Farms like these must be cut off from fossil water under the desert, now “as precious as gold”
With just 4 inches of rain a year, Saudi Arabia is already one of the driest places on earth. But unlike neighboring Israel, conservation is not part of the culture. Saudi water use is profligate, almost twice the world average of 500 cubic meters per capita annually.
But it’s not that cliche of oil-rich extravagance you might imagine (“Dubai Gets Frozen Air From Europe!“) It is just that almost everything takes more water in the desert, from growing food to harvesting oil wealth – in order to desalinate enough water – for a rapidly growing population. Saudi women, with little else to do, produce large families. So the Kingdom gets through 950 cubic meters of water per person per year. It now faces “peak water”, a far more serious threat to its economy than peak oil.
Already, the kingdom has made tough decisions. Like parts of Australia, that made a decision to stop growing food as water supplies crashed during its long years of droughts, Riyadh is now ending domestic wheat farming.
Agriculture, mostly grain production, uses 85-90% of the kingdom’s water, and most of that has been drawn from rapidly depleting aquifers under the sand. That is unsustainable. By 2016, the kingdom will rely on imports 100 percent.
“The decision to import is to preserve water,” Abdullah al-Obaid, Saudi deputy minister of agriculture told Reuters. “It’s not a matter of cost. The government buys wheat at prices higher than in the local market.”
It’s risky relying on neighbors (most of whom will increasingly see similar levels of water scarcity) for grain. But its not just growing crops that is threatened. Saudi Arabia’s main supplier of income, its oil industry has already switched to innovative options like using solar and seawater for flushing out oil fields, in order to preserve its precious fossil water storage for drinking. Desalination brings its own water problems: contaminated water. The Kingdom is now draining its fossil water supply, stored for thousands of years under the desert.
Saudi Arabian peak water has now even precluded developing other potential sources of real wealth to diversify away from oil. Gold is just one example of an untapped – and now forever un-tappable – resource.
“Gold is there, but we don’t have water,” said Mohammed Hany al-Dabbagh, vice-president of precious metals and exploration at state-controlled minerals firm Saudi Arabian Mining Co.
“Water is as precious as gold.”