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.
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 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.
Here are the top 3 ways I answer the question, “What can I grow here?”
1: Existing Local Practices
In more developed areas there are lots of ways to know what people are already growing. Garden clubs, nurseries, seed-saver clubs, permaculture meet-up groups, etc, are all great ways to find out what’s growing in your area, and even to get some local seed that could be better adapted to your place. Especially in more developed areas of the world, where you can find organizations with a click o’ the internet, this is an easy and probably the most common way to find out what you can grow.
But what if you are somewhere you don’t have those associations, and where the internet gives you very little information? One method is to drive around neighborhoods or public buildings and look at the gardens they are growing. Especially at public buildings, these will often be maintained by immigrant workers, who tend to import practices and crops from back home if they are from a similar climate.
For me working in Saudi Arabia, I’ve visited some gardens run and maintained by Philipinos, who have brought moringa and sweet potato here. Initially I wouldn’t have thought to plant Moringa Oleifera here, because its native climate is more tropical and much more humid. However, i’ve observed some succesfully grown here, so I integrated them with my guild at work, in addition to the local Moringa Peregrina. Immigrants are a cultural edge and their introduction of exotic food plants can lead to innovative tries in your guild.
2: Local Historic Practices
Before industrialization, everybody except for a very few ate local. Traditional peoples and their food practices, whether currently existing or not, can point you in the direction of some plants that will be useful, and perhaps largely forgotten. Acorns, for example, were a staple of the pre-colonial peoples of New England, though I would venture to say that very few New Englanders consume them now. There are thousands of plants that can provide food, fiber, and medicine, that are almost entirely unknown to modern people, though in the past that was only sometimes the case.
3: A Climate Analogue
Latitudes are a reflection of solar patterns
A climate analogue is a catalogue of other areas on the planet that share key characteristics that are similar or identical to the characteristics of the land you want to design for. Through a climate analogue, you can find nearly-identical climates across the globe, and then by researching plants in those areas, find all kinds of cool things you didn’t know you could grow. Here’s an example:
Take a look at the middle of the west coast of Saudi Arabia in the map above. It’s just inside the sub-tropics; now follow that latitude across the globe and note where it hits a western coast. Then do the same for the same latitude south of the equator (so if you’re looking at 20 North, you’ll want to look at 20 South as well because it’s the same solar pattern, just with the seasons flipped).
For my area in Saudi Arabia, following those latitudes, you hit the following areas: Coastal Namibia, Western Australia, A part of the Atacama in Chile, Mexicali, Mexico and the southern regions of the sonoran desert, Mauritania, A chunk of India, and Bangladesh. Those are the areas in my climate analogue. By researching traditional food plants from these areas, i can construct a guild of useful plants that are already growing somewhere with identical solar & in many instances climatic circumstances. In my own situation, every location on my climate analogue except for 2 are coastal deserts, just like the region I work in.
So that’s a very simplistic example. Here are the 6 characteristics you ought to look at when constructing a climate analogue:
C: Distance and direction from the nearest ocean, sea, or large body of water.
Those are the 3 most important. If you get a match on those 3, likelihood is that the next 3 will be comparable. These are:
D: Precipitation–if your analogue matches are the same on precipitation, then you know you can meet water sustainability by planting those imported plants.
E: dominant winds
F: major geographical features that would affect climate–mountains, rivers, seasonal storms, etc.
Bear in mind, none of the 6 characteristics above need to be identical, and you could eliminate the latter 3 altogether depending on the geography of your land. The more similar the matches you find in your climate analogue, the more succesful you will be implanting members of your guild from those areas.
If you are fortunate, after you build a climate analogue you will find 3 or 4 areas whose climates are very similar to yours. Then it is time for research. The same techniques you used in finding out already existing practices where you live, are the same you will use for these other areas that you have identified through your climate analogue.
Here are some plants i’ve adopted into my guild that I wouldn’t have thought to plant otherwise, or didn’t even know about when I started:
1: Moringa Oleifera can be found in Gujarat and Rajasthan, India, both of which match the climate analogue. This, combined with seeing it nearby in Jeddah led me to planting it out in our desert.
2: Pithecellobium dulce and honey mesquite (prosopis glandulosa). Both of these trees are native to Mexico, including the range on my climate analogue. The pith is pictured above.
3: Mongongo –this is the staple crop of the Bushmen in the Namib desert. I haven’t been able to plant it yet, but it should grow in Saudi Arabia because Namibia matches on all 6 of the above characteristics, and even has matching soil types.
4: Watermelon. Watermelon grows wonderfully in Saudi Arabia, and many people grow it here by flooding fields off of flash floods and sowing with watermelon seeds. Watermelon also happens to be native to Namibia.
5: Agaves (native to Mexico and the Sonoran Desert)
A Final Note on Natives vs. Non-natives
Just because you can grow something doesn’t mean you should. Know your goals for what you want to grow, consider the surrounding context and community, and bear in mind that people have moved plants all over the globe for a long, long time. It’s true that if we only ever grew natives, Italy would have no tomatoes, Ireland no potatoes, India no curry, Thailand no chiles, and the USA no wheat. However, that doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind, either.
A climate analogue can open up your eyes to lots of possibilities about what you can grow. If you combine that with a knowledge of local historical plant usage, you can come up with some wonderfully diverse guilding.
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.
There are some desert areas where dew consists of 100% of all the precipitation–particularly in the Atacama of South America as well as in some areas of the Namib desert (the above picture is from the Namib Desert, sourced here). That dew drop depends entirely on the local foliage–without those plants, the dew would not fall. This leads to some chicken and egg type questions–if the plants need the dew to live, and if the dew only happens because of those plants, how did they get there in the first place? Regardless, even in temperate climates dew can be a significant source of precipitation–up to 30% in some areas (my source on that is Geoff Lawton, in a personal conversation).
In deforested areas, the dew-catching and creating phenomena ceases, and the affect can be enormous. Through reforesting these areas, we can increase total precipitation through dew collection alone–not counting the increase in rainfall and cloud creation caused by the trees.
Dew collects on the leaves of an Albizia
Here is how that works:
The dew point is the temperature at which water in the air begins condenses on solid surfaces–particularly those that are not connected to the heat of the ground. Leaves, grass blades, metals, or even stones can play this role. If there is no surface for the water vapor to condense on (as in much of Al Baydha) then the water in the air will simply stay as vapor. This is how the Groasis Waterboxx works, how air-wells work, and how many dryland coastal-forests acquire much of their water. Trees especially, that can have acres of surface area along their leaves, can catch a surprising amount of dew, which then drips underneath the tree into their root zone. As the trees grow, their shade further reduces ground temperatures and dessication by way of the wind, which raises the dew point, reduces further evaporation, and makes the whole process more likely to happen.
Dew and other types of condensation should not be underestimated as a source of precipitation, especially in coastal deserts, like those along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, and could probably provide enough water for the early stages of their reforestation.