Among the possible reasons for not reading this might be
- It seems to be too absurd to be true
- It’s true, but it’s not a problem
- You are careful about your blood pressure and the integrity of your digital device
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.
Truck image at the head of this post: http://westernfarmpress.com/alfalfa/photos-desert-alfalfa-production-arizona-california#slide-3-field_images-138142]