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.
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.
In a previous post I wrote about food security in Saudi Arabia and its relation to global food production patterns. I have hesitated to write about the specifics of water here, because i didn’t have many up to date sources, and the data I had was quite suspect. However recently I got access to the 2025 National Water Strategy, written in 2014 by Dr. Mohammad Al-Saud, who is the Deputy Minister for Water Affairs for the Ministry of Water & Electricity (MOWE). It has very recent numbers, and should paint the most accurate picture available.
CURRENT WATER CONSUMPTION
In terms of consumption, in 2012 nearly 81% of the country’s water went to irrigation. 12% went to urban use, and the other 7% was split between industrial, mining, thermodynamic electric, and aquaculture.
Total water in 2012 use was 21,100 million cubic meters (mcm)
CURRENT WATER SUPPLY
Of that 21.1 billion cm, 72%, or 14,550 mcm was sourced from non-renewable fossil aquifers. 8% was desalinated, and 19% came from surface water flows & renewable shallow aquifers. 1% of the water supply came from recycled, treated wastewater.
It is important to note that water withdrawal from renewable sources is 400% the rate of replenishment, and that reliance on the fossil aquifers is what makes up the difference. Those aquifers initially had 500 cubic kilometers of water in the 1960s, and according to National Geographic, 400 of those had been used up by 2008. (for reference, 1 cubic kilometer = 1,000 mcm) Since consumption rates have been increasing year over year, it is now likely that 0ver 90% of the water in the fossil aquifers has been depleted, almost all of which went to massive agricultural projects aimed at achieving food self-sufficiency.
Source: KSA 2025 National Water Strategy
Extraction of fossil water began in 1974, peaked in the early 2000s, and is expected to fall at least in the short term due to a removal of subsidies on wheat , which occurred this year despite some serious issues with wheat farmers.
I personally doubt those expectations because many farmers are turning to alfalfa (source in Arabic) instead of wheat, which uses 4 to 5 times more water than wheat production. I have heard that there are plans to end alfalfa subsidies as well, but I can’t find a good source for that so it’s in the rumor pile for now.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Saudi Arabia is currently sourcing 72% of its water from fossil water aquifers, 90% of which have been used up in agricultural projects in the last generation. 80% of all water goes to agriculture, which is largely sourced from those aquifers. What will happen when the fossil water is gone, which could happen in the next 20 years? That depends on what happens between now and then.
In Part II we’ll tie the agricultural issue into other current trends in KSA, revolving around the economy, population growth, and consumption trends in water, food, and energy.
Saudi Arabia has few policy options to confront its food and water security, and when we talk about sustainable systems, those options get reduced even further. However, it’s apparent that change is necessary, as current consumption patterns and pricing patterns are a one way ticket off a fiscal cliff. Again, the problem is not that Saudi Arabia is going to run out of oil (of which it has at least 100 years worth according to some petroleum engineering friends of mine). Rather the danger is that all the oil produced will be consumed domestically, leaving the country looking around for alternative exports while at the same time desalinating more of its water for more people, and importing more food for a higher population.
In a typical food security analysis, Very Smart People look at the economy and ask, “will Country K be able to import the food it cannot produce domestically?” In other words, is the economy such that KSA can pay for its food needs? Currently the answer is a resounding yes, because that’s what is happening; 60% of all food is imported.
As conventional agricultures fail, must Saudi Arabia rely on imports? Source
So in the typical analysis, Saudi Arabia’s food security is fine. But there have been previous incidents that caused worry. In 2007 India imposed an export ban on non-basmati rice due to a domestic shortage, which led to a shortage in KSA. Despite Saudi Arabia’s wealth, it could not obtain all the rice it wanted, and imports fell by thousands of tons. Consequently, domestic prices were inflated, and millions of poor Saudis–of whom there are an estimated 2-4 million— experienced significant hunger.
The rice, and the forage that fed the lamb was either imported or grown with fossil water.
For its food security, KSA has embarked on a program encouraging the private sector to invest in lands abroad where food can be produced and sold back to the country. The idea is that countries with land but no capital will cooperate with Saudi businessmen to develop previously undeveloped agricultural areas. Among the countries under consideration are Ethiopia, Sudan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mozambique and Ukraine.
Whether you call this a land grab, neo-colonialism, or investment in developing a better food supply, it still holds that if there is a famine in Ethiopia, it’s not going to export food to Saudi Arabia. There is nothing to stop a foreign country from nationalizing its domestic product when circumstances dictate, which would leave countries like Saudi Arabia in the same pickle as before. Thus this approach comes with significant risk, especially since it was already attempted in the late 1970s with Sudan. At that time it failed, as is detailed in Eckart Woertz’s Oil For Food (which also describes the challenges of the current situation).
Fawaz al Alamy, who negotiated Saudi Arabia’s entry into the World Trade Organization and is now a director of a major food and food-processing company, told Thomas Lippman of the Middle East Policy Council, “In these foreign investments, in Sudan or Ethiopia or Ukraine, who is going to secure the investment against political risk or flood or whatever? I would love to see these projects succeed, but I don’t believe it. Profit margins are already small in the food business. I’d rather have agreements with credible countries like New Zealand and Canada — they produce without help from us; we buy, we have stable arrangements with no investment risk.”
While that may seem a more secure policy, it ignores a basic fact about modern agriculture: it is inherently unsustainable. Saudi Arabia’s domestic agriculture is at the point of ceasing because it is out of water, and has almost no soil to start with. However, all modern agricultures deplete soil and are draining aquifers. There is not a single agriculture on the planet growing the staples people eat–rice, wheat, corn, soy, oats, barley–that is sustainable in terms of soil or water. In the United States most agriculture in the plains region depend on water from the huge Ogalalla aquifer, the greatest source of fresh water on the planet. Due to management issues, the Ogalalla is being drawn down at a rate of at least 40 million acre feet per year, and is reportedly already inaccesible in areas of northern Texas. The more western states have drained the Colorado River dry. It is the same story the world over.
The depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer by Million Acre Feet. A blue line above zero would be a sustainable use of water. Source
This is the double whammy of Saudi Arabia’s food security–as it looks outside for imports, agricultures that are now considered reliable will begin to fail, and will increasingly do so unless the way we grow food changes dramatically. The modus operandi of human societies to this point has been to turn forests into fields, monocrop those fields, and over decades or centuries, turn those fields into desert. The deforestation causes loss of water and precipitation, and the monocropped agricultures mine topsoil until it erodes away and nothing is left but dead dirt and sand. This is being observed in real time in Brazil, where clearing forest to grow soy & sugarcane has resulted in the worst drought in decades.
Forest clearing in Amazonia destroys the ecological services provided by trees, causing a loss in rainfall. Soil erosion from monocropped systems, combined with the loss of hydrology complete the catalyst of desertification. Photo Source
The speed of that process from forest to desert for the sake of unsustainable agricultures is increasing as populations grow and as technology advances. On a pragmatic level that means agricultures will become more and more volatile, and food production will be unreliable. Thus Saudi Arabia’s current plight is actually everyone’s predicament in the long run, when it comes to food security: Desertification, loss of productivity, and the irretrievable loss of our water sources is our future unless we revolutionize how we produce food.
There is a sustainable solution for Saudi Arabia, as well as for the rest of us: To develop agricultures based on perennial systems that supply their own water. In Saudi Arabia, that would mean reforesting the hijaz, using the forest as the basis for the production of nuts, fruits, forage, medicines, oils, dairy, poultry, and red meats. The forest would initiate a cascade of rainfall that would eventually push east beyond the mountain range and allow for the afforestation of the entire Arabian Peninsula. As the forest expanded east it would bring the rain with it.
Not only would this allow for the entire Arabian Peninsula to be converted to productive landscape, & dramatically increase rainfall, but it would permanently solve the Gulf’s water and food security issues, eliminate the urbanization of the rural poor (which brings its own associated social ills of poverty, prostitution, drug abuse, and crime), and create an entirely new sector of the economy that currently does not exist. This is the only environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable solution to Saudi Arabia’s water and food security. The patterns used in that design, the ideas and philosophies and methods behind its implementation are also the only sustainable solution for human society in general.
I’m about to delve into some politics, economics, resource constraints, and context-building for the next series of the blog. Before I get into that, it’s important to keep the end in mind, and understand where i’m going.
A facility at the Khurais Oil Field. Source: The Guardian
We live in the oil age. I’m not sure what’s going to come after the oil age, but we’re not there yet. Everything human society runs on is derived from oil. Agriculture depends entirely on oil, and I don’t mean because bananas make it from Colombia to wherever you are. Food is produced with oil-derived nitrogen fertilizers, and mined phosphates and potash, using oil-driven machines. Without those fertilizers, conventional agriculture collapses. The planting, the fertilizers, the synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and the harvesting are all done using oil-driven machines, processes, or materials. That’s just the agriculture. There are other oil-driven fields that determine a lot about our way of life:
We depend on oil for almost everything in our lives. Put that thought on a shelf for a second and let’s talk about saudi Arabia.
Not only does Saudi Arabia depend on oil for everything that everyone else does, but it also depends on oil for its national revenues–about 90% of them. Since Saudi Arabia is a desert country, with no rivers or lakes, its capacity to be resource self-sustaining is very very small.
The way our societies are designed, and the way we produce, distribute, consume, and discard the products and goods of 21st century civilization is turning much of our world into water-stressed desert as well.
Look at the American Southwest: the Colorado River no longer reaches Mexico. There are otherwise intelligent people seriously advocating for a pipeline of water from Lake Superior, once the Ogalalla aquifer runs out. Finally Southern California is on the verge of building its first desalination plant, and you can never stop with just one. All so we can have ranches and cotton.
Look at the Aral Sea, once the world’s 4th largest lake. It will be gone within 15 years, at which point the surrounding countries, which have sucked it dry for cotton production and other agricultures will also start to desertify. Here’s what NASA has to say about it:
As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard. The salty dust blew off the lakebed and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
The Aral Sea Disappears over 30 years. Source: Columbia.edu
Look at the fertile crescent; it’s not fertile anymore. Northern Syria’s severe drought and agricultural destruction was one of the causes of the ongoing revolution, and Turkey’s damning of the Euphrates, so it can grow cotton, is decimating Iraqi farmers, and will eventually lead to the destruction of the Euphrates itself.
Look at Egypt, which was once the bread basket of the roman empire, and now the greatest importer of wheat in the world, with rapidly salinating soils, and a falling capacity for agricultural production.
China, Pakistan, India, Australia, Central Asia, and many other countries are experiencing massive desertification, and in most cases this is caused by short-sighted, unsustainable oil-based agriculture systems. This is well documented in Fred Pearce’s “When the Rivers Run Dry.”
China has twice more land undergoing desertification than it has land under agricultural production.
The whole of human civilization is in a pattern of overdrawing resources. We mine our soil to produce food, destroying soil in the process. We turn forests into fields, and then the fields turn into deserts, as the waters and lakes dry up. We are mining our oceans until they are full of plastic & jellyfish. We are consuming every non-renewable resource we have and after we are done with them, we discard them in unreusable forms, ruining the renewable resources we have in the process. Our ability to affect our environment increases more quickly than our ability to perceive that effect. This is not an issue of global warming–this is an issue of how humans manage their resources.
What seems to be the near future of Saudi Arabia, a barren land with drastically few renewable resources, and a dependence on mining oil, gas, potash, and other minerals, is very much like the future many countries face, unless the way they manage natural resources changes. The truth is, unless we redesign our societies to cooperate with nature and its cycles, and redesign how we produce, transport, consume, and discard all the facets of peopledom, that is the future we all share. Keep that in mind as you follow over the next few months the series on food security, water security, and the challenges Saudi Arabia faces over the next generation.
I’ve written this series on the awesomeness of trees and the functions they perform in direct contrast to the pieces I wrote on desertification. Whereas desertification is a self-replicating, self-reinforcing downward spiral of death, drought, and barrenness, afforestation is an upward spiral leading to greater life, water, and productivity. Both contain self-reinforcing feedback loops that lead to their expansion. Most importantly, whichever cycle is underway largely depends, in many cases, on how people are managing the land.
grazing can contribute to desertification or reforestation, depending on human management.
As I wrote in my introductory post, people are the keystone species of the planet, which means our actions have far reaching effects on the environment around us. In fact, our ability to change our environment increases at a greater rate than our ability to perceive that change. In short, depending on how we manage the earth, we can kickstart the process of desertification (and we have throughout history, mostly through our use of agriculture), or we can be the catalyst for afforestation. In this post, I will tie together all the previous posts on desertification, and the awesomeness of trees, and show how afforestation can be used to convert the Arabian Peninsula into a productive, resilient, and bio-diverse land. If you want more details, follow the links.
First off it should be noted the cycle of desertification had a jumpstart when a national policy unintentionally lead to a collapse of the traditional land management systems, the hima. Once that desertification is underway, it manifests cycles that inhibit rainfall, increase evaporation, and make it harder for life to become established. Those cycles involve an increase in temperature, the creation of dust, and the loss of nuclei for water droplets and clouds to form around. As rainfall and precipitation are inhibited, temperatures increase more, dust increases more, and only the hardiest of plants survive, leading to less and less nuclei. Soil turns into dust, the nutrient cycle ceases, and the water cycle becomes undependable and erratic, and total evaporation goes up. In this way, deserts expand.
A huge dust storms swings through the empty quarter from the Arab Gulf, heating the atmosphere past the dew point, so that no clouds may form. Source: earthobservatory.nasa.gov
In my last few posts, i’ve written specifically on how trees can counter each aspect of desertification. They decrease the amount of atmospheric dust, and block winds so less dust gets thrown up there. They also lower ground temperatures by providing shade and absorbing a tremendous amount of heat from the sun. Finally, in areas away from coasts, they provide the majority of nuclei and water vapor for clouds to form. They can care for their own hydrology allowing for soil life to recover and the nutrient cycle to start back up again. Finally, they increase precipitation, both through generating rainclouds and capturing dew. Thus, establishing trees can reverse the cycle of desertification, restore a healthy functioning of the water and mineral cycles, and bring life back to the desert. Of course, in all deserts the question then becomes, “How do we establish trees in a place with no soil and no water?”
The coastlines where humidity and clouds can form are the edge to start on.
This is where design and understanding nature’s cycles come in. The key to reversing desertification will depend on the larger macro weather cycles, as well as the geography of whatever desert you’re looking at. No matter what it is absolutely imperative that you start at the edge of the desert rather than in the middle. Starting in the middle would be foolish and pointless. All change happens on the margin.
In the Arabian Peninsula there are 3 margins to focus on–the Hijaz, the Omani Coast, and Yemen. The hijaz gets lots of humidity and water coming off the red sea, whereas Oman gets typhoons coming off the Indian Ocean. Finally the SW corner of Yemen hits the tail end of the green belt across Africa. These are the edges where you could start because this is where you still get some water (albeit not very dependably) that you could use for reforestation. As those forests encroach on the desert, you can start to beat it back.
Mountains provide an opportunity to reforest desert because of floods & runoff.
In the hijaz, that water shows up as flash floods, with some 90% of the fresh water running into the sea. That’s enough water to reforest the Hijaz. Reforesting the hijaz would be a catalyst to increase rainfall over the tihama plain, as well as the western edge of the empty quarter, which in turn would allow more growth to occur in those areas. Thus forests, just like deserts, contain within themselves self-perpetuating mechanisms that spur their expansion and provide their resilience. Whichever one occurs is a question of human management.
This wraps up the first major part of the blog series about greening the Arabian Peninsula. Up till now I have provided a general overview of the cycles, and the science behind what’s going on environmentally in this part of the world, as well as how we could convert the peninsula into productive landscape. The principles in this series are applicable in any desert, though some would be much more difficult to tackle than others. How people will manage the land under their stewardship will dramatically affect the coming generations’ ability to feed themselves, and to drink. My hope is that these posts will help open peoples’ eyes to the possibilities, and to how much positive change human society can bring to the environment through smart management, good design, and cooperating with nature.