I have read about the coming water wars before. In fact, a few days ago, a PBS News Hour report on the water crisis in India brought home some of the horror of what is happening in the world’s most populous country. There is almost no drinkable water left for poor people. The water they can get from the most common public sources is polluted to a horrifying degree. One entrepreneur has come up with a partial solution: with a kind of credit card, Indians can buy water that has been purified through reverse osmosis. But as always, if you have no money (as the Flint, MI water debacle proved), you’re out of luck.
Now comes a piece in Reader Supported News (“We’re Running out of Water and It’s Causing Countries to Fall Into Chaos,” 4/15/2016, originally in Newsweek) that lays out the problem worldwide. Nathan Halverson first points out that many of the conflicts in the Middle East have their origins in drought and the drying up of aquifers. Both Yemen and Syria are in the midst of wars that have turned large parts of their populations into refugees, and in both countries the cause can be at least partly attributed to failing water supplies. Predictions from agencies like the CIA indicate that these and similar organizations are trying to prepare for even more chaos as desperate people in countries running out of water, and therefore out of food, will be more and more prone to resorting to riots and violence and migration due to hunger and thirst.
But the part of the piece that got to me most was that portion devoted to Saudi Arabia. I’m already more sick of this modern kingdom made rich from oil than almost any other nation. Saudi Arabia, in fact, was the origin of most of the 9/11 hijackers—financed by either the monarchy itself or wealthy Saudis or both—and is now supporting not only the fanatics of ISIS but is waging almost single-handedly (with United States military equipment) the deadly assault on Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Their indiscriminate bombing of civilians has outraged most of the world (except, of course, the Saudis’ U.S. suppliers; war is, after all, good for business). Here, however, we learn about another bit of Saudi chicanery that has to do with water. It begins with the revelation of a
classified U.S. cable from Saudi Arabia in 2008 [which] shows that King Abdullah directed Saudi food companies to search overseas for farmland with access to fresh water and promised to subsidize their operations. The head of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh concluded that the king’s goal was “maintaining political stability in the Kingdom.”
Ah, what can’t be justified in the name of “maintaining stability.” But the details are really the key here, and to get those one needs to follow the link to a site called Reveal News, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
In two articles published by Reveal News in 2015, we learn about the background to this Saudi need to find farmland overseas. The Saudis, flush with their oil money, several decades ago decided that they could grow wheat in their desert lands, the only requirement being water. And they had water deep underground, in a huge aquifer. By drilling into the aquifer—deeper each year of course; they were drilling as much as a mile deep near the end—they were able to not only feed their own population, but to export tons of wheat to the world market. So, beginning in the late 1970s, “Saudi landowners were given free rein to pump the aquifers so that they could transform the desert into irrigated fields” (www.revealnews.org/article/what-california-can-learn-from-saudi-arabias-water-mystery). Within a very short time, Saudi Arabia—a desert—became one of the world’s premier wheat exporters (the sixth largest), its wealthy landowners growing wheat as well as forage for their dairy industry, and growing richer in the process.
The problem was, the farmers couldn’t or wouldn’t control their need for water, so by the 1990s, they were pumping 5 trillion gallons of precious aquifer water to the surface for irrigation each year. The Tayama Oasis, once a green source of water and health that had sustained humans for millennia, “was drained in one generation.” In other words, modern greed and the modern global market totally bankrupted a critical source of water, and thereby life, almost overnight. It was at this point that Saudi’s King Abdullah decided to act. He stopped the domestic wheat growing, and directed and subsidized his food companies to find farmland overseas. And where did they find it? You guessed it, in Arizona. Last year, in fact, Almarai, Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, “bought 9,600 acres of land in a desert” in Arizona, and “converted it into hay fields to feed…its cows back home.” So while, technically, the Saudis aren’t bottling and shipping American water back to Saudi Arabia, they are in fact doing so by shipping the alfalfa that requires all that water back to their now-depleted desert. In doing so, they are also greatly increasing the chance that the aquifers in Arizona, not to mention the Colorado River which is the source of much of the water now used by the entire Southwest, will soon be depleted as well.
In fact, the aquifers in California (which bears a good deal of resemblance to Saudi Arabia in that its Central Valley is a kind of desert that likewise relies on pumped water rather than rainfall) are predicted to dry up in the very near future. Though California is luckier than Saudi Arabia in having another source of farm water—the snowpack in the Sierras, whose melt comes to the Central Valley in canals—its days as the primary exporter of vegetables, milk, and meat seem numbered. The water, especially the water from aquifers, cannot last at the current rate of its exploitative farming of water-intensive crops like almonds. The key thing about aquifers, of course, is that they take eons to fill; simple rainfall won’t replace what’s been squandered for years. And this makes the problem global. As the first article points out, it’s not just Saudi Arabia and California facing this crisis. I’ve mentioned India earlier. China is also at risk. An Earth Policy Institute study estimated that China feeds about 130 million of its billion people by “overpumping and depleting its sinking aquifers.” When those aquifers run out, China will need to rely on foreign sources of food and water to feed those 130 million people, who will then be competing with the 30 million Saudi Arabia now has to feed. China has already purchased Smithfield Foods, America’s largest pork producer. All that pork, in turn, requires a lot of water to grow the grain the pigs eat, which means that, in effect, China, like Saudi Arabia, is importing water from the United States.
And this is just the beginning.
All of which is to say, that though smart humans have always thought they could triumph over natural limits with intelligence and ingenuity and technology, there are some limits that even the brainy ape can’t quite overcome. In the coming years, we may find out that water—that signature element that virtually defines earth and the life it sustains—comprises one very big limit indeed.