How will we feed the world, if we can't even water our crops?

The New York Times Magazine recently published an article about the plight for limited water resources in America's South-West, part of which is published further below. Only recently have we really come to understand the immediate and massive danger the world faces because of depleting aquifer levels. It seems that now, as we try and figure out how the planet's next generation will be fed adequately, we will also have to deal with an emerging water crisis that threatens the ability of our global agricultural system to simply produce at its current rate.

In response to this looming crisis, Agritecture's Yara Matar has the following to share:

"Water is crucial to countless aspects of our lives, and yet we fail to grasp how much of it we consume every day. The main bulk of the earth’s water reserves go to agriculture and to feeding our planet’s growing population; 70% of underground water is consumed by this one industry. Pressured by droughts and tightening regulations, large farms started to seek out lesser-known water pockets.

In Arizona, where there are no groundwater regulations governing irrigation, they found an ideal destination. Due to this surge in agricultural activity, 100,000 acre-feet of water are pumped out every year, while only 15,000 are estimated to percolate into the aquifer.

Arizona has been particularly attractive to Middle Eastern farmers, and especially so for Saudi Arabian companies. Less than 1.4% of Saudi land is arable, and the Kingdom suffers from a lack of fresh water and extreme climatic conditions. As a consequence, the country produces only 20% of its food needs and greatly relies on imports to cover the remaining 80%. This exposes the country to numerous food security risks, such as global price fluctuations, regional disease outbreaks, and export bans.

In order to increase supply chain resilience and secure a stable source of feed, large-scale dairy and poultry meat producers such as Al-Marai have resorted to agricultural investments abroad. In 2014, Al-Marai purchased 10,000 acres in Arizona to plant alfalfa. While the transaction was completely legal, it was met with extreme opposition from the local community, as even they have a tough time securing a reliable water source.

This is not the first-time Saudi agriculture projects generated local controversy. In Ethiopia, the Kingdom’s land acquisition has led to riots and armed confrontation. In Indonesia, local tribes protested for days when a Saudi takeover became a possibility.

If Saudi Arabia is serious about making its agricultural investments abroad sustainable, it will need to approach the subject in a more community-oriented fashion. Saudi investors should launch sustainable projects that maximize benefits for all stakeholders, including themselves and local actors. Infrastructure can be enhanced in order to facilitate crop transportation and support local farming initiatives, local jobs can be created, and non-water-intensive crops could be chosen in order to prevent resource depletion.

Saudi Arabia should also look into alternative farming solutions in order to increase local production, boost food self-sufficiency, and reduce overall reliance on external food sources. Urban farming offers a great opportunity for the Kingdom to achieve these goals. Hydroponic-based vertical farms and greenhouses require 90% less water than traditional agriculture and no soil. Agritecture Consulting is focusing its efforts on supporting Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in launching sustainable and highly efficient urban farming projects. The Agritecture Blog will also be producing thought-provoking educational content tailored specifically to the Arab region."

by Yara Matar: Yara Matar is an intern at Agritecture Consulting and is currently enrolled in a Master of Public Administration degree at Columbia University in New York City. Prior to this, Yara served as a management consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton’s Middle East practice for four years. During her time with Booz, she focused on supporting public sector clients develop national agendas and sectoral strategies. As such, Yara spent 9 months assisting the Saudi Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture in designing the country’s food security strategy and implementation plan.

The following is part of the recently published article:

The Water Wars of Arizona

Farmland in the Sulphur Springs Valley of Arizona. (Credit: Lucas Foglia for The New York Times)

Farmland in the Sulphur Springs Valley of Arizona. (Credit: Lucas Foglia for The New York Times)

Among the most vulnerable aquifers are those underlying the desert basins of the American Southwest. The Sulphur Springs Valley, in Arizona’s far southeastern corner, is one such basin. Surrounded on three sides by steep mountain ranges, the valley is an unusually flat and level 1,900-square-mile expanse of sagebrush and tanglegrass, which acts as a massive natural vessel for rain and snowmelt. In geological terms, it is a “closed basin,” as none of its water rejoins a river. Instead, it pools at the center, percolating into the ground. Centuries of evaporation have transformed this ancient lake bed into a dry alkali flat, inhabited today by a migratory roost of 30,000 sandhill cranes. Beneath it, buried in layers of sediment, lies all the water that never flowed to the ocean. Some of it is more than 20,000 years old.

Around the turn of the 20th century, when sulfurous water was discovered bubbling out of the ground, cattle ranches and homesteads began to proliferate across the valley. One of the first deep water wells was drilled around 1915, when Texas farmers began adopting the oil industry’s turbine pump. Overnight, this innovation allowed agriculture to stray deep into arid climates, and in the span of a generation, the valley became home to a thriving agricultural economy. In the late 1990s, during the first few years of what would eventually turn out to be a 19-year-and-counting Arizona drought, only about 15,000 acre-feet of water were estimated to have percolated into the aquifer each year, while 100,000 were being pumped out; as the valley continued to warm throughout the 2000s and 2010s, with rainfall and snowmelt plummeting, estimates for recharge went unrecorded, as annual pumping soared to 200,000 acre feet. Once, it had been possible for ranchers to develop natural springs into watering holes using only a shovel. Now, after watching water levels drop 100 to 300 feet in 35 years, some farmers wondered how long they could go on.

Homes in the Sulphur Springs Valley in Arizona stand just outside a corn field with a large irrigation system. (Credit: Lucas Foglia for The New York Times)

Homes in the Sulphur Springs Valley in Arizona stand just outside a corn field with a large irrigation system. (Credit: Lucas Foglia for The New York Times)

Until the last three decades, the technology to make detailed maps of these underground waterways did not readily exist. It wasn’t until 2015, in fact, that NASA published its first comprehensive study of global groundwater reserves. The mission began in 2002, with the launch of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace), two satellites that follow each other in orbit, measuring changes in gravitational pull. The mission’s primary purpose was to look at ice-sheet depletion, but over the next several years Dr. Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and his team noticed that many of the most significant sites of water loss were actually below ground. Of the planet’s 37 major aquifer systems, they discovered, 21 were on the verge of collapse. In the Great Plains, farmers had exhausted a third of Ogallala’s potable water in just 30 years. In California, the Central Valley aquifer was showing signs that it could drop beyond human reach by the middle of this century. But the worst declines were in Asia and the Middle East, where some of the planet’s oldest aquifers were already running out of water. “While we are so busy worrying about the water that we can see,” Famiglietti told me, “the water that we can’t see, the groundwater, is quietly disappearing.”

In the United States, it is disappearing most rapidly in the rural agricultural belt extending from Kansas to California. Without ready access to more traditional stores of water, many farmers have been forced to rely even more heavily on groundwater, pitting them against local residents watching their wells go dry. In 2014, in Tulare County, Calif., 7,000 people ran out of drinking water. The next year, wells hit a record low, as 64 percent recorded declines nationwide and one in 30 failed in Western states. Squeezed by drought and tightening regulations, large farms started to seek out lesser-known pockets of cheap water. In rural Arizona, where there are essentially no groundwater regulations governing irrigation, they found an ideal destination. “What the smart money is doing is looking around and saying, ‘Where else can we go where there is no regulation?’ ” Robert Glennon, a professor of water law and policy at the University of Arizona and the author of “Water Follies,” told NPR in an interview. “And that is Arizona.”

Arizona was particularly attractive to Middle Eastern farmers. A policy of unregulated pumping on the Arabian Peninsula had, in 40 years, drained aquifers that had taken 20,000 years to form, leaving thousands of acres fallow and forcing Saudi Arabia and others to outsource much of their agricultural production. In 2014, a Saudi Arabian-owned company, the Almarai Corporation, bought 10,000 acres in the town of Vicksburg, northwest of Sulphur Springs Valley, planting alfalfa to ship halfway around the world to feed Saudi cattle. Then, a United Arab Emirates farming corporation, Al Dahra, bought several thousand-acre farms along both sides of the Arizona-California border. These purchases were perfectly legal, but many residents felt these newcomers were essentially “exporting water.” At least once, the Sheriff’s Department in Vicksburg deployed five deputies to stand guard at a town-hall meeting.