Searching for Water Across Borders

Oct 18, 2018 by

The New York Times

Saudi Arabia and China are among the countries that have turned to the United States and elsewhere.

By Jeff Nesbit

Mr. Nesbit is the author of the new book, “This is the Way the World Ends.”

Facing water scarcity issues in and around the Gobi Desert, China has been importing more than half of the world’s soybeans. Credit Josh Haner/The New York Times

As climate change begins to make water scarcity a critical security issue globally, wealthier countries have begun to look outside their borders to meet their water needs. In moves that have important trade and geopolitical implications, Saudi Arabia and China have come to America to help solve their water problems and feed their people.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, Almarai, bought about 15 square miles of farmland in Arizona for $47.5 million to grow alfalfa to feed its dairy cows back home. Huge amounts of water are required to cultivate the crop — nearly four times as much as wheat — which is why the Saudis had come to Arizona.

China, too, had come to the United States for food that requires vast amounts of fresh water to produce. Facing water scarcity issues in and around the Gobi Desert, China has been importing more than half of the world’s soybeans, another water-intensive crop, from farmers in the United States and South America. And not just soybeans. In 2013, a Chinese company bought the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods. Until recently, the meat from a quarter of all the hogs raised in the United States — a process that also consumes enormous amounts of water to grow the feed for these animals — ended up in China.

But with the new trade tariffs imposed by the Trump administration, China is turning to other countries for soybeans, and the pork Smithfield is producing in the United States has become even more expensive for China to import.

National security experts have long worried about the implications of water scarcity and food shortages around the globe. In 2014, President Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, warned that those two concerns were among the central elements of the “most diverse array of threats and challenges as I’ve seen in my 50-plus years in the intell business.” He predicted that the intelligence community increasingly would “be confronting” issues involving food, water, energy and disease.

In Syria and Yemen, for instance, some have argued that water scarcity helped push both countries into the turmoil that has engulfed them. The collapse of those countries most likely raised concerns in Saudi Arabia and reinforced its efforts to meet the kingdom’s water and food needs elsewhere.

The country, rich from its vast oil deposits, has one of the world’s smallest water reserves. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a single lake or river. For thousands of years, the Saudis have depended on wells or the occasional oasis. Infrequent rainfalls replenish shallow aquifers 150 feet or so underground. Wells dug ten times as deep as those shallow aquifers tap into reserves not renewed by rainfall. Once used up, they’re gone.

Fifteen years ago, those wells and aquifers started running dry after the Saudis had tapped them to excess to irrigate wheat fields in desert. Today, that water is essentially gone. A 2011 research project in historic Tayma, for instance, found that “most wells [were] exsiccated,” meaning that the oasis that had provided water for over two thousand years had been drained in a matter of decades.

With water already a precious commodity in the Middle East, which, along with North Africa, holds less than 1 percent of the world’s fresh water, the Saudis had an intractable problem. At first, they tried to conserve the rapidly depleting reserves in their shallow aquifers. They encouraged water-saving taps and shower heads to cut consumption by half, got smarter about water reclamation and irrigation practices, and financed costly deep underground irrigation systems. They stopped growing wheat.

But it wasn’t enough. So they turned to the United States and other places rich in water.

A classified United States diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks in 2010 said that the country’s ruler, King Abdullah, told Saudi food companies to find and purchase foreign land with access to fresh water. This was a way “to prevent food insecurity from creating political instability,” according to the cable.

It was against this backdrop that Almarai purchased of the Arizona farmland. They had concluded it was cheaper to use Arizona land and water to grow hay, then ship it home, than it was to bring water in to irrigate Saudi farmland.

But the purchase has not been without controversy. To grow its alfalfa, Almarai, also bought land in California’s Palo Verde Valley and is now drawing water from the Colorado River, which also provides drinking water for cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The river’s reservoirs recently have experienced near-record lows, creating a volatile local political situation. Almarai, which also runs farms in other countries, is now competing with American cities for water in a region of the country that is already struggling to provide enough water to the people who live there, though the company has also been praised for its water conservation efforts there.

China, in its pursuit of water-intensive crops, has proposed building a 3,000-mile railroad through the Amazon to make it easier to import soybeans (the plan has been delayed largely because of objections from environmental activists). China used to grow its own soybeans, but water has become more scarce there, and like the alfalfa grown by the Saudis in Arizona, soybeans require a lot of water — 500 tons to produce just one ton of soybeans.

And water is becoming more precious in some regions of China. Water tables are dropping precipitously in northern China, up to 10 feet a year in some areas there. Drifting sands are covering hundreds of miles of potential cropland south of the Gobi Desert in northern China. The country’s plans to divert water from rivers in southern China are running into regional politics, while rivers and streams in the north are still quite costly to clean up. And climate change sits atop all of this, making things potentially much worse.

This is what an imminent climate threat in the world looks like. It may not be affecting the United States as profoundly as it is countries like China and Saudi Arabia. But it is only a question of time — perhaps a very short time — before these threats arrive in America.

Jeff Nesbit is the executive director of Climate Nexus, a nonprofit that focuses on climate and clean energy issues. This is adapted from his new book, “This Is the Way the World Ends.”

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