Saudi Arabia’s water crisis threatens the kingdom’s
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Bottles of water twirl on the conveyor belts of the Berain water factory in Riyadh, as a puddle of water collects on the concrete floor.

In a second warehouse, tanks emit a low hum as water brought in from precious underground aquifers passes through a six-stage purification process before bottling.

“In Saudi Arabia there are only two sources of water: the sea and deep wells,” said Ahmed Safar al-Asmari, who manages one of Berain’s two factories in Riyadh. “We’re in the central region, so there are only deep wells here.”

Perhaps not surprising for someone who makes a living selling water, al-Asmari professes to be untroubled about the future of Saudi Arabia’s water supply.

“Studies show water in some reserves can stand consumption for another 150 years. In Saudi Arabia, we have many reserves — we have no problems in this area,” he said.

His confident predictions are out of sync with the facts. One Saudi groundwater expert at King Faisal University predicted in 2016 that the kingdom only had another 13 years’ worth of groundwater reserves left.

“Groundwater resources of Saudi Arabia are being depleted at a very fast rate,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said as far back as 2008. “Most water withdrawn comes from fossil deep aquifers, and some predictions suggest that these resources may not last more than about 25 years.”

In a country that rarely sees rain, the habit of draining groundwater, like the Berain factory does, could prove perilous: Groundwater makes up an estimated 98 percent of naturally occurring fresh water in Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, oil may have built the modern Saudi state, but a lack of water could destroy it if drastic solutions are not found soon.

The emergency seems invisible in Riyadh, which is undergoing a construction boom as more buildings creep upwards to join a collection of towering skyscrapers.

Although everyone knows this city in the desert owes its existence to the discovery of oil in 1938, few realize that water was just as important.

Decades of efforts to make the desert bloom to feed the city’s population have resulted in agricultural projects to grow water-intensive crops such as wheat, on farmland meted out in figures favored by the royal family.

While many question the accuracy of the kingdom’s optimistic estimates of its own oil reserves, the looming threat of a lack of water could prove to be an even bigger problem.

Saudi Arabia consumes double the world average of water per person — 263 liters per capita each day and rising — amid a changing climate that will strain water reserves.

In March, the kingdom launched the Qatrah program to demand citizens drastically cut their water use. Its aim is to ration water to 200 liters per person per day by next year and 150 liters by 2030.

It has also tried to reform the water-hungry agriculture industry, reducing government incentives for cereal production.

The overall amount of irrigated farmland still has not 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.

INVISIBLE EMERGENCY

The Saudi Arabian National Transformation Plan, also known as Vision 2020 — a subset of the Vision 2030 initiative intended to diversity the Kingdom’s economy away from oil — aims to reduce the amount of water pulled from underground aquifers for use in agriculture.