Sunday, November 8, 2015

Water Grabbing: How Saudi Arabia is Growing Wheat in Arizona

Although no one really knows how much oil is left in Saudi Arabia’s huge oil reserve, the Saudis probably won’t have to worry about keeping warm in the foreseeable future. It is one of those things that seem so unfairly distributed in the world, like beauty: some people are blessed with good looks and others aren't, it's just the way it is.

What the Saudis are not so blessed with are water resources. There are no permanent rivers or lakes and very little rainfall. The Saudi desert sits on top of one of the oldest and largest aquifers in the world, which only 50 years ago, contained enough water to fill Lake Erie, but due to a combination of greed, stupidity and arrogance, the country has managed to drain its ground water supply and now has to rely on expensive desalination processing to provide drinking water to its growing population.

When the nomad culture of the Bedouins still thrived, each tribe knew where to find the wells and springs. Take some water, then, move your herd, to give the springs time to replenish. But the lush oases depicted in the Bible and the Koran is a thing of the past. The powers that be decided that the country should become self-sufficient and began to grow wheat in their desert until Saudi Arabia became the sixth largest exporter of wheat in the world. The government began subsidizing mega farms, allowing rich land owners to drain as much ground water as they pleased, with the result that most of it is now gone.

All this was explained to me in a recent story on NPR: 'Saudi Hay Farm In Arizona Tests State's Supply Of Groundwater'. Now that Saudi Arabia has squandered its groundwater and because it is also a major exporter of dairy products, it is looking elsewhere to grow forage foods for their thousands of cows back home.

Almarai, one of Saudi Arabia’s two main dairy producers recently purchased 15 square miles of farmland in the Arizona desert to grow alfalfa to export back to their country. Alfalfa is so water intensive that it requires three to four times more irrigation than wheat. So, according to this NPR story, the Saudis are planting thousands of acres of groundwater-guzzling alfalfa in the parched Arizona desert in the middle of a severe drought and the locals don't seem to have an issue with that. Because this happens in an area of the state where ground water regulation does not apply, there is no limit to how much ground water can be used.

It is not only Saudi Arabia that is farming in Arizona. Al Dahra, a company from the United Arab Emirates, is also growing hay.

This can be called ‘land grabbing’ on a small scale. Land grabbing, when it is for the purpose of growing stuff is the same as ‘water grabbing’. Shipping alfalfa grown in the US to Saudi Arabia is really shipping ‘virtual water’ to a country that has foolishly spent its water savings and is now dipping into our piggy bank because they have an unlimited supply of petro dollars to acquire it.

It is strange that many states don't have laws against foreign ownership of farmland. But even in states with such laws, foreign companies can create a U.S. subsidiary with a local partner, which is exactly what Almarai did. The purchase was done through its fully owned subsidiary Fondomonte, Arizona.

Buying farmland outright, growing what you need and shipping it home is a lot smarter than buying food on the market. You don't have to worry about fluctuations, import taxes, sanctions, etc. It's like having your own generator instead of being dependent on the grid. On top of it, you get to use somebody else's water for free! Saudi Arabia has a finger in many countries, to make up for its lack of water. It has made deals in Poland, Argentina, Pakistan, Ukraine and Turkey. They realize that a country drenched in oil cannot survive very long if it doesn't have any food.

But before we all get worked up about this, let’s not forget that the US is the second largest ‘land grabber’ in the world. In an article in Mother Jones, Britain and the US are the top land grabbers in the world.

Does that mean we have no right to be shocked by this new development? Is it not a case of the pot calling the kettle black? If it were a game of tit for tat, we could return Saudi Arabia's favor by buying up land over there, preferably land with oil in the ground. Unfortunately all the land is owned by the state, which is to say, it is owned by the Saudi King and there is not much chance that he would let us have any of it.

Water grabbing is the name of the new game. Most advanced countries are guilty of it, but desert countries like Saudi Arabia have the most to benefit. But why run to your neighbors and siphon off their water instead of tending to your own garden first? The Bedouin culture could teach the Saudis a thing or two about growing crops sustainably. Just as our own farming practices should be re-examined. Growing alfalfa to feed cattle to feed us is the most water intensive and hence most unsustainable form of food production ever invented.

The lesson to be learned from this is that America, even in the midst of a drought, still HAS water as a resource, but probably not for very long, unless we change our agricultural practices. With monoculture crops and factory farming, two sides of the same coin, we are digging ourselves deeper into a waterless hole from which it will be impossible to crawl out of. We won't be the first civilization to collapse due to our disrespect for our most precious resource. leave comment here