Saudi Arabia's Struggle for Water

By Blog Writer Ben Abbs

Geology played a cruel trick on Saudi Arabia.  While blessing it with some of the world’s largest oil reserves, its natural endowment of water is one of the world’s most meagre.  Since the 1970s, these precious water reserves have been heavily exploited and consequently Saudi Arabia faces a growing water crisis.  Critical to the country’s future is how effectively it converts its petrodollars into a sustainable, long-term supply of fresh water, how it conserves its water, and how successfully it develops coping mechanisms and technology.  Saudi Arabia’s success or failures in these matters, and the pressure induced, may have national, regional, and global reverberations.

Water is an essential, although often underappreciated resource.  It underpins the needs of personal drinking, sanitation, and the material wealth of our societies.  Food production requires massive quantities of water, with a single hamburger requiring 800 gallons (three tons) of water.  Water is integral to almost all industrial production for cooling, transportation, cleaning, and as a material input.  Some 700 gallons of water are needed to make a cotton t-shirt.  Moreover, water is central to energy production, from hydropower to the processing of oil.  Consequently, during the twentieth century growing populations and economies, pollution, poor management, and changing precipitation patterns induced by climate change have increased water scarcity. 

Saudi Arabia’s landscape is bereft of lakes and rivers.  For centuries, Saudi Arabia’s small population lived in settlements and nomadic societies supported by shallow aquifers - a body of permeable rock which can store or transmit groundwater, normally underground.  These aquifers were accessed by shallow wells or at oases and were re-charged by rainfall. 

During the 1970s, Saudi Arabia’s water economy began to change.  Saudi Arabia’s population expanded rapidly, an oil boom generated untold wealth, and drilling technology was advancing as the world’s hungry industries sought oil.  Consequently, Saudi Arabia tapped into deep aquifers which previously had been largely inaccessible.  Below the desert landscape, significantly deeper than the shallow aquifers, at about one-quarter of a mile deep, these non-renewable fossil aquifers contained water from up to 30,000 years ago that had trickled through permeable rock when the landscape was wetter.  Surveys in the 1980s estimated that, combined with shallow aquifers, Saudi Arabia had 400 million acre-feet of groundwater reserves, equivalent to roughly thirty years’ annual flow of the Colorado River.

However, this new treasure was not used prudently.  The Saudi Arabian monarchy profligately exploited this new-found water wealth, turning an arid, water-conservative culture, into a careless, indulgent one, awash with water fountains and golf courses.  Further, Saudi’s population grew from 5.8 million to 32.9 million between 1970-2017 and living standards rose generating personal and economic consumption demands.  To ensure its political autonomy Saudi Arabia also sought to achieve food independence.  It massively subsidised the saturation of the desert with precious groundwater to produce grains.  

By the mid-1980s Saudi Arabia even became one of the world’s leading grain exporters. This created an uneconomic and artificial agricultural industry which consumed the water of future generations.  The economic and environmental costs were staggering, with production costs five times greater than the selling price of grain on the international markets.  Annually, Saudi Arabia was pumping up from the fossil aquifers nearly the equivalent of one Colorado River and eight times greater than the amount of renewable water recharge.  Nearly 60% of accessible aquifers were exhausted by 2005.  This water consumption was not just driven to satisfy fountains and golf courses, but also Saudi Arabia’s expanding population and rising living standards. 

Saudi Arabia did begin to reign in its water use in the 1990s, slashing subsidies to wheat production and proclaiming the need for efficient use and a reduction in consumption.  However, many of these reforms were too little and too late.  By the early 2000s little effort had been made to exploit Saudi Arabia’s virtuously costless oil energy to fuel desalinization plants to produce renewable water.  Fossil water still accounted for half of domestic urban consumption and 70% of agricultural production.  In the cities, two-thirds of all dwellings were not connected to sewage treatment meaning that raw sewage seeped into shallow aquifers, further reducing viable water reserves.  The reforms lacked monetary incentives and enforcement. 

Consequently, many Saudi Arabian farmers continued to plant water thirsty alfalfa, which consumes four times more water than wheat, to provide feed for cattle and support the country’s large dairy industry.  Only in 2016 did the Saudi Arabian government embark upon a 3-year program to conserve water resources by reducing domestic alfalfa production and increasing imports.  Importing agricultural products and food is known as a reliance on virtual water, as the buyer consumes another country’s water embedded in the product.  This strategy, like many of Saudi Arabia’s water solutions, is reliant on oil wealth, steady international markets prices, and stable neighbouring political environments.


Saudi Arabia has increasingly sought to secure future sources of food by using its oil wealth to buy and lease farmland in nearby Sunni Islamic nations like Sudan and Pakistan, but also multi-religious Ethiopia.  Yet, these states are politically unstable and dependent on over-stretched water resources themselves.  More recently in 2013, a consortium of Saudi Arabian investors snapped up a London-listed company which owns swathes of the most fertile land in Ukraine and Poland. 

Alternatively, Saudi Arabia must rely on importing food on international markets which can have volatile prices and affect political stability.  Unstable and rising global food prices played an important role in sparking the Arab Spring in 2011.  In the 2010s Saudi Arabia has been focusing more on developing desalination and water-saving technologies, but it is racing against the clock of climate change and a growing population, which are putting ever greater strain on its water supplies.  With low oil prices and growing regional political instability Saudi Arabia has many issues ahead to overcome its water challenges.  Pressures in Saudi Arabia could have regional, and even global ramifications.  Water shortages could cause an inflation of domestic prices generating internal economic and political instability.  This could (and some would argue already is) create a risky, bold foreign policy which sacrifices regional stability in an effort to placate domestic unhappiness.  Internationally, any problems in Saudi Arabia will likely be transmitted through global oil prices, with ramifications for nations around the world. 

While the possible regional and global consequence of Saudi Arabi’s water problems make them especially pertinent, water scarcity issues are not particular to this country.  Indeed, many countries around the world are beginning to experience similar environmental pressures caused by population and economic growth, poor management, and climate change.  Some of these looming water crises could have equally large consequences across the globe in our interconnected world, dominating the events of the 21st century.


Additional Reading:

  • Solomon, Steve, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, (New York, 2010).
  • Soffer. A., Rivers of Fire: The Conflict over Water in the Middle East, (Oxford, 1999).
  • Postel, Sandra, The Last Oasis, Facing Water Scarcity, (London, 1992).
  • Myers, Norman, Ultimate Security, The Environmental Basis of Political Stability, (London, 1993).
  • Richard Coopey and Terje Tvedt (eds.), A History of Water: Vol. II The Political Economy of Water, (London, 2006).

Image Credit: Max Pixel

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