Ice Age Aquifers Searching for Water under the Sands of Saudi Arabia
Part 2: The Conflict between Agriculture and Water
Rescia, 71, who has white, short-cropped hair and wears faded jeans and a Rolex, came to Saudi Arabia in 1968, when he was working for the Italian oil company Agip. "There was a hardly a tree in sight back then, and there was an open sewer running through downtown Riyadh," he says. But then, starting in 1974, oil brought wealth to the country and the population quintupled. It was a good time for foreigners eager to do business, says Rescia. The country's water needs also boomed, particularly when the Saudis emulated the Americans and Israelis and began greening the desert.
Today the kingdom suffers from the same water problems as many other arid regions in North Africa, Israel, Australia and the American Midwest. Of the 19 billion cubic meters (670 billion cubic feet) of water that the country consumes annually, 85 percent is used in agriculture. The bulk of that water is non-renewable groundwater. Saudi Arabia derives only about 8 percent of its water from seawater in energy-intensive desalination plants.
But Saudi Arabia is ahead of other countries in recognizing that agriculture, at least the way it is practiced today, could ruin the country. This has prompted its rulers to begin putting an end to the era of green deserts. In a first step, the Agriculture Ministry was deprived of its discretionary authority on water issues. More draconian measures have followed. Two years ago, the government canceled its subsidies for wheat farming and ordered that domestic wheat production be discontinued by 2016.
"Our biggest challenge is the conflict between agriculture and other water users," says Mohammed Al-Saud, 44, the deputy water minister. "Anyone who wants to develop agriculture does so at the expense of water. And you can't conserve water without having a negative impact on agriculture."
Al-Saud explains that the government has subsidized wheat production since the 1970s, based on the argument that this was necessary in terms of food security. "I wouldn't call it propaganda," he says, "but it wasn't right." Food security, Al-Saud adds, doesn't require self-sufficiency. "It can be achieved in other ways."
Acquiring Farmland Abroad
Al-Saud is wearing a traditional white robe and a red-and-white headscarf. He studied agronomy and water management in the United States. Before being appointed to his post at the ministry, he taught at King Saud University. The view from his office window is of a minaret, which is a sandy brown color, like most buildings in Riyadh. A cloud of sand and smog hangs over the city. Its only two skyscrapers disappear behind yellowish-brown clouds of dust.
Importing wheat, says the deputy minister, would be a sensible alternative to farming, and the country could also reduce its production of green animal fodder. Another alternative would be to acquire farmland abroad. The government recently began supporting Saudi businessmen who buy or lease land in other countries. Other Arab and Asian nations with water problems, like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and China, are pursuing similar plans.
Saudi Arabian investors have already signed contracts with a number of countries, including Ethiopia, Sudan, Pakistan and Ukraine. Pakistan's investment minister recently assured the investors that they could export 100 percent of the harvest at any time, even if there were food shortages in Pakistan.
Al-Saud also wants to see small farmers in Saudi Arabia return to traditional agriculture and plant drought-resistant date palms, or grow profitable vegetable crops in greenhouses. "The price would have to cover the costs of desalinated seawater," he says, "because it's the only alternative to groundwater." In addition to that, irrigation systems need to become more efficient, he says, with the long-term goal of recycling every drop of water.
In the future, the Ministry plans to monitor water consumption on farms in real time. "If we incorporate this data into our new groundwater models," says Al-Saud, "we can use it to develop a comprehensive water strategy, which could also serve as a model for other countries." He leans back contentedly and smiles.
'A Great Honor'
Randolf Rausch, the geologist, will present his research results to the country's Shura Council soon. He is already excited about the prospect. "It's a great honor," says the water hunter, "but it's also a great responsibility. One wrong word and I'll be on the next plane home."
Rausch plans to develop a computer model for the king's advisers that would calculate, for any location in the country, where the nearest aquifer is located, how large it is and where it makes the most sense to drill a well.
The Al- Faisaliah farm south of Riyadh offers a glimpse into the future of Saudi Arabian agriculture. The road to the farm leads through the desert, passing enormous wheat fields with rotating sprinklers.
But the owner of the Al- Faisaliah farm, Hamad Abdulaziz Alkhaldi, known as Sheikh Abu Naif, gave up wheat farming years ago and now specializes in dates. Suddenly he has become a role model.
The sheikh, who sports a moustache and wears the traditional robe, invites us into his office. An employee brings in cardamom coffee, tea, dates and a small bowl of water to wash sticky fingers. "The date palm is a patient plant," says Alkhaldi, and smiles. "It's the most suited to our climate."
Business is going well for the sheikh, who now owns 26,000 date palms. On a recent visit to Düsseldorf, he examined the dates being sold in the shops there. They were unbelievably expensive and small, he says, and of poor quality. "Tunisian dates," says Abu Naif disdainfully, shaking his head. "Ours are much better."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Searching for Water under the Sands of Saudi Arabia
- Part 2: The Conflict between Agriculture and Water