Back in November last year, I described how, very controversially, Arizona is exporting its water in vast quantities to Saudi Arabia, via alfalfa to feed Saudi cattle. In that post I quoted from the work of Elie Elhadj, who has compellingly documented the rape of the Kingdom's groundwater resources:
In 2004, Elie Elhadj of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), King’s College London published a blunt analysis of the extraordinary history of the destruction of the country’s water supplies. Titled “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom: an Assessment of Saudi Arabia’s Experiment in Desert Agriculture” the report paints a catastrophic picture.
That experiment in desert agriculture is now essentially over, and Saudi Arabia relies almost entirely on imports of crops and cattle feed. In order to satisfy this need, the country's huge food and agriculture business, Almarai, buy farming land elsewhere in the world - including in the Arizona desert. Since I wrote that post, Almarai have added to their assets by buying land on the other side of the Colorado River in south-eastern California. Both California and Arizona are now in their fourth year of severe to exceptional drought.
After I quoted from his work, Elie contacted me and we commenced an email conversation that led to a fascinating and highly enjoyable meeting and discussion. He told me that he was in touch with a group of students at Arizona State University who were making a short video on the issues of exporting water to Saudi Arabia, and that video is now on line - it's extremely well done and worth watching:
There is an interesting cast of characters (in addition to Elie Elhadj himself): local residents who have seen the water levels in their wells drop 50 feet in four years, a lawyer for Almarai who, when talking about any link between water problems and agriculture, cheerfully states that "I don't think that's the case", local people agreeing that some form of regulation is needed as long as their water usage is not regulated, and Kathleen Ferris of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State, who comments that "It's almost impossible to manage groundwater without some kind of regulation." Such a statement may seem blindingly obvious, but the fact is that, in La Paz County Arizona there are no regulations whatsoever - anyone can arrive, drill as many wells as they want, and deplete the groundwater resources to whatever extent pleases them.
This is madness. Consider the likely reaction of our old friend the alien scientist, flitting around the earth on a resource analysis mission and observing this scene:
"Wait a minute. There's the huge canal that they built to take water from the dwindling and over-exploited flow of the Colorado River, specifically to supply the city of Phoenix where groundwater supplies had been drastically depleted, and, right next to it are fields of water-sucking alfalfa grown to be exported as feed for Saudi cattle - this is no way to run a planet."
Yes, this may be madness for Arizona and California, but it's only part of a global-scale pattern of unsustainable insanity - and we should not be quick to judge Arizona. In a recent issue of the New Scientist, there was an interview with Arjen Hoekstra, a professor of water management at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, and founder of the Water Footprint Network. Hoekstra and his colleagues have developed a careful and extensive method of measuring water footprints, expressed as per capita usage country-by-country, and allocating the proportion of blue, green and gray water:
The WF is a measure of humans’ appropriation of freshwater resources and has three components: blue, green, and gray. The blue WF refers to consumption of blue water resources (surface and ground water), whereby consumption refers to the volume of water that evaporates or is incorporated into a product. The blue WF is thus often smaller than the water withdrawal, because generally part of a water withdrawal returns to the ground or surface water. The green WF is the volume of green water (rainwater) consumed, which is particularly relevant in crop production. The gray WF is an indicator of the degree of freshwater pollution and is defined as the volume of freshwater that is required to assimilate the load of pollutants based on existing ambient water quality standards.
The title of the interview is "We can avoid a water crisis, but the fix will be hard to swallow" and, when asked "How is the UK doing in terms of water use?", he replied:
Because it imports so many goods, three-quarters of the UK’s water consumption is actually outside of its borders. And about half of that usage is not sustainable. For example, the UK imports rice and olives from southern Spain and sugarcane from Pakistan, regions where water is overexploited. This means groundwater levels are declining and rivers dwindling or drying up. That’s bad news for the exporting countries and for the UK, because these food sources will ultimately fail.
In terms of the broader region, Europe is the biggest net importer of water-intensive commodities in the world, much of it from water-scarce regions. In fact 40 per cent of Europe’s water footprint is outside the continent. A large part of that is unsustainable.
So let's not get too smug about Arizona, but, rather, worry about the large-scale problem. In terms of water footprint, domestic use is only a small part of the total - in Europe, the average consumer’s domestic use is typically only 1 to 2 per cent of their total water footprint. It's agriculture, what food we demand, where we choose to get it from, and how much we're prepared to pay for it that is the overwhelming factor. As Hoekstra comments
All food has a big water footprint, because agriculture is the largest water consumer. Grains generally have a water footprint in the order of 1000 litres per kilogram. Beef is, on average, 15,000 litres per kilogram. Both are big numbers but you can see that meat is in a league of its own. So your diet, and particularly how many animal products you eat, has a big impact on your personal water footprint.
Take a look at that link - it's at the same time fascinating and alarming.
But it's the blue water footprint that is of particular interest here and, fortunately, in one of his publications, Hoekstra breaks down specifically the blue water footprint by country and internal versus external, i.e., indigenous versus imported. Take a look at the whole, intriguing, paper where the graph appears in the supplementary materials. I have cropped the complete graph to start with the UK on the left and highlighted the UK, China, the US, Spain, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia - plus the world average in green.
Blue water footprint of national consumption for countries with a population larger than 5 million, shown by internal and external component (cubic meter per year per capita,1996–2005)
Take a good look at this graph and think through the overwhelming complexity of the issues. Countries whose footprint is relatively small may be dominantly importing other peoples' water - take the UK, for example. Countries whose footprint is large may be mainly consuming their own water but depleting and exporting it (see the US for example). There's an incredible set of questions and issues embedded in this graph, and add to this, overlay, Hoekstra's illustration of just the major global water flows:
Virtual water balance per country and direction of gross virtual water flows related to trade in agricultural and industrial products over the period 1996–2005. Only the biggest gross flows (>15 Gm3∕y) are shown.
By this measure, the US is not a net water importer. But then how much of its own water does it export? And then look at Europe.
I'm going to leave it there - you could write a book about it. In fact, Hoekstra has. To say that this is a thorny problem is a massive understatement - arguably has the makings of shorter-term crisis than climate change. What can we do about it? Well, in Hoekstra's words from the New Scientist interview, the fix can be hard to swallow:
We in northern Europe should realise that we are actually quite well off with water, and ask why we import water-intensive goods from water-scarce areas. It doesn’t make sense that we produce so little of our own food.
Isn’t this an inevitable effect of global markets?
Yes. We lose our own agriculture because elsewhere you have free water, cheap land, cheap labour. But it is not truly cheap; it is at the expense of the people over there, their land and their water. And in the long run, our own food supply is at risk. We need to change the rules of the market by discriminating in favour of sustainable production. It is a global challenge for agriculture, power generation, trade and economics, which we must work together to address. It’s a big deal, and it will only get bigger.
Our societies need to think long and hard about this - and read Hoekstra's latest paper: "Four billion people facing severe water scarcity."