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."
I spent twenty years of my life living and working in the US.
My wife is American. My kids were born in Detroit and Dallas (and my daughter currently works in non-profit health care in New York). My first visit was for a year when I was six years old – my father was one of the pioneers in developing American Studies programmes in British universities where, at the time, literature stopped in the nineteenth century. I first heard a Bob Dylan record sitting in a café in Berkeley in 1963. I spent a year at graduate school in the US during the turmoil of the late 1960s – US graduate programmes had more to offer than UK universities and, anyway, I loved the US. Later, I taught geology at two different US universities, working with (and learning from) terrific graduate students whose dedication led to their obtaining masters’ degrees while holding down jobs. I can only name a couple of states that I haven’t spent any time in. I have worked in five different US cities. To say that some of my best friends are American is correct, and this doesn’t include the countless people I admire and respect.
Whenever, in the early days, I returned to the UK, I found that I had to spend significant time defending the US against the knee-jerk Americophobia of the Brits – but I did so with sincerity and enthusiasm.
Today, however much I would want to, I just can’t do that anymore, and that saddens me – deeply. It’s no longer easy to recognise the country that, for decades and despite all its faults, I enjoyed and admired.
What the hell is happening to the US? Why do I find myself the victim of a masochistic obsession to constantly check the news, follow up on the latest outrageous events in the dominant half of the presidential campaign – and, more often than not, find myself shouting at my computer? In November 2008, there were, quite literally, tears in my eyes as I watched Obama’s victory speech. Today, there are again tears in my eyes – not, this time, of optimism, but rather of bewilderment, disbelief, and something close to horror.
When did the US become a country in which hatred dominates the news, and, of course, social media? When did the US become a country in which most of the so-called political debate, highjacked by the leaders of one deranged party, takes place in the gutter, with rhetoric and vocabulary at the level of a fourth-grader? When did the US become one of the world leaders in inequality? When did home eviction become big business? When did the US become a country that poisons the water of its citizens and yet no-one is accountable? When did the “land of the free,” whose greatness was founded on immigration and diversity, embrace the rhetoric of xenophobia?
Why do I see on social media posts of which Goebbels would have been proud?
When did a complete disregard for facts and evidence become a hallmark of so many American politicians? When did science - when the US has some of the world’s finest institutions - become something to denigrate? And when were humanity and engagement with the rest of the world dropped from the agenda of so many representatives of the home of democracy?
Now please don’t get me wrong. By my standards, the UK has little to be proud of when our government, declaring itself the home of “compassionate conservatism,” presides over rampant inequality, undermines our health system, callously penalises the disabled, spies on its citizens (sorry, “subjects”), attempts to muzzle our scientists through lobbying legislation, and refuses to take in desperate refugees. And yes, we have right-wing lunatics of our own.
No, I’m not claiming any moral high ground – indeed, I’m not sure where to find such a place. I simply can’t defend many of my country’s actions or the way in which our politics is evolving. But I find it impossible to explain or defend what’s going on the US today – and I am deeply saddened.
[I sincerely hope that I have not offended any of my American readers. I shall return to the arenaceous and the arid shortly.]
Turn on the tap in your kitchen so that it's running at a typical (if not particularly conservative) rate of around three US gallons per minute. Ensure that your drain is working well and leave it flowing for 17 years. By then you will have used the amount of water that the State of California consumes in one minute.
Return after one year and you will have used roughly the volume of groundwater extracted from the Central Valley in one minute.
Last month, I started what I intended to be a series of posts stimulated by "A Reverence for Rivers," the title of the address given by the great hydrogeologist, Luna Leopold, to California Governor Jerry Brown's Drought Conference held nearly thirty years ago. Leopold threw down some challenges in the "philosophy of water management" to an audience that represented all the stakeholders in management of the state's water supplies at a time of what was then a record drought. Today, those records continue to be broken as California enters its fifth consecutive year of drought, and, for much of the state, the third year of "extreme," never mind "exceptional" drought. Yes, some relief is being provided by El Nino precipitation, but that does nothing to change the drought crisis - as shown by the US Drought Monitor image above. At the end of 2014, a NASA analysis indicated that "It will take about 11 trillion gallons of water (42 cubic kilometers) -- around 1.5 times the maximum volume [potential capacity] of the largest U.S. reservoir -- to recover from California's continuing drought." That was a year ago and it's only got worse. At the time of that report, some rains had arrived, but
“It’s not time to start watering your grass,” said Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and the lead researcher of the new analysis. “Looking at the numbers, it’s probably going to take about three years to fill the hole.”
The NASA team found that the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins, key water sources for cities and farms, lost 4 trillion gallons of water each year since 2011, most of it from farmers tapping the underground supply because rivers and reservoirs were low.
How can California still find itself in this amount of trouble when, nearly thirty years ago, in his first incarnation as drought Governor, Brown declared that “this is an era of limits and there are some very hard choices to be made”? One of the reasons that I have only now embarked on this episode of the series of posts is that there are no easy answers, and research and fact-checking leads only into a black hole of conflicting data, never mind the labyrinthine political abyss of western water politics, policy and history. It is clear that, post 1997, Brown and some of the more enlightened interests in California attempted to embark on reform and future drought preparation - but many of the choices proved to be too hard. Yes, there were initiatives to reduce domestic and municipal consumption and these lasted, although Brown, in his second drought incarnation, still had to declare a State of Emergency in January 2014, and a year later, the first ever state-wide mandatory water reductions. Individual Californians and communities have dramatically reduced their consumption (with the notable exception of Beverly Hills celebrities and billionaires), but by far the largest proportion of the 38 billion gallons per day consumed by California goes to agriculture - and therein lies the rub.
Exactly how much water does Californian agriculture use? Well, incredibly nobody really knows and nobody has the day-to-day measurements to know. You can easily, depending on the sources and assumptions, find estimates from 40% to 80% of total water use. In order to find a single group of statistics that have some credibility, it's worth consulting a report put out by the Congressional Research Service in June 2015. Attempting to rationalize the data differences, it is titled California Agricultural Production and Irrigated Water Use and begins:
California ranks as the leading agricultural state in the United States in terms of farm-level sales. In 2012, California’s farm-level sales totaled nearly $45 billion and accounted for 11% of total U.S. agricultural sales. Five counties—Tulare, Kern, Fresno, Monterey, and Merced—rank among the leading agricultural counties in the nation.
Given current drought conditions in California, however, there has been much attention on the use of water to grow agricultural crops in the state. Depending on the data source, irrigated agriculture accounts for roughly 40% to 80% of total water supplies. Such discrepancies are largely based on different survey methods and assumptions, including the baseline amount of water estimated for use (e.g., what constitutes “available” supplies). Two primary data sources are the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). USGS estimates water use for agricultural irrigation in California at 25.8 million acre-feet (MAF), accounting for 61% of USGS’s estimates of total withdrawals. DWR estimates water use withdrawals for agricultural irrigation at 33 MAF, or about 41% of total use. Both of these estimates are based on available data for 2010. These estimates differ from other widely cited estimates indicating that agricultural use accounts for 80% of California’s available water supplies, as reported in media and news reports.
The differences result from arcane variations in the definitions of the words "use," consumption," "withdrawals," and "application." Welcome to the rabbit-hole of terminology, both technical and political. Oh, and also welcome to the "acre-foot." An acre-foot is a volume of water equal to 325,851 gallons (around 1200 cubic metres) and represents the amount of water needed to flood an acre of land one foot deep. In the US, it is the long-standing measure of water volume.
Since Brown's initiatives following the 1970s drought, water use has dropped, partly as a result of domestic frugality, partly following increased efficiency irrigation systems - and the brutal realities of maintaining agriculture in a semi-arid land. However, the USGS reports that California in 2010 remained the chart-topper of all US states for water consumption - more than half again as much as the runner-up, Texas. And the USGS estimates that agriculture accounts for 60% of the state's thirst.
Any, even brief, review of media reports will reveal that to say that this is a controversial topic is a gross understatement. Vested interests, lobbies, open and hidden agendas, battle for dominance in issues scarcely tainted by facts or science. And these arguments also take place in a virtually policy-free environment - water regulations and laws in the arid Western US are labyrinthine, opaque, complex beyond normal comprehension and certainly unfit for purpose, particularly in California. In 1991, during yet another drought, Peter Passell, an economics writer for the New York Times, wrote that California's water system - infrastructure and laws - "might have been invented by a Soviet bureaucrat on an LSD trip... While this infrastructure was built with state and Federal money, the benefits are by tradition (and, hazily, by law) reserved for the private interests who lobbied for its construction."
California's surface water supply system resembles nothing more than a Heath Robinson contraption or a Rube Goldberg machine, deliberately over-engineered to perform a simple task in a complicated fashion. But at least the State Government has some ability to regulate it. In a normal year that's an ability to attempt to manage and allocate perhaps 70% of the state's water consumption. In a typical drought year that drops to less than 40%. In extreme drought conditions, the state can - and does - dramatically reduce surface water allocations but then where does the other 60-70% come from? Groundwater. Over which the government has virtually no control whatsoever. It doesn't even have the knowledge or the data to manage its groundwater, never mind the legal ability to do so.
And here is the vital fact that is mostly ignored or unknown in political and commercial circles, largely because it's highly inconvenient: surface water and groundwater are part of the same system, the hydrological cycle - mess with one and you mess with the other.
Over 60 years ago, Luna Leopold and his colleague, Harold Thomas, wrote an article titled "Ground Water in North America: The fast-growing demands on this natural resource expose a need to resolve many hydrologic unknowns." Here's an extract:
There are enough examples of streamflow depletion by ground-water development, and of ground-water pollution from wastes released into surface waters, to attest to the close though variable relation between surface water and ground water.
Man has coped with the complexity of water by trying to compartmentalize it. The partition committed by hydrologists—into ground water, soil water, surface water, for instance—is as nothing compared with that which has been promulgated by the legal profession, which has on occasion borrowed from the criminal code to term some waters "fugitive" and others, a "common enemy." The legal classification of water includes "percolating waters," "defined underground streams," "underflow of surface streams," "water-courses." and "diffuse surface waters"; all these waters are actually interrelated and interdependent, yet in many jurisdictions unrelated water rights rest upon this classification
Water habitually does not subscribe to our efforts at compartmentalization according to special interests in irrigation, industrial use, recreational use, municipal use; or to allocations of fields for the chemist, for the geologist, for the sanitary engineer, for the physicist, for this or that government agency, any more than it does to separation into areas bounded by property lines, county lines, state lines, or even some river-basin boundaries. As the areas of heavy demand expand toward each other and the necessity for water management increases, these artificial boundaries and classifications will have to yield more and more to the realities of the hydrologic cycle.
Ah yes, the lessons we have learned in 60 years. In an article in July of last year for the New York Times, Abrahm Lustgarten, an environmental reporter for ProPublica, summarized a report he had written for the site (the whole piece is well-worth reading). From the summary, titled "How the West Overcounts Its Water Supplies":
In California, the state’s water agency has said that the failure to account for how groundwater withdrawals affect the state’s rivers is a major impediment to a true accounting of its resources. In April, authorities reported that less than half of the state’s local water agencies had complied with a 2002 law that made them eligible for state funds only if they set up groundwater management plans and determined if a connection between surface water and groundwater existed. That connection does not exist uniformly and varies depending on local geology. Only 17 percent of the state’s groundwater basins had been examined.
Indeed, California still doesn’t require that water pumped from underground be measured at all, much less factored into an overall assessment of total water resources; it’s merely an option under a new law signed last September.
California’s new groundwater legislation does require local water authorities to come up with sustainable groundwater plans, but they don’t have to do that until 2020, and they don’t have to balance their water withdrawals until 2040.
So fierce was the pushback by the agriculture industry against any regulation of underground water that the new law, somewhat perversely, explicitly barred any attempt by the state to count the groundwater withdrawals as coming from one overall water supply until local agencies had at least 10 more years to come up with — and implement — their plans.
“Those who have unlimited water supply don’t particularly like the idea of changing that,” said Fran Pavley, a Democrat and the California state senator who drafted two of the three bills that became the groundwater law. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Thomas Buschatzke, the director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, acknowledged that pumping from wells could dry up streams, but said the current law kept the two resources separate, and “it would be a huge upset to the economy to do away with that.”
But John Bredehoeft, a leading hydrogeologist and former director of the federal government’s Western states water program, bluntly emphasized the importance of basic honesty in counting water.
“If you don’t connect the two, then you don’t understand the system,” he said. “And if you don’t understand the system, I don’t know how in the hell you’re going to make any kind of judgment about how much water you’ve got to work with.”
Until state officials do, it seems unlikely that there will be any real solution to managing the Southwest’s strained water resources for the future.
And, in the words of Jay Famiglietti:
Managing our water in this context will require an overhaul of existing water policy that matches our modern understanding of the water cycle. Surface and groundwater are tightly interconnected and should be managed accordingly. The rule of capture for groundwater worked exceedingly well when we shot bears with muskets. Let's not kid ourselves that we're great stewards when most of our available water -- groundwater -- is still offered up in a land rush.
We must treat and price water as the precious commodity that it truly is. That means conserve, reuse, recycle, and then do it all over again. Enhanced conservation and efficiency is cheap, easy, and incredibly effective.
So, turn on your tap for a year and contemplate the disappearance of groundwater in California's Central Valley every minute. You could at least rush home and turn off the tap - the government of the State of California can't. We'll talk about all this some more in the next episode...
Among the possible reasons for not reading this might be
March, 2014, a press release from the Saudi Arabian food and agricultural company, Almarai:
Almarai is pleased to announce that it has completed, on March 6th 2014, the purchase of 9,834 acres of farm land in Vicksburg, Arizona, USA, through its fully owned subsidiary Fondomonte, Arizona LLC, composed of 3,604 acres of freehold land, 3080 acres of agriculture lease hold land and 3,150 acres of grazing lease hold land.
Within the total land subject to this transaction, 4,430 acres are currently irrigated using the best modern methods such as dripping irrigation. This transaction forms part of Almarai's continuous efforts to improve and secure its supply of the highest quality alfalfa hay from outside KSA to support its dairy business. It is also in line with the Saudi Government direction towards conserving local resources. In addition to this purchase, Almarai is committed to invest into the necessary infrastructure, including a bailing system and logistics and transportation equipment necessary for the efficient supply of alfalfa hay from its US based facility into KSA.
The total consideration for this transaction amounts to US$ 47.5 million, equivalent to SAR 178.1 million, and will be financed from the company's own resources.
Almarai are a huge operation – remarkably, they maintain a herd of 157,000 cattle in Saudi Arabia – with a net income in 2014 of $450 million. They produce everything from milk and yoghourt to infant formula via poultry, bread and juice. But they have a resource problem: water.
These farming operations are, after all, taking place in Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t that long ago that the country had substantial reserves of groundwater, sufficient for considered and rational development. Dramatically insufficient, however, to support the the attempt, since the 1970s, to become self-sufficient in wheat production, with at one point 20 per cent of its oil revenues devoted to supplying the necessary water. It is now abandoning this goal, but the country’s water use tripled between 1980 and 2006, aquifer levels dropped dramatically and groundwater became brackish in many areas. This determination to make the desert bloom is startlingly illustrated by NASA images of Wadi As-Sirhan near the Jordanian border in 1986 and 2013 (the green circles are centre-pivot irrigation “fields” fed from wells a kilometre deep):
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. For example:
The water saved from abandoning the growing of 2.613 million tonnes of wheat and barley between 1993 and 1999 was used up to grow 1.2 million tonnes of alfalfa.
Between 1993 and 1999, Alfalfa production increased by almost 1.2 million tonnes, from 2.435 million tonnes in 1993 to 3.606 million tonnes in 1999. Such a volume was beyond local needs. Alfalfa was exported to neighboring markets. In 2000, the government banned alfalfa exports. So, production declined. The drop within one year was 344,000 tonnes (3.606 million tonnes in 1999 – 3.262 million tonnes in 2000). The drop in alfalfa crop happened while production of red meat and poultry during 2000 increased to 643,000 tonnes from 577,000 tonnes in 1999, and of milk to 1.039 million tonnes in 2000 from 937,000 tonnes in 1999, an indication that earlier increases in alfalfa production was for export purposes, not local meat growing.
While firm figures are difficult to pin down, Elhadj estimates that “the expected useful life of non-renewable Saudi aquifers may range between 22 years and 38 years” provided that 100% extraction is possible and that there will be no aggregate growth in agriculture. More realistic estimates range down to less than ten years of remaining resources.
The report concludes:
What was the instrument that enabled this situation to develop? The answer is that it developed as a result of government subsidies to desert irrigation. Subsidies distort the efficient workings of markets. They cause resources to be misallocated. The above analysis shows that under current international prices for agricultural crops, had Saudi Arabia not subsidized desert irrigation, the cost of growing unsubsidized agricultural crops would have been much higher than the market prices for similar imports. This could have led capital funds to be deployed away from loss making desert irrigation schemes into more rewarding industries, provided that there were no protective tariffs in favor of local produce. It would also have preserved the country’s non-renewable aquifers.
Why was it that the Saudi Government chose the course of expensive agricultural development for an arid country despite its persistent and large budget deficits during the 1980s and 1990s? Is it: A) food independence. B) Settlement of the Bedouins, or C) enriching the ruling elite? It was probably a combination of all three, but with a special emphasis on (C).
So yes, Almarai and Saudi Arabia have a resource problem. This explains why buying agricultural land in the Arizona desert is “in line with the Saudi Government direction towards conserving local resources” and why, in its 2014 annual report, Almarai declares that it “has made a commitment to importing 100% of its animal feed requirements and heavy investment in our overseas arable farming assets will dramatically reduce reliance on the Kingdom’s water supply.”
The 4,430 acres of western Arizona“currently irrigated” are south of the hamlet of Vicksburg in the Ranegras Valley of La Paz County. The land had previously been under cultivation for corn, cotton and other crops, including smaller amounts of alfalfa for hay, all watered from around 15 high productivity wells. The extent of this irrigated land, just north of Interstate 10 160 kilometres west of Phoenix, is clearly visible on the otherwise desiccated alluvial fans:
It turns out that, on my US southwest road trip last year, I had driven, in complete ignorance, right by, and this is what the country looks like:
Now, the irrigated land is turned over to alfalfa (hay), all of it destined to feed Saudi Arabian cattle. The desert is a great place to grow alfalfa because it can be done continuously, all year-round – as long as there’s enough water. And “enough” is a lot – alfalfa is about the most thirsty crop after rice. The water requirements of different crops vary considerably, depending on temperature, soil conditions, growing season etc., but to cultivate a hectare of alfalfa in California (over a season of less than a year) requires over 14,000 cubic meters of water (1.5 million US gallons per acre). In comparison, wheat, corn and other grains will typically need a little over 4,000 cubic metres (0.4 million gallons per acre).
Now Almarai are understandably – and I’m sure justifiably – proud of their experience with desert agriculture, their use of drip irrigation and so on, but it would seem that for year-round irrigation of 4,000 acres of alfalfa, we’re talking several tens of millions of cubic meters of water a year. In a land which has been suffering drought conditions for the last few years.
Arizona publishes a fair amount of data on groundwater and well conditions. Here, for example, are two maps showing the changes in groundwater levels in key wells in the Vicksburg area over the last twenty years and the last year:
Levels in the Ranegras Valley have declined by over 60 feet in the last twenty years. Even recently, when there has been some modest improvement in some areas, the levels continue to decline around Vicksburg. Then put this in the context of the overall depletion of groundwater reserves in the groundwater basins of southern Arizona over the last century, as graphically analysed by the USGS in their (depressing) 2013 report:
Note that the vertical scale is in cubic kilometres – over 100 cubic kilometres of depletion between 1920 and 1980. Staggering, eh?
And then there’s the ground subsidence caused by that water extraction. The Arizona Department of Water Resources publishes analyses of this problem, and it it is very clear that subsidence of up to 15 cms has occurred over the last five years in the cultivated area of Ranegras Valley:
I took the liberty of overlaying the satellite image of the fields on to this map, just to compare:
Extend the contours in your mind into the “no data” area and lo, there’s the irrigation.
But surely, you might ask, groundwater is carefully managed in a state like Arizona? Well somewhat yes, but largely no. Arizona may have paved the regulatory path from as early as the 1970s (which is unusual – California is only now getting around to it), but the law is focussed on urban use and domestic farming: the state's major population areas like Phoenix and Tucson have limits on how much water can be taken from the ground, but rural counties largely are without restrictions. Drill a well in Ranegras Valley, and all you have to do is tell the state that you are putting the water to beneficial use – you can start pumping without any constraints over how much: you are unregulated. After several years of drought, Scottsdale, Tucson and Phoenix have bought land in La Paz County in hopes of harvesting groundwater and sending it back to their communities through a canal system.
We had gone out to the desert to look at Almarai. We had found them in this cactus-filled valley in the very remote part of Arizona, and as we're driving down the road, all of a sudden we see a sign for a company from United Arab Emirates, Al Dahra, and we realize that another company has come out here and essentially replicated the exact same thing. They are growing hay. They are using the groundwater. And they are shipping it overseas — in this case, we were told, to China.
And yes, there are local concerns, but:
No one we talked to has issue with these corporations coming in and wanting to make money. And the fact that it's going to Saudi Arabia or China, the locals simply didn't care. But what they did care about is that their water tables are falling. So their domestic wells that they use for their homes are increasingly dropping, and at some point, they're going to lose access to water.
Perhaps those concerns will gather momentum – US News and World Report very recently carried an article titled “Rural Arizona county seeks help protecting water as Middle East farm companies arrive” but therein we hear from Tom Buschatzke, Director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources:
People are concerned about the water embedded in crops, obviously. However, our viewpoint is that there is an economic value in growing of crops. Those folks have as much right as any other individual in the state of Arizona to grow their produce, grow their crops, sell them, export them.
So who, exactly, does care? Robert Glennon, a water policy expert at the University of Arizona, certainly does – about water supplies for the entire state. In a recent piece on Slate, he refers to options that are being bandied about – desalination, cloud-seeding etc. – and concludes that the answer is much easier. “We need to stop growing alfalfa in the deserts in the summertime.”
As Elie Elhadj wrote in “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom”, what Saudi Arabia did in exporting wheat and alfalfa was “synonymous with shipping away the country’s finite water resources.” The Saudis seem to have now, belatedly, understood this – but have we?
[Note: ever since grappling with the multidimensional and thorny issues of arid lands management in trying to write chapter 8 of the Desert book, I have been fascinated by the achievements and absurdities, globally, but also specifically in the western US. I have had in mind for some time now a modest series of posts on these issues, looking at some historical ironies, highlighting a couple of the compelling books I have read, and reflecting on absurdities and progress. I have, however, been suffering not so much from writer’s block as reader’s incontinence – it’s a vast and tangled set of topics. Having now got started with this story (which I only recently discovered), I am determined that further episodes will appear.
[Note that I have posted an update on this, and an attempt to put it in a more global context]
[Truck image at the head of this post: http://westernfarmpress.com/alfalfa/photos-desert-alfalfa-production-arizona-california#slide-3-field_images-138142]
On my 2013 Moroccan trip, we drove through the town of Ouazazate, “the door of the desert” and an old trading outpost that grew under French colonial rule as a garrison town and administrative centre. Its more recent claim to fame is as the country’s largest film studio, playing host to the shooting of scenes for Lawrence of Arabia to Game of Thrones, via Gladiator and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. As we rolled out of town eastwards, I stopped to absorb the spectacular views of the alluvial fans reaching up towards the high Atlas Mountains, from which storms were rolling down violently into the valley. I thought of flash floods, but I was completely unaware of the area’s plans for a new source of fame – and electricity – the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world, the first phase of which, as reported in the Guardian, is due to open shortly.
This is a fascinating mega-project, and “mega” is certainly appropriate: when completed, the four linked plants will generate 580MW of power, cover an area the size of Morocco’s capital , Rabat, and will have cost $9 billion. But they will make a key contribution to the goal of solar providing 14% of the country’s energy needs by 2020, together with the resulting substantial reduction in carbon emissions.
Maha el-Kadiri, a spokeswoman for the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (Masen), describes the projects as "at the avant-garde of solar", and the technology is certainly different and cutting-edge. Rather than being based on photovoltaic cells, CSP uses sun-tracking concave mirrors – each of them 12 meters high and numbering 500,000 just for the first phase, Noor-1 – to focus the heat on steel pipes carrying a synthetic heat-transfer solution. The fluid is heated to close to 400 degrees centigrade before transferring that heat to the water of the power-generating turbines. It’s a very different technology from photovoltaics, and is more expensive, but has one significant advantage: the heat can be stored. For Noor-1, the storage capacity (using molten salt, not, as the Guardian article reported, molten sand) will be around three hours, but for later phases this will extend to eight hours. When the project is completed, it will be capable of storage amounting to several thousand MW-hours.
It will be fascinating to see how this project evolves, and how it can overcome a number of challenges. As the Guardian reports:
The potential for solar power from the desert has been known for decades. In the days after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 the German particle physicist, Gerhard Knies, calculated that the world’s deserts receive enough energy in a few hours to provide for humanity’s power needs for a whole year.
Of course there is immense power capacity in the planet’s arid lands – just as there is in geothermal and tidal energy. But that’s not the point – there are any number of thorny and currently unanswerable questions:
The challenge though, has been capturing that energy and transporting it to the population centres where it is required.
The Noor project can supply much of Morocco’s internal demand, but it is looking to export electricity and, as the collapse of the Desertec project dramatically demonstrated, this is essentially impossible under today’s conditions. Desertec failed not only through internal wrangling, but also in the face of insurmountable political, legal and regulatory hurdles – the foundation for a power grid and interconnectors linking North African countries is simply not there, and, perhaps more surprisingly, it’s not there in Europe either.
Ahmed Baroudi, manager of Société d’Investissements Energétiques, the national renewable energy investment firm, is quoted as saying that “We are already involved in high tension transportation lines to cover the full south of Morocco and Mauritania as a first step” and, on an extraordinary scale, both economically and politically, “The [ultimate] objective given by his majesty the king is Mecca.”
And then there are the questions about how much of the surface of the arid ecosystem we are prepared to cover with generating facilities, how much water these projects will ultimately require and what is the life of the installations. But we have to give Morocco a great deal of credit for testing this potential.
What, you might reasonably ask, is this image? This is, after all, a blog about topics arenaceous, and folded paper ornaments would, while somewhat seasonal, hardly seem relevant. But a couple of explanations: first, ever since I was a kid I have loved those two-dimensional paper ornaments that magically unfold into three-dimensional glory (I still do). Second, this is a blog about all things sandy, but, with the forthcoming arrival of the new book, it is also becoming a blog about all things arid. And third, it will continue to be a blog about things I personally find compelling, stimulating, fascinating and provocative.
Having just embarked on a new year, I’m sure that I’m not alone in hoping, despite all the depressing evidence to the contrary, that 2015 will bring improvements, innovations and creative solutions that make genuine and sustainable changes to our world. Ideas, that’s what we need, creative ideas tested and put into practice. And in a world where we now see record numbers of refugees – tens of millions, plus the “internally displaced” - it’s an idea derived from folding paper, “honeycomb” ornaments and origami, that I would like to highlight here. For this is what the image at the head of this post is about:
Jordanian-Canadian architect and designer Abeer Seikaly won the Lexus (yes, the guys who make the cars) Design Award in 2013 for her collapsible woven refugee shelters. She is now living in Amman, Jordan, well-placed to witness displaced people and the traditional variations between nomadic and sheltered lives. As she writes in her design brief (please look at that link):
Human life throughout history has developed in alternating waves of migration and settlement. The movement of people across the earth led to the discovery of new territories as well as the creation of new communities among strangers forming towns, cities, and nations. Navigating this duality between exploration and settlement, movement and stillness is a fundamental essence of what it means to be human.
In the aftermath of global wars and natural disasters, the world has witnessed the displacement of millions of people across continents. Refugees seeking shelter from disasters carry from their homes what they can and resettle in unknown lands, often starting with nothing but a tent to call home. “Weaving a home” reexamines the traditional architectural concept of tent shelters by creating a technical, structural fabric that expands to enclose and contracts for mobility while providing the comforts of contemporary life (heat, running water, electricity, storage, etc.)
These are not only portable shelters that are elegant and distinctive, but they are designed to provide electricity and water. As described in this report:
The outer solar-powered skin absorbs solar energy that is then converted into usable electricity, while the inner skin provides pockets for storage – particularly at the lower half of the shelters. And a water storage tank on the top of the tent allows people to take quick showers. Water rises to the storage tank via a thermosiphoning system and a drainage system ensures that the tent is not flooded… Well ventilated and lit, the shelter opens up in the summer and huddles down during cold winters. But most importantly, it allows refugees to have some semblance of security, some semblance of home.
We are all familiar with the endless (and expensive) foolishness of ‘beach nourishment’, of the idiocy of Dubai’s artificial sand islands and the general ravages of ‘sand wars’ around the world, but now it seems that sand-shifting is taking on an ominous geopolitical role.
“There was this huge Chinese ship sucking sand and rocks from one end of the ocean and blasting it to the other side using a tube.” This is the description by Pasi Abdulpata, a fisherman from the Philippines, of what he saw happening in the South China Sea towards the end of last year. He was quoted in an article in Bloombergearlier this year (which I missed), and the issue has now been picked up by the BBC. Abdulpata was fishing around the Spratly Islands, a sprawling archipelago of only-just-islands and only-just-submerged reefs.
The Spratly Islands would not figure on the global geopolitical agenda if it were not for the fact that they occupy a significant area of the South China Sea, all of which is claimed by China, and some of which may harbour reserves of oil and gas. There are, however, a number of countries – five to be exact – who have different ideas about who owns what and where the international boundaries should lie. This map, from another Bloomberg article, summarizes the ‘anxious archipelago’:
The sand-sucking was going on at the Johnson South Reef, occupied by China but claimed by Vietnam, and the site of the 1988 ‘Johnson South Reef skirmish’ in which more than 70 Vietnamese died, two Vietnamese boats were sunk and the Chinese took over. They built some kind of structure on the reef, purportedly for erosion protection, and it has been the strategic destination of fishing and patrol vessels ever since. But the sand-sucking dredging and pumping activities are something new, and have been dramatically documented by satellite imagery and the Philippines Government, as described in Jane’s earlier this year:
China is attempting to bolster its presence in the South China Sea by creating an artificial island on a reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
Satellite imagery provided by Airbus Defence and Space corroborates images released by the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs that shows major land reclamation on Johnson South Reef, which is claimed by Manila as Mabini Reef, as Chigua Reef by China and Gac Ma by Vietnam.
Johnson South Reef was at the centre of a 1998 confrontation between China and Vietnam that left more than 70 Vietnamese personnel dead. After taking control of the reef China built a concrete platform and installed radio and communications equipment.
The images released by the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that since February 2013 there has been extensive dredging of the atoll to create an islet around the platform. Other concrete structures have also been constructed.
The ministry said the construction appeared to be designed to support an airstrip and said it was "destabilising and in violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) and international law. Mabini Reef is part of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) which is part of Philippine territory".
The article contains this series of images which show the large-scale ‘nourishment’ of the islands:
As The New York Times has reported, in May US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scolded China for “land reclamation activities at multiple locations” in the South China Sea. Is this the beginning of a further – and dangerous – episode of ‘sand wars’?
[Image at the head of this post: Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, via Associated Press, as included in The New York Times article. The BBC also has an 'immersive story' which is well-worth a look.]