Of Course Saudi Arabia Should Import Water – What Else Should They Do?

The Guardian runs a piece looking at how Saudi Arabia is depleting fossil water in the country’s aquifers. Not, in the long term, all that sensible a thing to do. They’re a bit dismissive of desalination which is a pity as the technology is coming along in leaps and strides. It’s already cheaper than trying to import water itself and is cost effective for direct human consumption – it’s cheaper than bottled water and people will indeed pay for that.

But they’re also sniffy about importing water in the form of products, which is ludicrous:

It has also tried to reform the water-hungry agriculture industry, reducing government incentives for cereal production. The overall amount of irrigated farmland still hasn’t declined, though, as producers switch to more profitable crops that still require large amounts of water. Almarai, a major food producer, has begun buying up deserted land in the US, on plots near Los Angeles and in Arizona, and in Argentina, in order to grow water-rich alfalfa to feed its dairy cows.

As Bjorn Lomborg has pointed out it takes a 1,000 tonnes of water to grow a tonne of wheat. Therefore importing a tonne of wheat is functionally equivalent to importing 1,000 tonnes of water. The solution to water shortage is therefore to import the water consuming things necessary.

Iceland doing exactly the same thing in reverse. They’ve got lots of lovely cheap hydro power. And they’re too far from anywhere to cable it away. So, they import alumina and export aluminium. That’s a process that requires about $900 worth of electricity per tonne Al to undertake. The net effect here being that Iceland is exporting that lovely cheap electricity just embedded in the ingots of metal.

You know, just the standard comparative advantage argument. Spain’s got lots of sun to ripen tomatoes, so much so that resource use – and CO2 emissions – is smaller by growing them in Andalucia and trucking them to Alnwick to be consumed. Than, obviously, trying to grow them under glass in Berwick. As a certain Mr. Smith pointed out too, it’s entirely possible to grow grapes in Scotland but it’s more sensible to import the liquid sunshine from Bourdeaux.

Alfalfa from California is a bit stupid, true, as irrigation water in CA is horribly underpriced. But the general contention, short of something then import the stuff made from it, is sound. What the hell else should anyone try doing?

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Dodgy GeezerBoganboyJonathan HarstonQ46Rhoda Klapp Recent comment authors
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Rhoda Klapp
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Rhoda Klapp

I’m fairly sure I’ve never used up any water in my life. Maybe split some by electrolysis in school, but if so I’m sure it recombined. Where do the other 999 tons go when you make a ton of wheat? If conservation of matter is any guide, that water still exists. It can only have gone into the air or the soil or a river. Let the cost decide.

Dodgy Geezer
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Dodgy Geezer

The solution to water shortage is therefore to import the water consuming things necessary…. NO! No, no and no again! There is NOT any shortage of water. Please, PLEASE make this clear. Continually stating that there IS a shortage of water makes ‘saving it’ sound sensible. What there IS is a shortage, in various parts of the world, of water extraction, storage, purification and distribution equipment. Which costs money. Which is why the people who have to buy it would much rather that you kept pretending that there was a water shortage and that everyone should use less. In this… Read more »

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

Yes, it’s similar to the people who complain about paying for water when “it just falls from the sky”. Ok then, just use the water that falls from the sky, and none of the stuff collected, aggregated, filtered, cleaned, purified, piped and pumped to your tap.

Dodgy Geezer
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Dodgy Geezer

Um…not that I can see. I’m complaining that we can have as much water as we want if we pay for the associated equipment, but that we are told that we must NOT do this, and instead we must use less water…

Q46
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Q46

Desalination takes a lot of energy. We are constantly told how ‘cheap’ solar energy is and Saudi has all that sunshine and open space, so desalination would seem to be the preferable option, almost cost free – unless of course all the blather about solar stuff is fantasy.

Boganboy
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Boganboy

Since Arabia is a peninsula surrounded by seas, there’s no shortage of water. I understand the Saudis consume about the oil use of the UK to desalinate. It’d certainly make sense to copy Russia and sell the fossil fuel overseas and get the local power from nukes. They’ve plenty of phosphates, so uranium can be extracted from them.

I’d of course use breeders, so if the Japanese research works out, they can extract uranium as well as H2O from seawater. Since the uranium is continually leached from the continents, there’s no practical limit to the supply.