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The memory of water: Saudi Arabia’s troubled history

Growing crops and preserving water is a balancing act for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has increased wheat production, which uses groundwater reserves, to 1.2 million tonnes Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser
Growing field crops such as wheat in Saudi deserts relies almost entirely on irrigation from groundwater reservoirs

On Friday it is World Water Day. The United Nations, the day’s promoter, cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as saying that roughly half of the world’s population experiences severe water scarcity for at least part of the year. 

In the Middle East, water is rising up the agenda – not before time.

In 2027, Saudi Arabia, the region’s largest economy, is due to host the World Water Forum in Riyadh, under the title Action for a Better Future. This is significant, given the kingdom’s troubled water history. 

In the late 1970s when the US placed a food export boycott on the Soviet Union in response to its invasion of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia decided to become not only self-sufficient but an exporter of wheat. And wheat is a thirsty crop.

By 1984, agricultural engineers turned Saudi Arabia into one of the top-10 wheat producers in the world. By the 1990s, wheat production surged from 150,000 tonnes to four million tonnes. In the early 1990s Saudi Arabia used wheat exports as part of a soft power exercise to persuade countries such as the Soviet Union to support Kuwaiti liberation. 

But this achievement came at a cost. 

Until the 1970s, the kingdom sat on non-renewable groundwater reserves comparable in size to Lake Erie in the US. Rainfall in most of the country is at most 150mm per year. Only mountainous areas in the southwest receive about 400-600mm, which is similar to precipitation levels in countries such as Turkey or Hungary. 

As predicted by Elie Elhadj, a former banker who worked in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s, in a dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies, water turned out to be the limiting factor for desert agriculture. 

Up to 80% of Saudi Arabia’s groundwater is estimated to have been used, prompting the government to reduce wheat production

Growing field crops such as wheat in Saudi deserts relies almost entirely on irrigation from groundwater reservoirs. If water is not strictly accounted for and irrigation plots limited, Elhadj observed, it can lead to a rapid depletion. 

Today up to 80 percent of the country’s groundwater is estimated to have been used. This has prompted the Saudi government to reduce wheat production to about 500,000 tonnes per year. 

After the food price spikes of 2007-08, the kingdom set up the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company to shift strategy from domestic food production to buying land overseas to ensure strategic food imports. 

The country soon became one of the world’s largest investors in agricultural land, buying or leasing territory in Argentina, Australia, Egypt, Brazil, Sudan, Ukraine and the US.

However, this strategy has come under fire from the UN and non-governmental organisations who fear the supposed detrimental effects on local communities and natural resources. 

Since the war in Ukraine began, Saudi Arabia has again shifted strategy. Wheat production has increased to 1.2 million tonnes in response to global uncertainty over food supplies.

The country is even exporting tomatoes, another thirsty crop. Part of this is fuelled by the more than 5 million cubic metres of water that the kingdom desalinates each day.

Saudi Arabia has also diversified its sources through imports from Baltic countries, Germany, Poland, and Brazil. In 2022, Saudi Arabia imported 4.8 million tonnes of wheat or roughly 75 percent of its requirements.

Yet this also means the kingdom is exposed to political, economic and environmental stability, which can be risky at a time of geopolitical tensions in eastern Europe. 

Riyadh is aware of these risks. Led by the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, it is seeking to grow more crops in the southern part of the country, where for the most part production is dominated by small farmers.

Dams and irrigation networks are set to be increased to use every drop of rainfall. Given the proximity to war-torn Yemen, this strategy comes with its own risks, yet Saudi Arabia is embarking on a new, apparently more sustainable, strategy.

By 2027, when global water experts meet in Riyadh, we will know more about the outcomes.  

Martin Keulertz is a lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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