Ice Age Aquifers: Searching for Water under the Sands of Saudi Arabia
Water is scarce in arid Saudi Arabia. Now the king has hired a team of German scientists to search for groundwater trapped in aquifers beneath the massive kingdom's sands. Their pioneering work could provide solutions for other desert countries.
German geologist Randolf Rausch, 59, is showing his visitors the desert. He walks nimbly across the narrow crest of a sand dune, pointing his toes outward like a ballet dancer. The wind blows away his tracks immediately and tugs at his green Tyrolean hat.
The guests, who are from the southwestern German city of Darmstadt, trudge along behind him, panting in the silence. The air temperature in the Ad Dahna Desert at this time of the year is only about 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit), which is 20 degrees Celsius cooler than in the summer. The air is dry, clear and odorless. Rausch stops at the highest point on the dune and gazes out over a seemingly endless landscape of shimmering, copper-colored dunes.
"This here," he says, with a strong Swabian accent, "is every geologist's dream."
Finding Fossil Groundwater
Rausch has been working for GTZ International Services, part of Germany's federal GTZ development agency, in Riyadh for the last six years. The Saudi king has hired him and his visitors, who are from the Technical University of Darmstadt, to search for water in the desert. By drilling holes up to 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) deep, conducting pumping tests, and applying complex measuring techniques and computer models, they are trying to find out how much fossil groundwater remains stored between layers of rock beneath the Arabian Peninsula.
The Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) in the eastern German city of Leipzig is also involved in the large-scale project. "Using the supercomputers at the UFZ," says Rausch, "we can simulate groundwater currents from the last ice age until today."
His two guests, Christoph Schüth, 47, and Andreas Kallioras, 34, made careful preparations for the assignment. They tested the measuring equipment and probes with which they can measure moisture in the soil, as well as the movements and age of water, on the grounds of an abandoned airfield near Darmstadt.
"A job like this doesn't exist anywhere else in the world," says Rausch, a short, bald man with a crooked nose and eyebrows that are always slightly raised. He smiles and glances over at Schüth, who is already strolling over to the next sand dune. "In Germany, for example, a geologist deals with little things like reclaiming contaminated brownfield sites, landfills and the like."
In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, there are pressing, existential questions to be addressed. How much water is left in underground aquifers? And what is the best way to use the precious resource to ensure that the country will be able to supply its growing population with water for as long as possible?
The Saudi Arabians' current wasteful water use practices are unsustainable. Rausch and his colleagues have calculated, for example, that the supplies in the area around the capital Riyadh, with a population of 4.5 million, will be exhausted in only 30 years.
"At first I had ethical misgivings about working in this country, of all places," says Schüth. The world's largest oil reserves have made the kingdom one of the richest countries in the world. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina also make it the center of the Islamic world, and nowhere else is Islam interpreted more rigidly. Women in Saudi Arabia wear head-to-toe black garments in public and spend much of their time at home. During prayers, five times daily, life comes to a standstill. Cinemas, theaters and concerts are banned, and tourists are not allowed into the country. Anyone who offends God or the Prophet can expect to be publicly executed. It is a country that, until now, has not had to pay much attention to what the rest of the world thinks of it.
But now this inward-looking nation needs outside help, because it is running out of the most important of all resources: water. And, as a result, Saudi Arabia is becoming a laboratory for the world's arid regions, which make up about 40 percent of the world's land area.
When he arrived in the country for the first time, says Schüth, he was pleasantly surprised by the openness of its people. He says that a Saudi research colleague plans to visit him in Germany soon -- and bring along his family. In the past, it would have been inconceivable for a Saudi Arabian to even introduce his wife to another man. Social change, says Schüth, is tentative but noticeable. And ultimately, he adds, the research project is for a good cause: "The people have a water problem which they need to solve. And the techniques we are developing here can also be of use to other countries."
Fossil groundwater is the only natural water source in a region without rivers and lakes, where every raindrop is an event. After the last ice age, when the climate on the Arabian Peninsula was similar, in terms of temperature and precipitation, to that of savanna regions today, the water seeped away into the ground, eventually accumulating in hollow spaces between layers of sedimentary rock.
Most of this water is in eastern Saudi Arabia, precisely where most of the country's oil and natural gas reserves are located. As a result, geologists searching for oil sometimes find water instead, or vice-versa. And like oil, the precious drops of water from the last ice age are finite. Too much of that water is now being pumped out of ever-deeper wells, causing the water table to drop. This in turn allows salt water to seep into the groundwater along the coasts.
In Wasia, 100 kilometers (63 miles) east of Riyadh, Rausch's crew is drilling deep exploratory holes. Mario Rescia, managing director of Saudi drilling company Hajjan Drilling, is in charge of the pumping tests. Immigrant workers in yellow overalls and helmets work 12-hour shifts on the 27-meter drilling rig, at temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius -- in the shade. "We do our best to help them stand it," says Rescia. "There are refrigerators and drinks."
And then, at his command, water suddenly starts bubbling out of the desert sand: clear, warm water, an amazing sight in a region that seems lifeless, aside from a few Bedouin and camels. The water is clean enough to drink, although it tastes a little stagnant -- which is hardly surprising, given that it's 25,000 years old.
- Part 1: Searching for Water under the Sands of Saudi Arabia
- Part 2: The Conflict between Agriculture and Water
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