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.
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.