Greening of Saudi Arabia: NASA Photos Show Kingdom Tapping non-renewable Aquifers for Farming

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration last year published a series of photos over past decades showing expansion of farming in Saudi Arabia’s Syrian Desert, using underground aquifers as a water source. This fossil water is a non-renewable resource and will be gone, at this rate in 50 years.

NASA writes:

“In this series of four Landsat images, the agricultural fields are about one kilometer across. Healthy vegetation appears bright green while dry vegetation appears orange. Barren soil is a dark pink, and urban areas, like the town of Tubarjal at the top of each image, have a purple hue. Credit: NASA/GSFC

The green fields that dot the desert draw on water that in part was trapped during the last Ice Age. In addition to rainwater that fell over several hundred thousand years, this fossil water filled aquifers that are now buried deep under the desert’s shifting sands.

Saudi Arabia reaches these underground rivers and lakes by drilling through the desert floor, directly irrigating the fields with a circular sprinkler system. This technique is called center-pivot irrigation.

Because rainfall in this area is now only a few centimeters (about one inch) each year, water here is a non-renewable resource. Although no one knows how much water is beneath the desert, hydrologists estimate it will only be economical to pump water for about 50 years.”

h/t Ghanem Nuseibeh @gnuseibeh

9 Responses

  1. to situate these images, the top left corner is actually in Jordan, and the town Tubarjal (top center) is only about 15 km from Jordan.

  2. 50 years is enough time for the Saudis to jump start the agriculture and build infrastructure for bringing desalinated water from the coasts. Certainly a good start by offsetting a tiny fraction of the exported oils that are burned around the world. And it’s more food for hungry humans!

    • I agree. As someone who has worked in US and international agriculture all of my life, I support this blooming of the desert in carefully designed parts of the world when there is a good possibility of an infrastructure providing additionally from desalinated water coming from the coasts. As a realistic progressive, I find that not only conservatives are infiltrated by alarmist sensationalism and disinformation part of the time. Example, alarmist nonsense regarding GM crops in general. In my 70 years, I’ve found that many people without any experience on farms and study in agriculture often lack a realistic view of the field. There are the dangers also of disregarding an evidence-based approach and the harm done by the Back-to-Nature movement in agriculture explained convincingly by Dick Taverne in his book, “The March of Unreason – Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism”, Oxford Univ. Press.

    • But you need electricity to desalinate the water. So did the Saudis really know they would have solar power available when they started this process all those years ago? And will they actually build solar for that purpose, or will they cheap out and burn some hydrocarbons instead?

      Furthermore, even if they install solar to run a desalinization plant, that solar could have been installed near a city instead to provide more electricity to local consumers. Then the food could be replaced by food produced in a less hostile climate where you don’t have to expend so much energy, like some of the poorer east Mediterranean states. Not like Saudi has a problem with its trade deficit.

      Energy decisions are complex, you see. Opportunity costs, offsetting effects, regional price differentials. It would prevent more CO2 if all those solar cells being installed in Germany were installed in Italy, Greece and Spain instead – helping to relieve their desperately beleagured balance sheets as well. But existing practices always get in the way.

  3. Here, graphically illustrated, in one small corner of the planet, is what’s wrong with the whole human species. “Used up in 50 years? Who gives a crap?” says the Saudi princeling. “I’ll be long gone, having just about maxed out my personal pleasure machinery off the profits from spending the residual wealth of the planet that I assert a divine right to, and externalizing all those horrific costs in ways that, nyah-nayh, since I write the laws and pay the enforcers, are all perfectly ‘not illegal.’

    “And what are the folks who come after, and have to try to survive on what me and my kind have left, going to do about it? Dig up our desiccated carcasses and do a dead-Mussolini on us? Ha-ha-ha, big whoop!” — Or however you say that in Arabic (or Russian, or one of the Chinese dialects, or of course English… That is the native language of the Kochs and Dimons and Blankfeins and even Obamites, isn’t it?)

    My wife and I use about 100 gallons of domestic potable water a week, for all purposes. Of course, we live on a boat, with solar panels for much of our electricity, and are otherwise pretty frugal too. Across Tampa Bay there’s a 50,000-square-foot “home” on a many-acred “estate,” where a local real estate mogul, who has other “homes” elsewhere too, uses a couple of million gallons of potable water a year just to keep his “plantings” green and his “water features” topped up and evaporating. His claim is that “he can afford it,” that profligacy, and water rates for large users are, get this, cheaper than for little mopes like me.

    When any of the folks who cry for the dying planet come up with a fix for or maybe deterrent to that kind of thinking, and for the insulated behaviors of Homo useitipfastus, who by certain kinds of abstract skills involving debt and money and “financialization” and “externalization” have hijacked the machinery of government and culture and the institutions that once provided legitimacy and some limits to predation, please let the rest of us know. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    Indeed, since there are so many apologists who, remora-like swim along with the sharks and feed off their scraps, the chances of any change (other than temporarily, in a few locales, where a few people have, for the nonce, put aside greed and self-serving in favor of ‘locavore’ and ‘agroecology’ and ‘sustainability’ and ‘living small,’ seem pretty near zero.


  4. Reaping and sowing. Shortsighted agricultural policies still seem to rule the roost. From GMO, irrigated crops in arid areas, and monoculture prevalence, to name just a few shortsighted techniques. Sort of a reverse “Green Revolution”.

      • True, but with local weather patterns changing so wildly, is there any region where it’s safe to grow a certain crop without massive human intervention? Here in Houston the rice industry has to wonder what it will do if we have another big drought like the one that (barely) ended last year. The beef industry has already announced big price hikes because that drought disrupted cattle feeding.

  5. I guess, it occurs to me, it’s not surprising that people who have gotten filthy rich from sucking depleting liquid (and gaseous) resources out of the ground would be attracted to this latest implementation of a similar strategy.

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