I’ve just come back to Saudi Arabia after a 3 week trip to California, which involved speaking at PV3 and attending a 10 day course taught by Daren Doherty on the Regrarians Platform. The course was held at a ranch in Santa Barbara, and involved a day for each of the elements of a modified Keyline Scale of Permanence.
Let me start off by saying that I was blown away by this course. The Regrarians platform fills the major gap in professional sustainable land management & design. Permaculture teaches principles, a new way of thinking & ethics, and it was the lingua franca of the students at this course. Holistic Management is the best management system for regenerative land use that I am aware of. What both permaculture and HM lack is the process for design. This is what the REX course does; it gives a process for integrating permaculture design & HM into a cohesive whole. Together, the 3 of them form a framework and foundation to create professional designs & plans that are effective, efficient, and appropriate to the context you’re in. As such, I consider this course essential for anybody serious about becoming a professional in the field of designing regenerative land and water use.
Here’s an example:
It is a permacultural moré to have as many species of interplanted everything as possible. Many folks when developing a food forest boast about having 50 or 80 species spread between 7 integrated layers. We’ve all seen Geoff Lawton’s videos walking through a food forest saying, “here’s an X, and here’s a Y, and here’s a Z, and look over here, it’s a J!” There is abundance everywhere in those videos, and I admit that on a gut level those are very sexy forest systems. There’s so much diversity! There’s so much stuff growing! So much life and abundance! It’s true.
On the other hand, I suspect this norm in the permaculture world is one of the reasons why permaculture implementation is largely limited to homesteads and small farms. Getting 80 species into one area is a ridiculous way to plant if you want to efficiently harvest and sell a crop, especially tree crops. On large scale agriculture, you have to harvest efficiently, which is impossible when you have ecological hodgepodges. Those hodgepodges require serious labor, which requires serious money, which almost no farmers have.
On the site I’ve been working on in Al Baydha, harvesting was not much of a consideration when we did our initial design. The questions were: Can we actually get things to grow here? Our objective was a closed canopy system alleyed with grazing strips, modeled somewhat after a food forest in Morocco. But never did we consider, “If these grow here, how are we going to harvest them and get them to market? How will we integrate drip irrigation lines with fencing, grazing systems, tree crops, and a way to harvest efficiently?” The lack of that question is going to affect the potential profitability of our demo site in Saudi Arabia forever.
I knew 5 years ago that on that site we would need to integrate fencing with access with water with grazing with forestry: Those are the basic components for a sustainable silvopasture system. That’s a complex system with many moving parts. Integrating all of those pieces into a cohesive whole was something I had no process for doing. I could figure out which zones things would go in & figure out how the outputs for one had to get to the inputs of another. But I did not know how to organize them in a cost-effective way that would allow for the end goal of harvesting, processing, and selling.
Now I do.
On a more personal note, I was fortunate to connect with some stellar people who take land management, water management, agriculture, and sustainability very seriously and very passionately. It was a blessing to rub shoulders with 30 folks working on a very high level and learn together. I think everyone who attended came away with a lot of energy, a rekindled desire to learn, and a lot less complacency.
Thanks to Darren Doherty & Lisa Heenan & Family for the work they are doing. I appreciate them sharing their mistakes so openly, because it means I don’t have to commit the same ones in my own work. This REX course is next-level stuff and essential to people who want to get into large-scale regenerative agriculture.
Yesterday and today I couldn’t make it out to Al Baydha because we had 22 mm of rain in Jeddah. That’s less than 1 inch. However, 1 inch of rain in this city wreaks a certain kind of havoc, as you can see in the photos below:
Part of the issue with flooding is that mountain valleys due east of Jeddah direct water to the city, so it’s not like an inch of rain on the city is the only source of the water.
But a major part of this flooding is that Jeddah has no buffer zones where water can drain to; the whole city is concrete and pavement, with 100% runoff rates. This is a massive failure of design; there are numerous spaces that if they had been done differently, could have greatly ameliorated the floods in Jeddah, and those spaces are duplicated in patterns throughout the city.
Here’s example #1:
There are 3 borders to the water on this street–to the left of the barrier is another 2 lane street, with another elevated sidewalk next to it. Total width of the streetscape is probably 17 meters, with 12 dedicated to the four lanes, and 5 dedicated to elevated walkways and trees.
The solution is obvious: lower the sidewalks and the planted medians enough to absorb the water on the street. 22 mm of rain over 12 square meters of road is 264 liters of water for every meter of road. For the medians and the sidewalks to absorb that much water, they would only have to be sunken 53 mm, a little more than two inches. With trees that perform hydraulic redistribution they could absorb more than that. But you could also sink them down a full foot–5 times deeper than you need for that particular road, so that it can absorb runoff from other roadways. This median dynamic is repeated throughout the city, on most major roadways. The other aspect of this poor design is that within 2 days, a water tanker with desalinated water in it will drive by to water these trees.
Water everywhere, except for where the trees can get to it.
This may seem like a tremendously minor issue, but roads are currently the lowest spaces in the cityscape, and without a sink for the water, it multiplies over kilometers. Let’s take one of the main thoroughfares of Jeddah, Malik Road. Malik road runs north-south along the coastal side of Jeddah, and after driving most of it today, i couldn’t really see anywhere for water to leave the road until it reaches an underpass.
A look at the roads shows the total width to be about 80 meters, the main dividing median to be 15, and two other dividers splitting up the main road from service roads that are about 3 meters each. This doesn’t include the sidewalks that exist, as they’re not everywhere. Here is what that median looks like up close:
Notice that the median is raised about 50 cm, with grass, palm trees, and shrubbery planted thereon. The other medians are also raised, which means this road is essentially a sloped container when it rains. There are a few places for water to flow off onto side roads, but those are just other roads that are also flooding. The total width of this street is 80 meters, 59 of which is hardtop, and let’s take a 5 KM length. With 22 mm of rain, that is 6500 cubic meters of water finding the low point of that road. Multiply that by all the streets in Jeddah, and it’s no wonder that less than an inch of rain causes such problems: the whole streetscape is upside down.
Here’s where that road’s lowest point occurs: an underpass with water at least 3 meters deep at the bottom, after 22 mm of rain.
Yet the solution is simple: sink the medians and the dividers enough to absorb all the runoff.
The other major source of runoff is from rooftops, but this also has a simple solution. Almost all buildings already have a water storage tank, that are accessible to trucks that bring in desalinated water. Drain the roofs into these tanks, and a huge amount of runoff will be eliminated. Simple filters can handle the first flush eliminating dust and debris, after which the water is clean.
In a city where a gallon of water is more expensive than a gallon of oil, and where desalination takes up 20% of national energy consumption, it makes no sense to create a cityscape that makes no use whatsoever of free water falling from the sky. Yet that is exactly how Jeddah functions now, and the solution put forward by multinationals has been to drain that water into the sea as quickly as possible.
an upside-down street in Jeddah
The principle for handling water in cityscapes in dryland situations is to take advantage of run-off from all surfaces, by elevating roads and buildings, and lowering green spaces to act as sinks and catchment for that runoff. By that standard, Jeddah’s streets are upside down. By putting them right side up, it could dramatically reduce road-scape flooding, seasonally decrease street-scape watering from tankers carrying desalinated water, and reduce damage, delays, and inconveniences caused by rain.
In Part II I wrote about the tricky relationship between water, energy, food, and economy and how current trends indicate there is little time to make some very big changes. In this post I am going to explore the goals put forth for 2025 by the National Water Strategy.
Saudi Arabia’s 2025 National Water Strategy (NWS) puts forth policies targeting three strategies areas:
1: Water resources management
2: Water Governance & Institutions
3: Water Supply Services
The underlying goals of the strategy are to introduce technological and institutional innovations to improve management, enhance services and reduce costs, and protect and conserve the environment in all sector activities. The targets are the following, sourced from the NWS:
Goals for water use by 2025 in KSA.
The most important point on this is the total water withdrawals: Saudi Arabia intends to reduce its entire water consumption by more than 50% from 21.1 bcm per year to 9.5 bcm per year. The difference is nearly 12 bcm per year, or slightly less than the country’s total in current agricultural irrigation. In fact almost all of that drop is anticipated to be from reduced irrigation:
Agricultural Water Use Proposed Changes from 2012 to 2025. Source: KSA NWS 2025
Nearly all of that drop in consumption is in agricultural use. Here the 2025 plan shows where that drop will happen; date production will be preserved, and some emphasis on fruits and vegetables. However, fodder and cereals will be entirely phased out. Total agricultural water use in this plan will drop by 11.5 bcm per year, accounting for 95% of the drop in water consumption.
In other words, Saudi Arabia hopes to limit growth of urban and industrial water to only .5 bcm till 2025, and to cut total water use almost entirely through irrigation. Despite the population growing at 2% per year and water consumption per capita growing at 8% per year, it is hoped that more efficient production and distribution, as well as increased water recycling will account for that growth.
Lots of people in permaculture want land, and there is a lot of discussion about how to obtain it. For most this stems from a desire either to be a farmer, or just to produce their own food but have a different kind of career than farming. Agriculture is going through some major transitions at the moment–demographically, environmentally, and politically.
THE BIG PICTURE
Farming is approaching a generational shift; the average farmer is 60 years old and is going to be looking to turn the farm over to someone else sooner or later. This is the subject of Joel Salatin’s book “Fields of Farmers.” Who will take over that land is a big question, and the answer will determine how all that land is managed.
Environmentally, agriculture as a whole needs a revolution. Current agricultural practices are not just unsustainable, but destructive. Monocultural cropping systems result in topsoil loss, biodiversity loss (including bees!), and use up more water than nature allows for. Dead zones in major waterways like the Gulf of Mexico , the Chesapeake Bay, and many others are largely the result of agricultural fertilizer runoff. An agriculture that destroys soil is an agriculture that will inevitably collapse; something that can’t go on forever won’t.
Politically more and more people are becoming aware of the perverse incentives that are part of the US food system–subsidies, water rights and allocations, and commitments to monocultured annuals result in a food system that makes healthy food expensive, and cheap food health-threatening. It’s also a food system that is fragile to shocks like drought; a system that is breeding superbugs through the overuse of antibiotics; a system that puts many farmers in poverty or de facto indentured servitude.
CHANGING THE SYSTEM: DISRUPTING INNOVATIVELY & CHANGING LAWS
In the United States, there are only two ways to change the ag system. The first is by changing the laws. The general impression I get is that to change the laws in the United States, you either need a popular uprising, or you need to be a big business that can afford to fund political campaigns, lobbyists, lawyers, and propaganda. If the US is indeed an oligarchy, then oligarchy is the path to follow to change the laws.
The other way to change the system is to make the current one obsolete; make Monsanto and Bayer and Tyson Foods, and all the other companies that make up the current agricultural oligarchy as relevant as the typewriter. This requires creating entirely new agricultures that replace the current ones in a way that is more profitable, and establishing patterns for transitioning typical farms from the current system to the disruptively innovative one.
The truth is, both have to happen and they’re interconnected; the laws have to be changed, and a new system needs to disrupt the current one, and it should be simultaneous. Permaculture and some organization–a super coop or something along those lines–that abides by its precepts have to become the next big agriculture. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to change the incentives driving the current system, and you will not change the way farmers farm.
PUT THE HORSE IN FRONT OF THE CART
Never in the history of agriculture have farmers been those who were in power and made the laws. Those that create raw materials historically and currently are those that are also poor and unempowered. It’s not the diamond miners who own DeBeers; It’s not the chicken farmers who own Purdue; Pharaoh was never a cotton or wheat farmer, though cotton and wheat were the foundation for much of Egypt’s riches. No it is those who control those raw materials or traffic in them that can gain power, and this brings us to the crux of the matter: If money is what’s holding back the permaculture community from obtaining land, then we need a different system. Saving up money to buy land, and then figuring out regenerative farming and what you’re going to sell is, in my opinion, a failed model. It’s too slow, and only the most pioneering folks are able to make it work. That’s not to say the model i’m proposing is easier. But I think it can be much better.
The next 20 years presents a huge opportunity to gain access to massive amounts of farms as older farmers look to retire, and also presents a huge need to change tack as drought, topsoil loss, drained fossil-water aquifers, and growing dead zones expose the dangers of current agriculture. How will permaculture as a movement seize these opportunities?
My answer to that is what I am calling Product Driven Land Acquisition (PDLA), which flips our current design order on its head to account for financial and economic issues. The model for PDLA is as following:
1: Design and sell a physical product to replace something in everyone’s house that can be perennial based.
2: Create and sell the product and grow that business.
3: Once the business is succesful, use the funds to buy land that will grow the perennial ingredients for that product. (ie go vertically integrated on your supply chain)
4: Design a guild based on the climate and land that grows the foundational product of your business. This allows you to expand into less profitable areas while relying on the foundational product you’re already selling at volume. The ecology you plant is based on that product and the climate it will grow in, and then you diversify into other products based on that guild. Not all of the products have to be value added or niche, but it is the profit of your foundational products driving the financial side of the ecological guild.
5: In addition to designing an ecological agriculture, you will also have to design an ecology of businesses that account for the different kinds of economic activity you’re involved in.
I’m going to give one example: cotton. Monocultured cotton is a huge ecological problem. It was a desire to enter the cotton business that caused Uzbekistan to drain the entire Aral sea. Now that the sea is gone, the residues of pesticides that ran into the sea from industry & agriculture are being blown across Uzbekistan, causing serious health problems and increasing the rate of salinization of the land. In other words, growing cotton in Uzbekistan is now causing cotton to fail in Uzbekistan, and just happened to destroy one of the world’s largest sources of fresh water, as well as the fish and tourist industries intricately linked to it. So here we have a clear ecological problem caused by industrial agriculture.
How to disruptively innovate cotton? Many people say the answer is hemp. Hemp requires 1/2 the water cotton does, grows in much colder and more temperate climates, and can be grown without the use of pesticides. Hemp textiles are objectively stronger and last longer than cotton ones, and hemp is also valuable as a paper crop and a seed crop.
The problem is, I can’t find a single hemp clothing company that makes clothes that actually look like real clothes. You can’t wear hemp clothes without looking like a hippie. So how would I disrupt cotton? I’d start a jeans company that makes hemp jeans that actually look good. Start in the higher end jeans markets until you’re moving volume and have decent revenue, and start out by sourcing my hemp from China where it’s not illegal to grow it.
Once I could afford a lobbyist, i’d hire one to go to Montana and start showing the state government how much profit it’s losing by now allowing hemp to be grown, and that that my company would love to source its hemp from Montana rather than China because we want to put a “grown in America/Made in America” tag on it. I’d show how many jobs this would create and how much economic activity would result. I’d partner up with other groups that want to legalize pot and hemp and get the state law changed. Once the law is changed, I’d have proven revenues and cash flow that would allow me to vertically integrate and buy a few thousand acres in Montana. Then I’d design my permaculture guild around hemp and start diversifying my products based on that guild, creating other companies to account for them. I’d end up with a perennial ecology in Montana that competes with cotton on the global supply chain, eliminates demand for pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, and have an ecology of businesses developing market power and providing value to lots of people.
This is my idea of product driven land acquisition. Rather than trying to buy land and then figuring out how to farm it, I think it would be better to create a product that reliably supplies revenue & creates demand for a particular type of farm, and then vertically integrate my supply chain by buying farms to supply that product.
This may seem very idealistic, and some steps in this process are relatively untested. Ecological agriculture leading to an ecology of businesses is a big idea with little practice behind it, and as far as I know very little conversation around it up to this point. I think it’s the direction we have to go in if permaculture is ever going to move from being predominantly in peoples’ backyards to being predominantly how people farm.
In Part 1 we just looked at some current data about supply and consumption of water in Saudi Arabia on a broad scale. In part II we are going to get a little more granular on the data and tie it into the broader picture.
THE COST OF DESALINATION
Desalinated water provides just 7% of the national supply currently, but when it comes to urban water, desalination is supplying 61%, and at massive cost. In 2013, desalination in Saudi Arabia required 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, or approximately 547 million barrels of oil per year. At the current rate of 56$ per barrel, this presents an opportunity cost of 30.6 billion USD.
The projections from the water ministry are that domestic consumption of water & electricity could consume 50% of the country’s oil & gas production by 2030 if there are no changes made in national water policy.
A breakdown of groundwater vs. desal by governorate. Without major changes to policy, by 2030 KSA could be using 50% of all its oil production just to supply water and energy.
The cost of desalination, however, is not just financial. In the UAE, salinity of the persian gulf has increased from 35,000 ppm to as high as 56,000 ppm. As salinity increases in the gulf, it may balance the pH of the acidifying sea, but the sea’s corals and fisheries will be “highly stressed,” which is a sanitized way of saying decimated (link is to pdf). Furthermore, the technical difficulty of removing so much salt will make desalination either technically impossible, (a possibility) or simply much more expensive (guaranteed). That situation is exacerbated by the fact that both the persian gulf and the red sea have very small inlets; both are largely self contained, with water that changes over from the ocean once every 8-9 years. In other words, even with advances in desalination technology, it’s still going to become more expensive to desalinate a liter of water as time goes on.
CONSUMPTION & POPULATION TRENDS
Saudi Arabia’s population is growing at around 2%, but its consumption of water and electricity have been tracking around double that amount.
population growth rates have swung over the decades but currently around 2% Source: World Bank
Meanwhile, water consumption per household is increasing at a rate of 7.5% per year, and demand for electricity is increasing at 8% per year. If both trends continue, demand for water and power per capita will double in a decade, and the number of capitas will increase from 35 million to 45 million.
Over that same decade, conventional agricultures in Saudi Arabia may face a major collapse. With some 100,000 million cubic meters (mcm) of water left in the fossil aquifers (based on National Geographic’s estimate), and an annual withdrawal from those aquifers of 14,500 mcm per year for irrigation (taken from the Water Ministry’s 2025 National Water Strategy), time is short on this front.
A truck hauling imported alfalfa to feed camels & goats. I see these every day on my commute to work.
The pain associated with these collapses will be real, as farming communities abandon their land to the desert. The removal of water subsidies already had some farming communities in Hail turning to other employment in 2012. As subsidies for wheat end, and eventually alfalfa, whole agricultural communities will have to look elsewhere. So while it may seem to someone from outside that growing wheat or alfalfa in the desert is neither environmentally nor financially sound, there are now 40+ years of history in some of these places with wheat as the economic base.
Putting It All Together
Saudi Arabia faces a gordian knot entangling its economy, energy, water, food, & population growth. Its rentier economy continues to depend almost singlehandedly on oil and oil derivatives, which provide 90% of the country’s revenues. But in the coming decades, it faces enormous decisions dealing with water, agriculture, energy, economy, and increasing costs:
- The fossil water will run out eventually, which will lead to a collapse of all KSA’s conventional agricultures, leading to greater food imports (which are currently 80%) and a fragile dependence on global food prices.
- Demand for electricity and urban water are set to double over the next 10 years.
- In that time the population will probably increase by some 10 million people.
These are some of the reasons why Citigroup estimated that Saudi Arabia could become a net oil importer by 2030. Whether or not Saudi Arabia can weather these changes quickly enough and untangle its gordian knot will depend entirely on what actions it takes until then. But it will require nothing less than massive changes in pricing structures, subsidies, gains in efficiency, and the creation of new economies to replace one based almost entirely on oil.
On an ending note, I want to emphasize that I do not have an apocalyptic viewpoint of KSA’s future. It is rarely the case that when trends point to disaster that people in charge don’t take action to avert those disasters, and so trends that seem alarming now rarely play out the way they might appear to. Thus, the purpose of this post is not to spread fear; it is to lay the groundwork for understanding the current situation, so that the critical nature of the solutions’ designs are apparent.