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?

'Ethical Misgivings'

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."

Seeping Away

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.

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
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