This will be the Arab world’s next battle

Population growth and water supply are on a collision course. Hunger is set to become the main issue

Lester Brown, The Guardian

Long after the political uprisings in the Middle East have subsided, many underlying challenges that are not now in the news will remain. Prominent among these are rapid population growth, spreading water shortages, and growing food insecurity.

In some countries grain production is now falling as aquifers – underground water-bearing rocks – are depleted. After the Arab oil-export embargo of the 1970s, the Saudis realised that since they were heavily dependent on imported grain, they were vulnerable to a grain counter-embargo. Using oil-drilling technology, they tapped into an aquifer far below the desert to produce irrigated wheat. In a matter of years, Saudi Arabia was self-sufficient in its principal food staple.

But after more than 20 years of wheat self-sufficiency, the Saudis announced in January 2008 that this aquifer was largely depleted and they would be phasing out wheat production. Between 2007 and 2010, the harvest of nearly 3m tonnes dropped by more than two-thirds. At this rate the Saudis could harvest their last wheat crop in 2012 and then be totally dependent on imported grain to feed their population of nearly 30 million.

The unusually rapid phaseout of wheat farming in Saudi Arabia is due to two factors. First, in this arid country there is little farming without irrigation. Second, irrigation depends almost entirely on a fossil aquifer – which, unlike most aquifers, does not recharge naturally from rainfall. And the desalted sea water the country uses to supply its cities is far too costly for irrigation use – even for the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia’s growing food insecurity has led it to buy or lease land in several other countries, including two of the world’s hungriest, Ethiopia and Sudan. In effect, the Saudis are planning to produce food for themselves with the land and water resources of other countries to augment their fast-growing imports.

In neighbouring Yemen, replenishable aquifers are being pumped well beyond the rate of recharge, and the deeper fossil aquifers are also being rapidly depleted. Water tables are falling throughout Yemen by about two metres per year. In the capital, Sana’a – home to 2 million people – tap water is available only once every four days. In Taiz, a smaller city to the south, it is once every 20 days.

Yemen, with one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, is becoming a hydrological basket case. With water tables falling, the grain harvest has shrunk by one-third over the last 40 years, while demand has continued its steady rise. As a result the Yemenis import more than 80% of their grain. With its meagre oil exports falling, with no industry to speak of, and with nearly 60% of its children physically stunted and chronically undernourished, this poorest of the Arab countries is facing a bleak and potentially turbulent future.

The likely result of the depletion of Yemen’s aquifers – which will lead to further shrinkage of its harvest and spreading hunger and thirst – is social collapse. Already a failing state, it may well devolve into a group of tribal fiefdoms, warring over whatever meagre water resources remain. Yemen’s internal conflicts could spill over its long, unguarded border with Saudi Arabia.

Syria and Iraq – the other two populous countries in the region – have water troubles, too. Some of these arise from the reduced flows of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which they depend on for irrigation water. Turkey, which controls the headwaters of these rivers, is in the midst of a massive dam building programme that is reducing downstream flows. Although all three countries are party to water-sharing arrangements, Turkey’s plans to expand hydropower generation and its area of irrigation are being fulfilled partly at the expense of its two downstream neighbours.

Given the future uncertainty of river water supplies, farmers in Syria and Iraq are drilling more wells for irrigation. This is leading to overpumping in both countries. Syria’s grain harvest has fallen by one-fifth since peaking at roughly 7m tonnes in 2001. In Iraq, the grain harvest has fallen by a quarter since peaking at 4.5m tonnes in 2002.

Jordan, with 6 million people, is also on the ropes agriculturally. Forty or so years ago, it was producing more than 300,000 tonnes of grain per year. Today it produces only 60,000 tonnes and thus must import over 90% of its grain. In this region, only Lebanon has avoided a decline in grain production.

Thus in the Arab Middle East, where populations are growing fast, the world is seeing the first collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed, and less irrigation water with which to feed them.

April 24, 2011 | 6 Comments »

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  1. With all due respect to Mr. Harris, who makes some good points, at present there are still undeveloped and previously tilled areas of the USA equal to about 50% of land in production as of 2009. Most of this fallow area is within areas with a great excess of water at present. USA food production could be easily increased if prices/need dictated such. While much of the rail system of the pre-WW2 era has been abandoned, the main freight routes are still being used, with total tonnage several times that of the prior era. Most of the abandoned lines were due to loss of passenger use and now relocated industry. The greatly increased use of truck delivery is somewhat due to JIT needs. Rail freight to ports could be significantly increased without significant new construction if NIMBY and “Environmental” activist were dissuaded (as in Washington and Oregon at present)from blocking proposed new rail.
    Mr. Harris and “my” sources differ in that they indicate a potential of 6-8 mb/d increase in USA oil production if all confirmed sources were exploited. Still not enough for “independence, but that would greatly decrease those supplies from the middle east. The Chinese and others are free to “outbid” others for oil, but who will then be buying their goods?
    Slow, but steady conversion of the USA domestic vehicles to more efficient gasoline, natural gas, coal-liquid, and electric versions will also blunt the effects of reduced and/or more expensive oil. Perhaps, the USA and Canada can then export water and food?

  2. How about a combination of increased domestic oil production and elimination of the ethanol subsidies that are creating food shortages?

    Sounds like it would make a good campaign position for the Republican Party. If we still had a Republican Party.

  3. The USA will not be in good position to barter away very much of its food supply in return for petroleum. Presently, domestic oil usage in the USA is about 19 million barrels per day (19 b/d). Of that total, approximately 5 million b/d (about 26 per cent) are from domestic resources. The remaining 14 million b/d (about 74 per cent) are from petroleum exports from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Venezuela, etc. There is a lot of loose talk in the USA about increasing oil domestic oil production, in order to beat OPEC’s high prices, etc. But specialized world peak oil sources with which I am familiar indicate that the USA could probably increase its domestic oil production only by about another 2.5-4 million b/d; which would still leave the USA dependent on foreign sources for some 10-11.5 million b/d. Nor would the price per barrel, on which the price per gallon at the pump, is based. Oil is merely a commodity that is for sale to the highest bidder. As matters presently stand, the Chinese and even the Brazilians could outbid us for such commodity.

    Because much of the US economy has been built up over the past century around an assumption of ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive petroleum resources, the nationwide rail system was permitted to decay and much of the private and public investments in our 20th century US economy were pumped into automobiles fueled by gasoline, 18-wheel over-the-road semitrailer rigs burning diesel fuel, transport aircraft burning kerosene, concrete and asphalt roads and superhighways, massive airports, and endless strings of auto-served suburbs stretching out in all directions from central cities in every metropolitan area of the country.

    Now, there is evidence that the exportable segment of petroleum supplies actually has peaked. And in the absence of any contrary evidence, it should be assumed that the peaking phenomenon, which in any case was always inevitable, is largely responsible for the rapid rise in per-barrel prices for crude oil.

    The USA has long been an exporter of grain. But each year, increasing percentages of US grain crops are being diverted for processing as vehicle fuels, corn for processing as ethanol and soybeans for processing as biodiesel fuel. Unless the USA is to become a net importer of food, only so much of its farmland acreage can be exported. Americans will not easily abandon their system of dependence on private automobiles for routine travel, and in any case, it would take many decades to shift the national transportation system into new directions. So with new demands being made upon grain crop production for use as renewable substitute fuels in the USA, decreasing amounts of grain will be available for export.

    Something else to think about in terms of world peak oil. The overall population of this planet was only about 1.5 billion at about the time universal use of petroleum began a little over a century ago. As any demographer with knowledge of petroleum geology could show you, the graphs of world population closely fit graphs of world oil production. All of which suggests strong possibility or even likelihood of a major sustained shrinkage of world population as the fossil fuels run out one at a time. Like any other population dependent on food, water or other requirements, human populations are subject to major die-offs. It is time to think ahead.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI

  4. One answer to a shortage of good water is desalination of the ocean. However the major cost in desalination is not the physical plant or even the filters but rather the high cost of energy to provide 1,000 psi pressure to force the water through the filters. Therefore abundant cheap energy is even more essential then ever. But the politics of energy is blocking the emergence of the breakthrough energy technologies that we need. This is a very old story that has been ignored by the entire intellectual establishment for many decades. The information is readily available. Just Google “energy suppression” and see the many responses or go to and receive an entire education about the technologies and the politics of energy.

  5. At this rate the Saudis could harvest their last wheat crop in 2012 and then be totally dependent on imported grain to feed their population of nearly 30 million.

    Now how would the oil companies handle the oil-for-food-and-water bartering system? And how would that affect the world’s ballistic energy prices?

  6. The revolution in Tunisia began because of rising food prices, as did the “copycat” revolt in Egypt. The immediate cause of those shortages, has been the situation in Brazil. In that country, most of the acreage formerly dedicated to agriculture has become devoted to ethanol production as an “alternative” (actually, “supplementary”) fuel. Japanese and Korean investors, in turn, bought up much of the rest of the acreage in order to secure their own national requirements for the future. Left out, were the many poor and developing countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.

    The water issue will also become critical, as soon as the world economy revives. Most chemical and industrial processes are heavily dependent on fresh water, and they are the principal competitors of agriculture and other human needs. The world’s fresh water supply, meanwhile, is not increasing to keep pace. Israelis are leaders in desalination technology; and solar-powered desalination may well be the way of the future; but new technologies generally do not become economically viable until some dire immediate need arises, usually accompanied by war. Israel’s main aquifer, by the way, lies beneath land that the world demands Israel surrender to the Arabs.