The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Saudi Arabia Goes the way of the Garamantes. Google Earth Confirms the Collapse of the Water Supply


In 2008, I noted the decline in Saudi Arabian water production and I published an article in "The Oil Drum" titled "Peak Water in Saudi Arabia." Using a simple version of the Hubbert model of resource depletion, I noted how the supply of "fossil water" had peaked in 1990 and had been declining ever since. This is the typical behavior of "fossil" resources: they tend to peak and then decline. It had already happened to the ancient Garamantes, inhabitants of central Sahara, who had developed sophisticated technologies of water extraction during the 1st millennium BC. That had allowed them to prosper for about one thousand years, but then depletion had its revenge and they vanished among the sand dunes. Something similar (but probably much faster) is going to happen in the Arabian peninsula. 


The old Hubbert model was developed to describe the cycle of extraction of crude oil. It may be oversimplified if you want to use it for detailed predictions. But, as a quick tool for understanding the situation of the production of a non renewable resource, it tells you a lot of what you need to know. That first stab of mine on water production in Saudi Arabia turned out to be correct. 

It is impressive how, today, you can use Google Earth to look at the situation "from above." You can see the collapse of the agricultural fields as depletion progresses. Here are the images of an irrigated area for a region East of Al Jubail, in Saudi Arabia,  26°48'29.60"N and  49° 8'47.58"E. 

Let's start with an image of the desert in 1984. There is absolutely nothing there:

One year later, 1985. Someone has started extracting water and irrigating the land. There are two active fields there. 

Below, you see an enlargement of the 1985 situation. Someone has built a road and you can see six irrigated areas, of which two are active. Each circle is almost exactly 1 km diameter. It is called "center pivot irrigation" -- there is a long arm that turns around the central pivot and irrigates the area.

Below, the situation in 1986 -- there are now 31 active circular fields. 

And now the area in 2002. There are now 46 active or partially active fields. Note the dark spots among the circular green areas. It is not clear what they are, could they be small ponds of brine? The water they are using probably has a high salinity and they have to dispose of it, somehow. 

 Below, the situation in 2015. The cultivated area is clearly declining. There are now only 17 active fields.


And, finally, the situation in 2020. It is gone. No green fields anymore. They simply ran out of water.

That doesn't mean that agriculture in Saudi Arabia is completely over. Scanning the desert using Google Earth, you can still find irrigated areas. Here is a place called Qariat al Olaya

There are several irrigated circles, but note the number of "ghost" fields, not irrigated anymore. It may be a seasonal effect, but it may well indicate big problems with water supply. 

Finally, some data about wheat production in Saudi Arabia, the most recent I could find (from "actualitix")

As you see, they had two peaks: the first one is the one I had already noted in my article on the "Oil Drum" of 2009. The second one was ca. 2005. As it often happens, when a resource starts declining, people tend to apply more capital to keep things going. It happens also with crude oil, the case of "shale oil" is a classic example. In Saudi Arabia, they succeeded in creating a second peak. But now, it seems to be the final decline. 

Just like the ancient Garamantes, the Saudi Arabians were able to overcome the aridity of their land by using fossil water. But when they ran out of it, it was time over for them. The Saudis still have crude oil and can import food despite not being able anymore to produce it. But oil is a fossil resource, subjected to depletion just like fossil water. And the destiny that befell the Garamantes is going to befall all those who depend on fossil resources. 



  1. Building a nuclear power plant to power a desalination plant is not some sort of alien technology from outer space. Saudis are perhaps less competent, but in the UAE there are such plans to raise agricultural production. Barakah nuclear power station is already partially working.

    1. It's taken the Finns nearly 20 years to go from design to building, to still not working nuc plant. That's on a brownfield site with other nuc plants nearby by and vast experience. And so far the cost is E11 Billion with no power generation yet

      Why would SA build a nuc plant ? they have vast open spaces and massive solar projects underway. That aside, making water via desal is extremely expensive and polluting, the last thing you want to do with it is grow food with it, tomatoes maybe, vast wheat fields, definitely not. Better to use it for drinking and better to buy food elsewhere where the water is already, which they do. An example, the grow feed in the USA and ship it over to feed their dairy cattle

      I mean what could go wrong with a Nuc PLant in SA ? I am sure a Saudi plant will make an excellent target for the Houthi who often send rockets into SA.

    2. Liberty, the dream of using nuclear power to desalinate water has been around for a long time. But reality is another matter. The best that can be done with ANY energy source is to produce at about 5 cents/kWh (more typical 10 c/kWh). It takes some 3.5 kWh to make one m3 of desalinated water, which means about 30 c/m3 (more typically around $1/m3 in the real world). It is about 10 (more typically 100) times more than farmers expect to pay for water for irrigation. Not completely impossible, but very, very steep.

  2. Sarcastic comments in the Middle East on the net aplenty today, like:

    When you like to blame Saudi Arabia being behind your fight with your wife, call the Saudi embassy in your country, they will send a car with a Saudi flag, get a photo for the car waiting at you door - and that's the perfect evidence.

    These days is the rife time to demonise Saudi Arabia - they have nothing, they are nothing, they are done...

    Say Saudi Arabia has now run out of oil - and you'll be cut to pieces wherever you live, worldwide, though!

    No one needs to worry about the population in Saudi (30 million, almost 50 times less than India), when they have made it from the antiquity to 1937, before oil started to export, living and reproduce all that time on their well known dry land.

    Seriously worry about people outside Saudi around the world when they are obsessively told since the 1970s that Saudi oil never runs out, though.

    The clip below may explain that oil in the hands of Economics what made humans badly needed to extract oil until our head count today has become 8 billion, not humans who have single-handedly went for oil to increase their number to 8 billion - strong.

    "No energy store holds enough energy to extract, collect and utilise an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores."

    If our civilisation didn't go to Saudi Arabia for mass oil extraction, people in Saudi were most likely to leave all that finite, one-off oil and gas, that is now gone - in the ground.

    Observers explain today's all-cylinders media campaign propagating that - the people in oil rich Iraq, Saudi and the Gulf are nothing, having nothing and they are done - as a prelude to hand over the little remaining oil and gas in the region to warlords and armed militias.

    The warlords will be enabled to export the entire, infinitely precious, little remaining resources - nothing to share with their own citizens.

    See stories coming from today's Syria on oil smuggling.

    Watch the clip here demonstrating how oil-rich Iraqis seem happy already gone back to the era of hand pushed carriages for transportation. Note how the scene is staged, to amplify that assumed happiness, when crises-acting people keep circling the frame of the camera more than once in circles.


  3. "And the destiny that befell the Garamantes is going to befall all those who depend on fossil resources."
    I see what you did thete. That "all those" isn't just the Saudi Arabians, but includes all of us unsuspecting folk who rely on fossil fuels completely, if not utterly. I hear you: We are all Garamantes as this fossil fuel Hubbard peak runs out of fracking planks that postpones our big dip Earthward to a less complex way of life, with tablets returning to their original colors, stone amd clay. Hang onto your bowler hats, my fellow Garamantes. There's limits to growth, but this coming fall touches on the finite.

  4. Wonderful, Ugo...thanks for this post!!

  5. Good illustration of collapse/contraction. I described this in Global Eating Disorder 2014. I wrote: "In the1970s, Saudi Arabia subsidized irrigation in order to support a massive expansion of grain production. It was, by and large, very successful and the country became self sufficient in wheat. However, by the1990s, it became clear that this wasn’t sustainable. In 2002, the Ministryof Agriculture announced that it would cease animal feed production altogether because of its negative effect on water resources. Since2008, the government started reducing its wheat purchases from local farmers and from 2016 onwards,the kingdom is expected to import all its wheat."

  6. When I was a kid over 4 decades ago my dad said "In your lifetime son safe drinking water will cost more per litre than fuel.
    That day is looming. Stand by for the climate change water wars. Seeding clouds might be the first salvo.

  7. Now we are building treated wastewater pipelines from the urban centres of the Eastern Province for irrigation, so these places close to cities have an agricultural future. More broadly the cost of desalination of seawater is competitive for high-value agricultural uses, but the cost of piping it inland is far too expensive - so in a generation insha'Allah you will see all the coastlands green with horticulture but Al Jowf Province (up near Jordan, very many green circles on Google Maps) I am sure will have no agriculture. Today I circulated your 2010 paper on EROEI for seawater mining to a committee in my organization to try to encourage them not to say impossible things about the value of desalination brine ;) ... Best Regards from beautiful Al-Jubail