia that could have profound implications for both the Saudi people and for the rest of the world.

Last week, Reuters published a feature describing how Saudi Arabia’s water crisis is eating into its oil revenues. According to the article, “water use in the desert kingdom is already almost double the per capita global average and increasing at an ever faster rate with the rapid expansion of Saudi Arabia's population and industrial development . . . agriculture is the single biggest user, absorbing 85-90 percent of the kingdom's supplies, according to Saudi's deputy minister of agriculture for research and development. Of that, almost 80-85 percent came from underground aquifers.”

The vast majority of the water coming from those aquifers is “fossil water” – as precious and as finite as the Saudi oil that fuels and lubricates the global economy. A few decades ago the nation began tapping those water reserves in an ill-conceived scheme to irrigate the desert and produce all of its own wheat. By 2008, however, the government abandoned that plan as aquifers began to dry up or were infused with saltwater.

According to the article, the nation will be 100 percent dependent on wheat imports by 2016, if not sooner. In a report on the coming global food crisis, Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown reports that Saudi wheat production fell by two-thirds from 2007-2010.

Going Elsewhere for Food

As a result, the Saudi government is scrambling meet its nation’s food needs. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s top five rice importers; in that past much of that rice came from India, but in 2008 India banned non-Basmati rice exports to curb out-of-control domestic food inflation. Ironically, rice production in India faces its own water crisis, with massive rice-producing states such as Punjab rapidly depleting their groundwater supplies to feed the nation. To give a sense of how bad India’s groundwater depletion crisis is, about one-sixth of the nations’ electricity is solely devoted to irrigation pumping; in some areas that number is much greater. The energy cost of irrigation in India is so high that it impacts the rest of the already unreliable electricity sector, contributing to frequent shortages, especially in rural areas.

To deal with the looming food crisis, Saudi Arabia has begun looking elsewhere. According to a BBC report, last year, the government of Ethiopia began leasing three hundred million hectares of land – an area the size of Belgium – to foreign investors, including Chinese, Indian and Saudi firms. The move has sparked controversy as the region in question is mostly occupied by minority ethnic groups; rural protesters claim that the land is already in use by pastoralists who often cover hundreds of miles to feed their herds. Opposition activists claim 10 local farmers have been killed and numerous residents arrested in the dispute so far. Saudi companies, on the other hand, are promising investment in schools, roads and electricity in return for leasing the land.

Aside from politics, however, another question arises: is drought-prone Ethiopia really the best place for Saudi Arabia to grow food in response to its own water shortages?

Water, Peak Oil and the coming Net Export Crisis

The only other widely accepted alternative to depleting groundwater in Saudi Arabia or growing food in far-off lands is desalination of seawater on a massive scale. Saudi Arabia has about 25 percent of the world’s desalination capacity, and desalination provides about 70 percent of the nation’s drinking water today.

Unfortunately, desalination is an incredibly energy-intensive process, which for Saudi Arabia means burning oil. How much? It’s hard to say exactly, but between 2008 and 2010, analysts from HSBC and the International Energy Agency estimated that direct oil burning for electricity generation more than doubled in the nation, to which experts believe desalination, is a “significant” culprit.

Water’s largely underreported role in growing Saudi Arabia’s domestic energy consumption is itself only a part of a larger underreported story of peak oil and a rapidly approaching net export energy crisis of oil producers.

Initially articulated by Texas oil geologist Jeffrey Brown, the “Export Land Model” of oil production is a common-sense production model that postulates when oil-exporting nations experience a simultaneous peak of oil production and an increase in domestic consumption, their exports fall far faster than the simple decline in oil production.

To put it another way, as nations such as Saudi Arabia develop and consume more of their own shrinking oil pie, they have less to export elsewhere. Brown’s analysis shows that the decline in oil exports can happen much more rapidly than most observers expect – not good news for nations like the United States that are dependent on massive oil imports to function.

No one is certain, of course, when Saudi Arabia’s oil production will peak, if it hasn’t already. But King Abdullah’s recent decision to stop new oil exploration in the name of saving oil wealth for future generations suggests that the world cannot count on this oil-rich nation to increase production forever.

Other Ways to Grow Food?

Of course Saudi Arabia must do something to feed its population of 28 million and growing—a challenging prospect to be sure. A number of visionaries have proposed innovative ways to sustainably do that – from the utopian vertical farms of Dickson Despomier to more practical but still revolutionary greenhouses that grow tomatoes in the desert using only seawater and sunlight.

Using a different approach, innovative permaculture designers Geoff Lawton and Neal Spackman have been consulted on helping the nomads in the Al-Baydha region—settled into villages by the Saudi government over the past several decades—develop a sustainable agriculture involving landscape scale rainwater harvesting (using on-contour swales and terraces among other techniques) reforestation for animal fodder and other foods along with sophisticated rangeland management.

In an interesting confluence, Lawton describes working with immigrant Filipino workers in the same location. Filipinos have long-standing tropical gardening traditions in their own country, many of which they have brought with them to Saudi Arabia, growing moringa trees, eggplants, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and legumes while keeping chickens and other animals for eggs and protein—as long as they have adequate access to water. These gardens are small-scale to be sure, but nonetheless provide a window into the potential abundance in even extremely dry climate such as this one.

As Lawton puts it,

“It wouldn’t take much to extend the cultural interface between modern Saudi Arabia, ancient Bedouin rangeland management, small/perimeter urban agriculture and a complete transition into another world of abundance and food security which is truly achievable. A futuristic vision with all the potentials of sustainability….”

It would be interesting to watch Saudi Arabia, today at the epicenter of the global fossil-fuel economy, use it’s wealth and energy to become a world model for sustainable agriculture and water use. Such an outcome may seem hard to imagine, but what is the alternative?

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Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks. Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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