KSA Water II:  The Gordian knot of Economy, Energy, Water, & Food

KSA Water II: The Gordian knot of Economy, Energy, Water, & Food

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.


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.

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.


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 1.5%

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 at work.

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.

Trees Are Awesome:  Desertification vs. Afforestation

Trees Are Awesome: Desertification vs. Afforestation

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.

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

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 Arab Peninsula

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.

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.




Trees Are More Awesome Than You Thought:  Hydraulic Redistribution

Trees Are More Awesome Than You Thought: Hydraulic Redistribution

One of the major obstacles to reforesting the desert through floods is getting foliage established, and one of the reasons foliage does not establish more readily is because when it does rain, water does not penetrate the thin layer of clay that forms before a flood flows.  You can see that clay layer starting to form  in the video posted below, only 2 minutes after the start of a 5 minute rainfall:

This rainfall did not cause a flood–but it did show what happens in a wadi before a flood occurs–clay layers form, and as clay is hydrophilic, they become saturated, after which more water cannot sink into the landscape unless there are strategies and structures put in place to make it do so.

One of the greatest tools to disrupt this clay plan & establish foliage at the same time is to plant trees that can perform Hydraulic Redistribution.  Hydraulic redistribution is the ability of some trees to use their shallow roots and taproots as pumps.  When the shallow soil is saturated or wet, these trees can pump that water through the tap root deep into the soil, and keep that water in reserve until a drier period.  In that drier period, it can pump the water in the lower levels of the soil up to the shallow roots, thus cooling the soil temperature, making water available to other plants in the tree’s vicinity, and allowing the tree to continue to respirate even in very hot and very try times.   Here is a graphic of how it works:


Graphics courtesy of FC Meinzer, USDA Forest Service.

This is a truly awesome function that you can stack with trees.  The known desert species that perform hydraulic redistribution are acacia tortilas and prosopis, whose taproots can reach up to 120 feet (about 40 meters) below the surface.

Thus in only one function of some trees, we can penetrate the clay layer of floods, and literally pump flood waters into the ground when it is wet.  Then when times get dry, the trees themselves will bring that water back to the surface to nurture other plants growing in their root zone.

To do this without the assistance of a tree would require digging holes, laying pipe and filters, and installing cisterns–just to get the water into the ground.  Then to bring it back up we would have to install pumps and irrigation systems.  That is what some would recommend, and that is actually the function of some standard dams in Saudi Arabia.  Why do that when we can do this passively by understanding how nature works, then tailoring our designs to facilitate her wonders, and then simply cooperating with her?  That is what we can do with hydraulic redistribution.

Floods Can Reforest The Hijaz.

Floods Can Reforest The Hijaz.

In my last post, I talked about how the water cycle in the Hijaz is disrupted, or sick.  Accurately diagnosing the causes of that disrupted functioning gives us a good idea of how to go about healing the water cycle, and also points to the resources available to us to do that in a sustainable, or even regenerative way.

That post was the last in explaining the environmental and climatic sources of the problem facing the Arabian Peninsula vis-a-vis the lack of rainfall and increasing desertification, as well as some of the political complications involved.  Here is a  summary:

The collapse of traditional rangeland practices in the 1950s lead to a tragedy of the commons and a self-replicating  cycle of desertification that increased dust in the atmosphere, increased surface and atmospheric temperatures, and eliminated many of the organisms that were producing nuclei required for rainfall.  Due to overgrazing and woodcutting, and as the cycle of desertification takes hold, vast swaths of once-lush valleys and mountains are becoming nearly devoid of life, leading to a dramatic loss of productivity and a disrupted water cycle that causes the only renewable source of freshwater to be lost in dramatic flooding events.  As this cycle continues, more and more water will be lost, less and less rain will fall, temperatures will increase, and the productivity of the land will approach 0.

At this time, I am not going to go into the political, social, or economic implications of these facts.  Instead, from this post on, I’m going to be explaining what I believe to be the only sustainable solution that has a chance at saving Saudi Arabia’s and the Arabian Peninsula’s water and food security issues.

The most valuable resources in the current water cycle are the floods that periodically rush through the wadi systems of Saudi Arabia’s west coast.  These floods (and other rains) constitute the only sustainable source of water in the entire Kingdom.  Fortunatey, these floods can be used to establish systems that will make the water cycle more regular, that will increase its cyclical frequency, as well as amplify the total amount of rain that falls.  In short, we have to use the floods to bring the rain back, and it can be done in such a way that the total precipitation increases, and the frequency of rain events increases.

The first part of this series will be all about trees and the wondrous effect they can have on the water cycle.  Here is the map, tho not a table of contents:


A pictured Mongongo Tree

Moderating Rainfall, Surface Water Flow & Water retention. 

1:  Clay pan penetration

2:  Erosion reduction, soft rain catching

3:  Hydraulic redistribution

4:  Soil moderation–increasing carbon & soil life increases water retention

Tackling the Problems of Dust, High Surface Temperatures, & Lack of Raindrop Nuclei

5:  Evapotranspiration–VOC’s, vapor, & litter

6:  Moderating hot, dry winds

7:  Extending evaporation periods while reducing evaporation from bare soils

8:  Shade, specific heat, and lower soil temperatures

9;  Wind & dust break

Providing Additional Sources of Precipitation

10: Increased condensation

This is going to get sciencey, but I promise that it will be awesome.   Here’s the first taste of awesome:  Did you know that trees can store water in the soil near their taproots during wet times and then pump it back up to their shallow roots when the soil is dry?  This is called hydraulic redistribution and will be the topic of the next post.

The Hijaz has Diarrhea

The Hijaz has Diarrhea

In the last post, I wrote about how the cycle of desertification in the Hijaz and much of rural Saudi Arabia was started through the unintended consequence of a Saudi national policy in 1954, after a sustainable, traditional land management system called the hima was abolished.  We’ve also seen how desertification is a self-reinforcing feedback loop that builds on itself and makes it more and more difficult to turn back the desert and bring life and productivity back to the land.  In this post you will learn one of the fundamental methods for understanding your climate and diagnosing the causes of problems to be addressed, as opposed to the symptoms, which is the following:

1:  You cannot bring a desert back to life unless you understand how the water and nutrient cycles are functioning.

The various parts and functions of a healthy water cycle.

The various parts and functions of a healthy water cycle.

How nutrients and minerals cycle through plant and animal and soil life.

How nutrients and minerals cycle through plant and animal and soil life.

2:  You must cooperate with the existing function of those cycles to begin mimicking a healthy water/nutrient cycle and then healing them on a small scale.  That means you cannot start in the middle of the desert.  You have to start on an edge, where these cycles are functioning at least a little.

3:  Healing the water and nutrient cycles on a small scale will kickstart a cycle of life that counters the cycle of desertification.  Once that cycle reaches a certain tipping point, the system will take on a healthy function and become resilient, regenerative, and irreversible (disregarding shocks to the system such as warfare, major natural disasters, or sudden shifts in the larger weather patterns).

Those are the principles and theory.   Here is the application for one of the main edges that must be tackled to afforest/asavannahize the Arabian Peninsula:  The hijaz.


The hijaz is characterised by large wadi systems that flood when it rains.  These floods cause major destruction when they hit cities, as well as more ruralized devastation outside.  One of my worker’s uncles and 4 of his cousins died in a flood in Al Baydha 6 years ago, leaving a widow and two young children to be cared for by his extended family.  I am going to pick one watershed characteristic of the rest, and use that as our case study.  The watershed we will look at in this post is Al Lith, which is a 90 minute drive south of Jeddah.

As is typical of other hijazi watersheds, Al Lith has an extensive mountain watershed draining into a very short flood plain before it hits the red sea.

As is typical of other hijazi watersheds, Al Lith has an extensive mountain watershed draining into a very short flood plain before it hits the red sea.


Picture a flood the way you would a tree.  The way a tree’s leaves and branches collect sunshine, the mountains in Al Lith collect water.  There are main branches, small branches, eventually a trunk (where all the water collects and runs as a flood).  Then before it hits the red sea, it spreads out in an alluvial fan  and then in the hijaz, runs into the red sea.  In Al Lith, the catchment area (in the mountains) is approximately 35 x 55 kilometres.  If a rainfall of 25 mm (one inch) hits this whole watershed, that means there are 1,925,000 cubic meters of water (the equivalent of 1560 acre feet) hitting that watershed at one time.  Because these mountains are largely devoid of plant life, less than 10% of that water will soak into the shallow aquifers, and the rest will run into the red sea.  You can se in the picture the two alluvial fans that were created in the last floods from the watershed within the blue polygon.  But you can also see 4 other alluvial fans from other floods, and other watersheds just north and south of Al Lith.

Looking at the water cycle above, there are some parts of that cycle that are severely hampered or stunted in the Al Lith watershed.

  • The condensation of water droplets to create clouds (listed just as CONDENSATION in the graph above) is severely restricted by high surface temperatures relevant to the dew point, by dust in the atmosphere, and by the lack of potential water drop nuclei that would be produced by a less desertified environment.  This means that rainfall, rather than being a regular occurrence, only happens once a year, or sometimes once every two or three years.
  • Surface Runoff is the overwhelmingly dominant way water makes it to the ocean.
  • Infiltration of water into the soil is severely restricted by a few factors:
    • Topography (where most of the watershed is in the catchment and the available space for the trunk of the tree is very small)
    • The lack of plants and plant roots in the watershed, which facilitate infiltration, slow water flow, reduce erosion, and reduce the impact of falling water on bare soil
    • The inability of the soil to hold and retain moisture due to its sandy makeup and the lack of carbon and organic material.

The best analogy for this kind of water cycle is diarrhea.  The hijaz has diarrhea.  Within 24 hours of a rainfall event, 90% of that water is already lost to the sea, and only 10% is left to nourish all the plant life in the watershed until the next rainfall (which may not occur for another 1000 days!)

So let’s talk about the actual results of the Hijaz’s ailment.  A person with diarrhea is significantly less productive than he would be healthy.  The hijaz is no different:

A 1 inch rainfall in Al Lith results in an estimated 1,733,000 Cubic meters of water run into the red sea in the Al Lith watershed above.  Let’s put this in a more meaningful perspective since most people don’t intuitively think in acre feet or cubic meters of water.  That lost water from a one inch event in Al Lith is enough to irrigate 118,698 mature date palms for one year.  Assuming a low average of 70 kilos of dates per tree, that’s the equivalent of just over 8,300,000 kilos of dates per year, from one watershed.

The lost water from the flash floods is an enormous loss of potential, measured solely in the amount of dates you could produce if you were to only plant date palms.  That doesn’t account for any other ecological services or potential products provided by these imagined palm trees–fiber for traditional crafts, a reduction in dust, mitigating wind and dust storms, lowering ambient temperatures, shading the riparian areas, and providing more habitat for wildlife.  Aside from the lost water, which is the source of all life, Saudi Arabia is losing out on money, employment, higher public health (dust and fine particulate matter has been proven to increase the amount of asthma, respiratory diseases, and heart disease), and just a nicer, greener landscape.

There's some green in that watershed!  What if my 10% estimate is off?

There’s some green in that watershed! What if my 10% estimate is off?

Now, I can hear you critics saying, “What if your 10% number is off?  After all, Al Lith does have some greenery in that watershed, and it does have a small strip of running water most of the year.  Or what if your calculations on the size of the watershed are off?”  The size of the watershed doesn’t matter–the principles are accurate, and being off by a few square kilometres doesn’t change the numbers much.  But what if my estimate on the water absorption is off?  Let’s assume it’s off by a factor of 5, and 50% of the water is absorbed into the water cycle.

Well, that would mean that the amount of lost water is only 1,000,000 cubic meters in a one inch rainfall.  But guess what?  The average amount of rain in a year is not 1 inch.  It’s 70mm, or just under 3 inches.  Which means that even if 50% of the water is being retained, there are still 3,000,000 cubic meters of lost water per year, or the equivalent of 205,500 date palms irrigated per year–slightly less than double my original estimate.  And if my estimate of 10% water retention (which is based on studies done in the mountainous deserts of the SW United States) is accurate, then the lost water per year is equal to 5,199,000 cubic meters of water a year, or 25,000,000 kilograms of dates per year  (by the way, I am not suggesting that hundreds of thousands of dates should be planted in Al Lith.  I am simply trying to give a measurement of the lost water that is meaningful beyond acre/feet or cubic meters of water).

This is only one watershed.  There are at least 20 other watersheds up and down the west coast of Saudi Arabia that have diarrhea–some are bigger and some are smaller.  The lost production, lost employment, and lost water is worth billions per year in lost productivity, and this is in a country where 70% of all the consumed water is sourced from desalination plants.  This is in a country with no recognised rivers or lakes.  This is in a country where water and food security are so paramount that they are leasing hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Ethiopia, a land so famous for its food production that it has its own Wikipedia page on famine.

Clearly, if we could heal the Hijaz’s diarrhea it would be of enormous benefit to the county’s economy, food security, and water security.  This can only be done by understanding the water cycle and then working to get it regular.  In the next post, we will talk about the cure:  roughage.