Famed for its luxury apartments, shopping malls and lush, green golf courses, Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, flies in the face of everything we think we know about the parched, desert-locked Middle East. However, the very existence of such a water-hungry city, raises important questions about how water is used and managed in the world’s driest nations.
By Paula Hammond
In the 1980s, anyone wanting to play a round of golf in Saudi Arabia, would have had to make do with one of the Kingdom’s many desert courses, where instead of grass ‘greens’, golfers played on sandy ‘browns’. Water traps were merely pits marked with blue tape and players were allowed to bring their own square of turf with them to tee-off from. These days, Riyadh boasts several all-grass courses. Saudi Arabia may be one of planet Earth’s driest nations, with less than 59 millimeters of rain a year, but to the casual observer it looks like a veritable oasis. Appearances can be deceptive.
Water is one of the cornerstones of life. Although 71 percent of the planet’s surface is covered in this essential liquid, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh water. Most of this is locked up in glaciers, meaning that our survival as a species, hinges on the tiny percentage of water found in rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Of these there are two types; one is potentially renewable, while the other (fossil aquifers) remains water locked into the ground in the distant past, which can be exhausted.
As populations increase, and regions become more industrialised, the challenge of balancing water needs with available supplies is already – in some Muslim countries – becoming a matter of life and death. And it’s a problem exacerbated by climate change. In fact, in 2011, Kuwait set a world temperature record of 53.3’C – so hot that when rain comes, most water evaporates before it penetrates the ground.
A ‘water-stressed’ nation is one, where there’s less than 1,000 cubic meters of water available per person per year. According to a World Resources Institute study, 36 countries worldwide have “extremely high” water-stress levels, including Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Western Sahara and Saudi Arabia.
So the question has to be asked: if Saudi Arabia is so water-stressed, how can it possibly build real-grass golf courses? The answer is simple: money.
In many Muslim nations, water management hinges on tried and tested techniques, which are quick and cheap to implement. In the Middle East for instance, farmers have been irrigating their land using qanats since the time of the Persian Empire. These sloping tunnels are cut into the mountainside and channel water where it’s needed most. In rural Tunisia, farmers bury cisterns on sloping ground to act as mini reservoirs, to collect rainwater for drinking. This too, is a technique dating back to the Bronze Age.
In nations with more financial muscle, new technologies have been brought in to help the fight. Drip-irrigation – where crops are watered at the roots using perforated tubes buried underground – is one technique that has proved to be very successful, increasing crop yields by 50%, using 50% less water.
Using oil-drilling technology, Saudi Arabia has tapped aquifers below the desert sands, enabling it become self-sufficient in wheat. Around fifty percent of its drinking water, comes from huge desalination plants, that convert seawater into fresh water, while its super-green golf-courses, are irrigated with a mix of desalinated water and treated urban waste water.
Sadly, though, despite Saudi Arabia’s impressively verdant golf courses, water is still a finite resource and increasingly, even the Kingdom’s oil revenues can’t keep its rapidly growing population fed and watered.
In 2008, the Saudi government admitted that its fossil aquifers were almost depleted. In 2013, Waleed El-Khereiji, Head of the Grains and Silos Flour Management Organization announced that “2015 will be the last market year for local wheat production. We will be fully dependent on imported wheat … by 2016.” The decision was taken to save what little groundwater resources the nation still had.
Afghanistan’s farms and burgeoning cities are putting similarly unsustainable demands on its groundwater. Water tables around the capital are falling by 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) a year and could soon run out completely. Pakistan is so water-stressed that according to a World Bank report “the survival of a modern and growing Pakistan is threatened by [a lack of] water”.
The situation in Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia has become so severe, that they’ve taken the step of actually leasing land in sub-Saharan Africa on which to grow crops. However, this is a House of Cards solution at best. Using more water for crop production in, say Ethiopia, where most of the Nile’s headwaters begin, means that nations downstream like Egypt, will ultimately have less water. In the meantime, Turkey is throwing fuel on the fire, with a huge hydroelectric progamme. By damming rivers to power cities, they are inadvertently reducing the water that once flowed into the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, leaving populations in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, to go dry.
There’s no simple solution to the world’s water shortages but according to His Excellency Hazim El-Naser Ph.D, Minister of Water and Irrigation for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, unless nations begin to seriously address them, we may soon see our first water wars. “It’s coming” he said.
Looking at water-greedy developments like Riyadh’s golf courses, the concept of shortages is so dire, that they cause water wars that may be hard to swallow, but they’re already here. In 2012, in Beni Sueif in Egypt, one person was killed and many more injured, during a conflict over irrigation water. In the same year, engineers working on flood defenses were attacked and explosives were detonated at Wular Lake in a dispute between Pakistan and India, over control of the waters of the Indus Basin. It’s not hard to imagine such conflicts spilling over, until nations are fighting nations over the control of quickly dwindling water supplies.
Yet if water – or the lack of it – causes conflicts, then Hazim El-Naser believes that it can also bring people together. “Water”, he says, “is the bridge to peace and trust building …”.
All over the world, Muslim nations are fighting to preserve their precious water reserves, using both old and new technologies. Long-neglected quants in Syria and Oman, have been repaired. In Yemen, where people have less than 140 cubic meters of water a year, plans are afoot that could see Sana’a City ‘harvesting’ 100% of its rainwater by 2020. In Iran, farmers are being advised to grow crops that use less water – pistachios rather than sugar beets. While drip-irrigation is being combined with GPS tracking so that tractors can avoid damaging delicate drip lines; making the system even more efficient.
Yet as Hazim El-Naser understands, water shortages are a problem that no one nation can solve on their own. Co-operation, and the sharing of resources and technologies, is not just the best way to combat the problem. It’s the only way. Without it, we could all well be like the Ancient Mariner in the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”
Paula Hammond is a professional author of over 35 non-fiction books, including popular science volumes on fossils, dinosaurs and endangered animals. She has a passion for learning and the wonders of the natural world.
1. The World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.PRCP.MM
2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: http://www.noaa.gov/ocean.html
3. For a further breakdown of the world’s water resources see: http://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthwherewater.html
4. An underground water supply, which is often found in porous rock.
5. Source: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/01/14/404552/seven-national-all-time-heat-records-set-in-2011/
6. For additional analysis visit http://www.wri.org/blog/2013/12/world’s-36-most-water-stressed-countries
7. From an Irrigation Australian study: http://irrigation.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Drip-Irrigation-brochure-final-for-print-v8.pdf
8. “Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry”, a World Bank Report: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2005/11/9596145/pakistans-water-economy-running-dry
9. His Excellency Hazim El-Naser PhD, Minister of Water and Irrigation for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in a talk given at Stamford Woods Institute. For a discussion of this lecture visit https://woods.stanford.edu/news-events/news/waters-link-middle-east-peace
10. For more information on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and its author see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rime_of_the_Ancient_Mariner