Connecting Waterpeople

Saudi Arabia's groundwater to run dry

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Cristina Novo
Technical Editor at Smart Water Magazine.

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  • Saudi Arabia's groundwater to run dry
    In this series of four Landsat images, the agricultural fields are about one kilometer across. Healthy vegetation appears bright green while dry vegetation appears orange. Barren soil is a dark pink, and urban areas, like the town of Tubarjal at the top of each image, have a purple hue. Credit: NASA/GSFC

The Saudi desert was sitting on top of some 500 billion m3 of fossil water, but in recent years, an estimated 21 billion m3 has been taken out every year to support modern intensive farming, reports National Geographic. A study from the School of oriental and African Studies in London from 2004 estimated that some 400 billion m3  would be used by 2008, so at least 80% of that fossil water would be long gone by now. And this has happened in about one generation.

Saudi Arabia is a desert country with no permanent rivers or lakes and very little rainfall. Aquifers are a major source of water. Starting in the 1970’s the government undertook an important effort to map such aquifers, to then drill wells for urban and agricultural use. The country’s agricultural development over the last three decades resulted in phenomenal growth in the production of basic foods. Vast tracts of the desert have been transformed into fertile farmland, creating a huge demand for water resources.

The severe arid conditions mean that surface and renewable groundwater are very limited, while non-renewable aquifers, formed millions of years ago, represent the major source of water. Water may be found at depths from 100 to 500 metres, so these aquifers remained largely undisturbed until the early 1980s, due to the unavailability of mechanical means and money to tap into them.

Aerial images of the Saudi landscape show nowadays green farmed fields thanks to irrigation. Saudi Arabia has achieved its goal of becoming completely self-sufficient in a number of foodstuffs, including meat, milk and eggs. In fact, the country has become an exporter of wheat, dates, dairy products, eggs, fish, poultry, vegetables and flowers to markets around the world. However, unsustainable groundwater mining could deplete this source rather soon.

Saudi Arabia’s farming boom was possible through government subsidies to desert irrigation; otherwise, the cost of growing agricultural crops would have been much higher than importing them. The country’s oil revenues have paid for the cost of water pumping for agriculture and livestock. Faced with the fact that the desert farming endeavour is time limited, the government is now planning to invest in land and agriculture in other more fertile countries.

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