As seductive as it is, depleting non-renewable aquifers to grow food is fundamentally unsustainable for the long term, as Saudi Arabia and other nations are finding out. According to a recent article by Lester Brown, in the 1970s the world’s largest oil producer realized it could use oil-drilling technology to tap deep underwater aquifers and—amazingly, given the hyper-arid regional climate—become self-sufficient in wheat production in a few years.
By 2008, however, after two decades of this self-sufficiency, Saudi Arabia announced that its aquifer was all but depleted and that it would soon stop producing wheat. Between then and now, Saudi wheat production dropped by nearly two thirds. As Brown points out, depletion at this rate means that the Saudi’s nearly 30 million people will be entirely dependent on foreign grain by 2012.
Yemen, Syria and Iraq face serious water troubles as well, while in Jordan grain production has dropped by some 80 percent in the last four decades, and the country must now import 90 percent of its grain. Last winter, Water Matters’ Katie Horner wrote a series on the Mideast Water crisis, discussing the water troubles in the UAE, Qatar and Syria; and as Benjamin Preston reported, Libya is also dependent on fossil aquifers to irrigate its crops—and though the nation claims that it has hundreds of years of water left to drain, some scientists are highly skeptical of that claim. Egypt, meanwhile, is completely dependent (as it has been for millennia) on water from the Nile, which is now a source of dispute among several African nations as Julia Hitz notes.
What are the implications of this massive, rapidly unfolding desiccation? Countries with large energy resources, such as Saudi Arabia, will no doubt use them, selling oil to buy grain or lease land in other countries to produce it for themselves. Even this is only a temporary solution however. A number of petroleum industry experts believe that Saudi oil production has now peaked and will soon begin to decline, even as Saudi domestic population and consumption grows, meaning that available net exports may decline much sooner than many expect.
On the other hand, with little or no oil to export, countries such as Yemen face an even more dire situation as the government’s inability to pay skyrocketing food prices drives political instability.
Water-fueled unrest in the Middle East has potentially far-reaching implications. Global oil prices are already rising rapidly on a combination of nervous speculation and short supply as Egypt struggles to reinvent itself and Libya gets bogged down in civil war. This is the vicious circle of the water-energy-food nexus: declining water supplies lead to food shortages which in turn cause political instability, which lead to higher energy prices—which in turn lead to higher food prices, and more potential unrest. Where does it all stop?
Creative responses do exist to conserve agricultural water in parched areas—from seawater greenhouses that grow tomatoes in the desert to permaculture projects on the Dead Sea that use 80 percent less water than conventional counterparts. Whether these types of projects will be able to provide a basis for sustainable futures is unclear, but without an appropriate sense of urgency we will never find out.
For the rest of the world, so dependent on oil from dry places, it’s past time to realize just how tightly water and energy are connected. If the water in the Middle East dries up faster than expected, oil supply available for import may decrease even faster than we anticipate. All the more reason to build a more resilient, post-oil, water-conserving economy without delay.