A thirst for fresh water in Saudi Arabia

Posted Apr 21, 2014 by Karen Graham
Man has always assumed the water we drink, bathe in and use for our recreation is one of our unending natural resources. Where water has been available, cultures have flourished. But our global "footprint" is now affecting our critical watersheds.
Water  essential to life  can be had by a turn of the spigot.
Water, essential to life, can be had by a turn of the spigot.
Saudi Arabia, a desert country, is one such nation where their very existence is dependent on water. There are no permanent rivers or lakes, and very little rainfall. For this reason alone, the scarcity of water makes it extremely valuable.
The Kingdom sits atop one of the world's largest aquifers, one mile below the surface. In the 1970s, considerable time and expense by the oil-rich country was spent in locating and mapping the underground water supply. Their efforts paid off, and tens of thousands of deep tube wells were drilled into the desert sands for both agricultural and urban usage.
Today, Saudi Arabia is facing a water crisis. Four-fifths of the water in the aquifers has been depleted, and other sources are being considered. Over the years, rich sheikhs have been farming the desert, spending billions of dollars off oil subsidies in an attempt to achieve food self-sufficiency. Farmers were paid five times the global rate for wheat, and not charged for the water or the electricity used to pump it up to the surface.
Circles of green irrigated vegetation  Saudi Arabia - April 1997
Circles of green irrigated vegetation, Saudi Arabia - April 1997
NASA Images
The desert at one time was spotted with verdant oases of green, and large cow sheds were misted constantly to keep the contented cattle cool. The fields of wheat flourished under the desert sun, all irrigated with the precious water. The aquifer that 40 years ago had 120 cubic miles of fresh water, large enough to fill Lake Erie, seemed to be without a bottom. Many of the pumps have now been turned off, and the Saudi government is saying wheat production will cease by 2016, and cattle farming will end soon after that.
Saudi Arabia has now turned to the sea for their source of potable water. Now, 27 desalination plants run by the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) produce over three million cubic meters every day of potable water, making 70 percent of the water used in the country's cities. Some of that water is also used by industry and for electrical power generation. As can be imagined, desalination is an expensive and energy-intensive process, costing about a dollar per one cubic meter.
Desalination plant in RAK (Ras Al Khaimah  United Arab Emirates)
Photo taken: March 10  2007.
Desalination plant in RAK (Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates) Photo taken: March 10, 2007.
But even with desalination plants running full steam, the country is in crisis. One problem facing the country is the amount of subsidies the government pays for. This is a sensitive issue in a country where subsidies for basic food staples, gas, water, electricity, housing and education are paid for by the government. With a growing population and high unemployment, any reduction in those subsidies would create a great deal of unrest.
Added to the need to cut subsidies, is another issue, and that is the amount of the country's oil being consumed within the Kingdom, and not being exported. According to Citigroup, oil exports have been steadily declining over the past few years. A study done by Citigroup recently showed that Saudi Arabia could begin importing oil by 2030. It is difficult to imagine that one of the world's leading oil producers has been taken down by the need for drinking water, but the lack of this precious liquid outweighs everything, because without water, humankind will cease to exist.