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

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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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