According to recent news from Reuters (2008) the Saudi government has decided to stop all subsidies to agriculture. It means abandoning a policy that had obtained self sufficiency in food production and that had allowed Saudi Arabia to be a major food exporter in the past. According to Reuters, “The kingdom aims to rely entirely on imports by 2016″. The desert is going to win back the land it had ceded to agriculture.
These news come as a surprise, but not so much. Saudi Arabian food production has been based on “fossil water.” It is water from ancient aquifers that can’t be replaced by natural processes in times of interest for human beings. Fossil water is non renewable, just as oil is, and it is unavoidable that it has to run out one day or another.
A wealth of data on the Saudi Arabian water situation can be found in the paper by Walid A. Abderrahman (2001) “Water Demand Management in Saudi Arabia”. From this paper, we learn that water production in Saudi Arabia has reached a peak in the early 1990s, at more than 30 billion cubic meters per year, and declined afterwards. Today, it is at around 15 billion cubic meters, less than half than the peak value. We also learn that most of this water, 90% at the peak, came from non renewable aquifers.
Saudi Arabia is not an isolated case in Middle East and North Africa. Several countries in the region heavily depend on non renewable water from aquifers and on a contribution from desalination plants which, in turn, depend on non renewable resources. Libya, for instance, is at present working at a project named “The Great Man-made River” (Water-technology, 2008) which aims at extracting the resources of fossil water of the Sahara desert. From the data that appear over the internet, the Libyan resources may be much larger than the Arabian ones, but it is difficult to judge how reliable the estimates are. In any case, it is a characteristic of the Hubbert cycle that the start of the decline takes people by surprise.