Searching for Water Across Borders

Photo : nytimes


As climate change begins to make water scarcity a critical security issue globally, wealthier countries have begun to look outside their borders to meet their water needs. In moves that have important trade and geopolitical implications, Saudi Arabia and China have come to America to help solve their water problems and feed their people.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, Almarai, bought about 15 square miles of farmland in Arizona for $47.5 million to grow alfalfa to feed its dairy cows back home. Huge amounts of water are required to cultivate the crop — nearly four times as much as wheat — which is why the Saudis had come to Arizona.

China, too, had come to the United States for food that requires vast amounts of fresh water to produce. Facing water scarcity issues in and around the Gobi Desert, China has been importing more than half of the world’s soybeans, another water-intensive crop, from farmers in the United States and South America. And not just soybeans. In 2013, a Chinese company bought the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods. Until recently, the meat from a quarter of all the hogs raised in the United States — a process that also consumes enormous amounts of water to grow the feed for these animals — ended up in China.

But with the new trade tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, China is turning to other countries for soybeans, and the pork Smithfield is producing in the United States has become even more expensive for China to import.

National security experts have long worried about the implications of water scarcity and food shortages around the globe. In 2014, President Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, warned that those two concerns were among the central elements of the “most diverse array of threats and challenges as I’ve seen in my 50-plus years in the intell business.” He predicted that the intelligence community increasingly would “be confronting” issues involving food, water, energy and disease.

In Syria and Yemen, for instance, some have argued that water scarcity helped push both countries into the turmoil that has engulfed them. The collapse of those countries most likely raised concerns in Saudi Arabia and reinforced its efforts to meet the kingdom’s water and food needs elsewhere.

The country, rich from its vast oil deposits, has one of the world’s smallest water reserves. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a single lake or river. For thousands of years, the Saudis have depended on wells or the occasional oasis. Infrequent rainfalls replenish shallow aquifers 150 feet or so underground. Wells dug ten times as deep as those shallow aquifers tap into reserves not renewed by rainfall. Once used up, they’re gone.

Fifteen years ago, those wells and aquifers started running dry after the Saudis had tapped them to excess to irrigate wheat fields in desert. Today, that water is essentially gone. A 2011 research project in historic Tayma, for instance, found that “most wells [were] exsiccated,” meaning that the oasis that had provided water for over two thousand years had been drained in a matter of decades.

With water already a precious commodity in the Middle East, which, along with North Africa, holds less than 1 percent of the world’s fresh water, the Saudis had an intractable problem. At first, they tried to conserve the rapidly depleting reserves in their shallow aquifers. They encouraged water-saving taps and shower heads to cut consumption by half, got smarter about water reclamation and irrigation practices, and financed costly deep underground irrigation systems. They stopped growing wheat.

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