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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saudi Arabia Frets As Wells Run Dry

QASSIM PROVINCE, Saudi Arabia -- From the air, the circular wheat fields of this arid land's breadbasket look like forest-green poker chips strewn across the brown desert. But they are outnumbered by the ghostly silhouettes of fields left to fade back into the sand, places where the kingdom's gamble on agriculture has sucked precious aquifers dry.

"I've had to lower my pumps 100 meters in the past 10 years," said a local wheat farmer driving past huge pivot irrigation systems whose 300-meter sprinkler arms sweep in a circle like the wand of a radar screen, turning the dry land an almost miraculous green. As the subterranean reservoirs run dry, his 1,200-meter-deep wells bring up water that is increasingly mineral-laden.

Saudi Arabia may sit atop the world's largest oil reserves, but the other side of the geological coin is that the country also sits atop one of the world's smallest reserves of water. It does not have a single lake or river.

Its only renewable water source is in shallow aquifers, 30 to 45 meters underground, which are replenished by brief, infrequent rainfalls. Wells dug deeper than 390 meters draw from ancient reserves trapped in layers of porous rock where the water is no more renewable than the country's oil.

Yet, like oil-short America with its gas-guzzlers, Saudi Arabia wastes plenty of its scarcest resource: Fountains spew, swimming pools slop over and irrigation sprinklers seem to spray everywhere, letting water evaporate into the dry desert air.

Muhammad al-Qunaibet, a hydrologist and government adviser, estimates that the country uses 24.1 trillion liters of water a year for agriculture, but says that only a third of that is replaced through rainfall. The rest simply disappears.

How much is left? No one knows. The last survey, in 1984, estimated that the country's fossil water reserves totaled about 501.6 trillion liters, but, at the current rate of use, more than half of that has probably disappeared by now.

The drying out of Qassim province's wheat fields is a reminder that water may soon be the most volatile flash point in a region now preoccupied with religion and oil. The Middle East and North Africa contain about 5 percent of the world's population but less than 1 percent of the world's fresh water. The population is growing and the supply of water is shrinking.

The shortage is already creating tension between neighbors because, while each country pumps from its own land, many rivers and aquifers cross borders. Iraq and Syria feel threatened by Turkey's talk of damming the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Egypt is worried about uses of the Nile in Ethiopia and Sudan. Israel and its neighbors continue to argue over the use of rivers and aquifers, control of which was partly responsible for the 1967 war.

Saudi Arabia is pumping from its eastern aquifers, leaving less water for neighboring Bahrain and Qatar. Jordan, meanwhile, has accused the Saudis of draining the Qa Disi Aquifer, which lies beneath the countries' border.

As the aquifers are depleted, the water becomes increasingly laden with salts and metals that must be filtered out before it can be used, even for farming because the impurities stunt the growth of plants. The wells must also be lined with expensive, corrosion-resistant bonded metals because the salt-laden water becomes so caustic. Already in some places, a liter of potable water costs more to produce than a liter of oil.

"Economically, it will come to the point that extracting water is simply too expensive," Qunaibet said.

With a crisis looming late last year, the government formed a Water Ministry, consolidating functions that had been distributed among various bureaucratic organizations and levels of government.

But Ghazi bin Abdulrahman al-Qusaibi, the water minister, cautions that the new agency will perform no miracles.

Qusaibi says one of his ministry's first tasks is to survey the remaining water reserves and to draw up a preservation plan. Already, the government is encouraging people to use water-saving taps and shower heads, which cut consumption by about 50 percent. Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto ruler, has even replaced his palace's 10-liter toilets with more efficient 6-liter models.

The country's cities use 2.2 trillion liters per year, half of which comes from the world's biggest seawater desalinization complex on the country's eastern coast. The other half comes from deep aquifers, most of which contain nonrenewable water.

Little of the water is reused. Only a third of all Saudi households are hooked up to sewage treatment plants. Sewage from the rest is pumped into lagoons, where it is left to evaporate or leach into the ground. As a result, the ground water below several of the country's biggest cities is polluted.

The country's wheat program is perhaps the most wasteful: Starting in the early 1980s, the kingdom began paying farmers as much as five times the world market price for a bushel of wheat. The generous subsidies financed expensive irrigation systems that suck so-called fossil water from deep underground.

"A massive amount of water has been used for wheat, and 70 percent of that water comes from non-renewable sources," Qusaibi said.

At its peak, the wheat program was producing around 4.5 million tons of grain per year for a country that consumes less than a fifth of that. Much of the rest rotted or was given away.

"As a policy, it did damage to our agricultural water supplies," said Qunaibet, the hydrologist.

The government is now discouraging wheat production beyond what the kingdom consumes, and it is encouraging more water-friendly methods of irrigation, like computer-regulated drip systems, which send less water into the atmosphere than the current pivot sprays.

But what is lost is lost irrevocably.

"I remember flowing springs when I was a boy in the Eastern Province," Qusaibi said. "Now all of these have dried up and you have to dig."