Saudi Arabia 'faces catastrophe' as reservoirs run dry

Saudi Arabia 'faces catastrophe' as reservoirs run dry
Feature: Former government official says country is heading for a disaster unless it stops squandering precious water resources on unviable projects, reports Khaled al-Shayea.
2 min read
01 May, 2015
Date palms consume large quantities of water [Getty]

A former Saudi government official has given warning that the country faces a drought and called for an end to the use of precious water reserves on unsustainable projects. 

The former undersecretary of the Saudi Arabian ministry of agriculture, Ali al-Takhees, said the use use of non-renewable groundwater on economically unviable agricultural projects would end in disaster. 

"Saudi Arabia is facing a catastrophe if agricultural practices don't change. The remaining groundwater needs to be preserved," he said.

     Groundwater reserves are being depleted at an alarming rate.

Groundwater reserves are being depleted at an alarming rate. About 40 percent of water wasted is groundwater. Takhees said the kingdom would experience a major drought in 30 years if practices did not change.

The government has banned wheat farming, however hay continues to be grown for animal fodder, and olive trees and date palms all use large amounts of groundwater.

"We also need to adopt drip irrigation methods rather than using flood irrigation," Thakhees explained.

Although the kingdom has no rivers, Saudis use more water per person than water-rich European countries.

Figures released by Abdullah bin Abdul Rahman al-Hossein, the minister of water and electricity, show that an average of eight million cubic meters were used each day last year. Daily use per person was 265 litres, double the EU average.

Reservoirs in central Saudi Arabia have turned into giant sand pits, and those in the east are facing a similar fate.

Takhees said rainwater was only able to replenish shallow aquifers, and not the deep aquifers that are being emptied.

The Arab Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia, "suffers from the most complex water crisis in the world, especially as water usage per person is 1,035 cubic meters a year," said Radwan al-Weshah, an international water expert and former director of Unesco's water programme in the Arab region.

Abdullah al-Misnid, a Saudi climate professor, said the water crisis was largely due to the decision in 1983 to grow wheat in the kingdom.

"We wasted fresh water growing subsidised wheat on hot, dry sand dunes, which was later exported for far less than its production price," Misnid said.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.