Saudi Options Narrow With Peak Water

circle crops desertFarms 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.”

Related stories:

How Saudi Arabia Plans to Win the Food War
2011 Global Water Awards Go to MENA Nations
Oil Industry Investigates Ormat Success Turning Waste Water into Energy

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6 thoughts on “Saudi Options Narrow With Peak Water”

  1. Zahira says:

    Karin Kloosterman. Ah, spoken like a true blue _ _ _. “migrate to Europe”? Oh yes, to Greece so that we can bail them out. Or was it Spain. No, no, it’s Portugal. Hey, wait, that’s a thought, we could go help Ireland, too. Get real already! Europe in recession as a Travel destination? Yes, ma’am! Residence? Not really.

    1. I have been part of international water forums funded by government money (EU) rich countries, by the way, who are afraid of Middle East migration. That’s why the EU has an interest in mitigating risks. Apart from being just friendly, and nice.

      A true blue… – I have no idea what you mean there.

  2. Zahira says:

    First off, what is the purport of this article. What is Susan Kraemer trying to say? That we source alternative water sources? A mishmash of information that any kid can get on google. Kraemer has destroyed what could have been a educational article with oxymoronic titbits. She seems old enough to behave like a seasoned writer, yet, she betrays her innate arrogance with the sentence, “Saudi women, with little else to do, produce large families.” With little else to do? Hmmmm…yes, we don’t have much else to do. For instance, we don’t destroy the planet big time with our carbon foot like you big time players do. If there is wastage, we do have an unparalleled number of tourists coupled with very little resources compared vis-a-vis with wherever it is you are living.

    Then, she goes on to say that Saudis are indeed switching over to solar means in the oil industury. What are you trying to say, dear girl? Focus! Focus, dear! We only have so much time per article.

    1. Zahira,

      Tell us more… as a passionate Saudi woman.

  3. hurin says:

    ‘By 2016, the kingdom will rely on imports 100 percent.’

    And when the oil runs out and they have no money to buy food, then what?

    They’ll all starve to death.

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