Arizona’s dry wells not Saudi Arabia’s fault

dry dead lake United States

If you are following American media, Arizona’s water is running worryingly low. You might think it’s a local story but it’s really your story too. It’s one about local resources and who should own them.

In dry Arizona, residents are cutting back, collecting rainwater in buckets and tanks, using paper plates, cutting back on showers. They are making their own water runs to fill up their stores, with some paying a thousand dollars a month for a household’s water use. It’s no surprise then, when we learn that private companies access American resources and water, like Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, nearly for free.

According to Responsible Statecraft, over the past several years, Saudi Arabia has added eight new wells, increasing water production to new heights and even leading to accusations of over-pumping from the groundwater of rural Arizona. 

Since 2014, the Saudi company Fondomonte has been pumping unlimited amounts of groundwater in the desert west of Phoenix to harvest thousands of acres of alfalfa crops. The alfalfa is then shipped back to Saudi Arabia to feed their cattle. In a recent investigation from Arizona Central the media outlet revealed that Fondomonte, a subsidiary of Riyadh-based Almarai, has the bargain of a lifetime: for only $25 per acre annually, it can pump as much water as it wants. Nearby farmers pay six times more than the Saudi company. (But there is an old backstory starting with friendship and trade and we need to dial back and read this first before tempers flare).

arizona saudia arabia water deal, history

Credit: Daniel E. Garvey Photographs, CP DG, Arizona State University Library
His Royal Highness and Secretary of Agriculture Anderson get hearty laughs out of the performance of a rooster at the Governmental Experimental Farm at Beltsville.

But this is just a drop in the bucket of what happens when natural resources are sold to foreign companies. Look to what America has done in its own story with land grabbing. How about this article pointing out how American universities like Harvard and Vanderbilt are land-grabbing in Africa, forcing farmers out? Just look anywhere and you will find endless stories of land-grabbing: even by Swiss companies such as Glencore, a mining multinational.

Consider also the little things: Israelis wonder why they don’t have butter? The answer is China and Bright Food. China bought Israel’s homegrown dairy company Tnuva and now the Chinese make more profits on yoghurt than subsidised butter which should cost $2 for 200 grams, so butter is off the shelves. International imports, when you find them cost about $7 USD for 200 grams. Bright Food also bought the US meat processing giant Smithfield Foods. Previously they acquired the UK cereal company Weetabix. Meat, dairy, and your breakfast cereal? China owns it.

Soon India will own an Israeli port

We love the idea of companies working and sharing and trading between borders, but we’ve reached a limit and countries and their people need to start drawing lines. The problem with America’s drought is not Saudi Arabia or foreign companies buying into capitalism which America perfected; a very high profile American reached out to me 10 years ago looking to sell water rights to his land in Western America for billions to the United Arab Emirates. Could I help broker the transaction? We could ship it over or bottle it at the source. Somehow it didn’t feel right taking water from the US and putting it on a ship to the Middle East.

The problem is any one private person or nation selling its natural resources to the highest bidder –– or any bidder.

What are natural resources? Water (aquifers, lakes, streams, springs), land (forests, deserts, mountains), and finite materials and minerals (gold, lithium, potash, diamonds, uranium, oil …). Does and should a country exploit and sell its resources? If yes, how and how much? Who should be monitoring how it’s done? 

Are there some resources and industries that should never be sold or be for sale? Are some multinational transactions positive? These are questions you need to start asking if you have read this far.

Arizonans –– don’t blame Saudi Arabia: While water didn’t seem like a problem decades ago when Arizona made the deal with Saudi Arabia, things are looking a whole lot different now that water is a rare commodity in states like Arizona and California. For once in decades, Americans know what it feels like to be Jordanian or Syrian: water is commodity and we need to protect it, not offer it out to any multinational or private company.

Same goes with the Dead Sea. Why is it dying and who owns the Dead Sea besides the obvious answer, Israel and Jordan. Jordan has sold a stake in its company to China. Who asked anyone when Israel and Jordan signed away their rights to potash, and its beautiful wonder of the world ruined by overharvesting and chemical extraction? Who asked Americans who should own their water?

Land grabbing or resource-grabbing for a song and a dance was perfected by European explorers grabbing entire continents for their own. Why were Canadian forests clear cut hundreds of years ago by the British? Europeans wanted its trees. Trees built ships. 

So today it’s Arizona and water and people are cutting back on showers and realizing that you should never buy land in the remote desert unless you have your own water well. That’s homesteading 101. Arizonans are facing the worst drought in more than a millennium. Communities across the state are sitting with empty water wells, while the rest of the state depletes what remains of its precious groundwater.

Much of Arizona’s water goes to private companies, mostly for free. It’s time for citizens to invoke a new rule to those who govern their resources. Distancing the ownership of natural resources from the source should be a crime. No one can take care of your land and property like you do. Take that message to your local mayor, governor, MP, president, prime minister, supreme ruler.

In countries like Switzerland, cantons have control over their resources. Forests and streams become personal. On a water trip to Geneva 13 years ago I was told by a local dignitary that the Swiss vote locally on land rights and resources.

He told me (and I am paraphrasing), “There was a discussion about accessing water from a source that wasn’t sustainable. It was much closer and cheaper for the canton. We all voted and realised the best thing to do was to protect that source and pay more money and get our water from further away but in a manner than was more environmentally friendly.”

May we all learn to think a little more Swiss. 

 

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