Why world leaders are terrified of water shortages

[ The article blow shows how water crisis in Yemen and Syria led to civil war, mass migration, roadblocks by angry citizens, water riots, increased dengue fever as people hard water, and 1 million refugees fleeing to Europe.  Egypt also has extreme water scarcity, with nearly twice the population of Yemen and Syria combined.

About 75% of China’s remaining coal reserves are in water scarce regions that use 80 to 99% of their water for agriculture now.  I question whether China will be able to shift water use to water intensive coal mining, coal generation of electricity, coal to chemicals, and eventually coal to liquids as governments become desperate to replace declining oil with a drop-in fuel.  If China tries to develop their last coal reserves this will lead to civil war, chaos, mass migrations, riots, and so on, as it has in the Middle East.  And where would the water come, from since already aquifers are being drained that won’t refill for tens of thousands of years.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Halverson, N. 2016. Why world leaders are terrified of water shortages. Mother Jones.

Secret conversations between American diplomats show how a growing water crisis in the Middle East destabilized the region, helping spark civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and how those water shortages are spreading to the United States.

Classified US cables, made public years ago by WikiLeaks, reviewed by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting show a mounting concern by global political and business leaders that water shortages could spark unrest across the world, with dire consequences.

Many of the cables read like diary entries from an apocalyptic sci-fi novel.

“Water shortages have led desperate people to take desperate measures with equally desperate consequences,” according to a 2009 cable sent by US Ambassador Stephen Seche in Yemen as water riots erupted across the country.

On September 22 of that year, Seche sent a stark message to the US State Department in Washington relaying the details of a conversation with Yemen’s minister of water, who “described Yemen’s water shortage as the ‘biggest threat to social stability in the near future.’ He noted that 70% of unofficial roadblocks were set up citizens angry about  water shortages, which are increasingly a cause of violent conflict.”  He noted that 14 of the country’s 16 aquifers had run dry.

The classified 2009 cable by Ambassador Stephen Seche states “Water remains a socially threatening, yet politically sensitive subject in Yemen; government action has stagnated as water resources continue to decline. The lack of regulation of drilling rigs and the cultivation of qat are largely responsible for the continuing decline of water resources. The lack of water has resulted in water riots in the governorates of Aden, Lahj, and Abyan. Water scarcity has health consequences and has been linked to a dengue fever outbreak, as people hoard water in Taiz”.  He predicted that conflict between urban and rural areas over water would lead to violence.

Less than two years later, rural tribesmen fought their way into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and seized two buildings: the headquarters of the ruling General People’s Congress and the main offices of the water utility. The president was forced to resign, and a new government was formed. But water issues continued to amplify long-simmering tensions between various religious groups and tribesmen, which eventually led to a full-fledged civil war.

Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, found similar classified US cables sent from Syria. Those cables also describe how water scarcity destabilized the country and helped spark a war that has sent more than 1 million refugees fleeing into Europe.

In 2008 a Syrian cable asked the UNFAO for seed and technical assistance to 15,000 small-holding farmers in northeast Syria in an effort to preserve the social and economic fabric of this rural, agricultural community.  If UNFAO efforts fail, Yehia predicts mass migration from the northeast, which could act as a multiplier on social and economic pressures already at play and undermine stability Syria.  Syria Representative Abdullah bin Yehia briefed econoff and USDA Regional Minister-Counselor for Agriculture on what he terms the “perfect storm,” a confluence of drought conditions with other economic and social pressures that Yehia believes could undermine stability in Syria. Without direct FAO assistance, Yehia predicts that most of these 15,000 small-holding farmers would be forced to depart Al Hasakah province to seek work in larger cities in western Syria (Damascus and Aleppo, primarily). Approximately 100,000 dependents — women, children and the elderly or infirm — would be left behind to live in poverty, he said.  Children would be likely to be pulled from school, he warned, in order to seek a source of income for families left behind.  In addition, the migration of 15,000 unskilled laborers would add to the social and economic pressures presently at play in major Syrian cities.  A system already burdened by a large Iraqi refugee population may not be able to absorb another influx of displaced persons, Yehia explained, particularly at this time of rising costs, growing dissatisfaction of the middle class, and a perceived weakening of the social fabric and security structures that Syrians have come to expect and – in some cases – rely on.

The classified diplomatic cables, made public years ago by WikiLeaks, now are providing fresh perspective on how water shortages have helped push Syria and Yemen into civil war, and prompted the king of neighboring Saudi Arabia to direct his country’s food companies to scour the globe for farmland. Since then, concerns about the world’s freshwater supplies have only accelerated.

It’s not just government officials who are worried. In 2009, US Embassy officers visited Nestlé’s headquarters in Switzerland, where company executives, who run the world’s largest food company and are dependent on freshwater to grow ingredients, provided a grim outlook of the coming years. An embassy official cabled Washington with the subject line, “Tour D’Horizon with Nestle: Forget the Global Financial Crisis, the World Is Running Out of Fresh Water.

“Nestle thinks one-third of the world’s population will be affected by fresh water scarcity by 2025, with the situation only becoming more dire thereafter and potentially catastrophic by 2050,” according to a March 24, 2009, cable. “Problems will be severest in the Middle East, northern India, northern China, and the western United States.”

At the time of that meeting, government officials from Syria and Yemen already had started warning US officials that their countries were slipping into chaos as a result of water scarcity.

The water-fueled conflicts in the Middle East paint a dark picture of a future that many governments now worry could spread around the world as freshwater supplies become increasingly scarce. The CIA, the State Department, and similar agencies in other countries are monitoring the situation.

In the past, global grain shortages have led to rapidly increasing food prices, which analysts have attributed to sparking the Arab Spring revolution in several countries, and in 2008 pushed about 150 million people into poverty, according to the World Bank.

Water scarcity increasingly is driven by three major factors: Global warming is forecast to create more severe droughts around the world. Meat consumption, which requires significantly more water than a vegetarian or low-meat diet, is spiking as a growing middle class in countries such as China and India can afford to eat more pork, chicken, and beef. And the world’s population continues to grow, with an expected 2 billion more stomachs to feed by 2050.

The most troubling signs of the looming threat first appeared in the Middle East, where wells started running dry nearly 15 years ago. Having drained down their own water supplies, food companies from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere began searching overseas.

In Saudi Arabia, the push to scour the globe for water came from the top. King Abdullah decreed that grains such as wheat and hay would need to be imported to conserve what was left of the country’s groundwater. All wheat production in Saudi Arabia will cease this year, and other water-intensive crops such as hay are being phased out, too, the king ruled.

A classified US cable from Saudi Arabia in 2008 shows that King Abdullah directed Saudi food companies to search overseas for farmland with access to freshwater and promised to subsidize their operations. The head of the US Embassy in Riyadh concluded that the king’s goal was “maintaining political stability in the Kingdom.”

In a 2014 speech, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said food and water scarcity are contributing to the “most diverse array of threats and challenges as I’ve seen in my 50-plus years in the intel business. “As time goes on, we’ll be confronting issues I call ‘basics’ resources—food, water, energy, and disease—more and more as an intelligence community,” he said.

These problems are not just happening overseas, but already are leading to heated political issues in the United States. In the western part of the country, which Nestlé forecast will suffer severe long-term shortages, tensions are heating up as Middle Eastern companies arrive to tap dwindling water supplies in California and Arizona.

Almarai, which is Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company and has publicly said it’s following the king’s directive, began pumping up billions of gallons of water in the Arizona desert in 2014 to grow hay that it exports back to the Middle East. Analysts refer to this as exporting “virtual water.” It is more cost effective to use the Arizona water to irrigate land in America and ship the hay to Saudi Arabia than it is to fill a fleet of oil tankers with the water.

Arizonans living near Almarai’s hay operation say their groundwater is dropping fast as the Saudis and other foreign companies increase production. They are now worried their domestic wells might suffer the same fate as those in Syria and Yemen.  In January, more than 300 people packed into a community center in rural La Paz County to listen to the head of the state’s water department discuss how long their desert aquifer would last.

Five sheriff’s deputies stood guard at the event to ensure the meeting remained civil—the Arizona Department of Water Resources had requested extra law enforcement, according to county Supervisor Holly Irwin.  “Water can be a very angry issue,” she said. “With people’s wells drying up, it becomes very personal.

Thomas Buschatzke, Arizona’s water director, defended the Saudi farm, saying it provides jobs and increases tax revenue. He added that “Arizona is part of the global economy; our agricultural industry generates billions of dollars annually to our state’s economy.”

But state officials admit they don’t know how long the area’s water will last, given the increased water pumping, and announced plans to study it.

After the meeting, the state approved another two new wells for the Saudi company, each capable of pumping more than 1 billion gallons of water a year.

Back in Yemen in 2009, US Ambassador Seche described how as aquifers were drained, and groundwater levels dropped lower, rich landowners drilled deeper and deeper wells. But everyday citizens did not have the money to dig deeper, and as their wells ran dry, they were forced to leave their land and livelihoods behind.

“The effects of water scarcity will leave the rich and powerful largely unaffected,” Seche wrote in the classified 2009 cable. “These examples illustrate how the rich always have a creative way of getting water, which not only is unavailable to the poor, but also cuts into the unreplenishable resources.”

2008 Saudia Arabia cable

One of the unintended consequences of the dramatic increase in oil prices has been huge inflation in basic commodities, including grain. Food security continues to be a concern in Saudi Arabia, especially with regard to lower and middle income population, and foreign workers.  The Saudi Arabian government (SAG) is seeking alternative sources for grain importation, particularly investing in agricultural initiatives in third-world and developing countries in return for reduced prices on grains.  The SAG also hopes to use these investments to help create sustainable development and jobs in less-developed countries.  Rising costs of food have caused considerable concern among lower income groups, both Saudis and guest workers.  If inflation continues unabated, it could undermine political stability in the Kingdom.  End summary.

On July 27, Econoff met with Taha Alshareef, Assistant Director General for Foreign Trade,  and Ahmed Al Sadhan, General Manager of the National Office for Industrial Strategies, at the Ministry of Commerce.  In this meeting, Al Sadhan stated the need for Saudi Arabia to seek alternative grain sources in response to rising global food prices. Saudi Arabia has 1.76% arabale land, and water scarcity makes it impossible to sustain the current levels of grain production in the Kingdom.

Saudi concern over food security is not new. Historically, all grains have been imported into Saudi Arabia, apart from wheat, which was grown in the Qassim region using fossil water from the aquifer.  In the 1980s and 90s, the government employed massive subsidies, the result of which Saudi Arabia was even briefly a wheat exporter until water depletion drove them to import all grains.

Al Sadhan said the SAG is currently in its sixth week of feasibility studies of investing in farms in third-world and developing countries, whereby Saudi rials would pay the operating costs of the farms and provide management; in exchange for local land, labor, and a portion of the grain produced (particularly wheat and rice).  He also said the countries in which the farms operated could use the remainder of the grain produced to ameliorate their own rising food costs.  Alshareef noted that private Saudi companies have had success with similar ventures in the past.

Al Sadhan said this initiative comes directly from King Abdullah, as part of his effort to make KSA  a “good world citizen” and implement his view that “rich countries have an obligation to help less wealthy nations.”  However, he stressed a desire to maintain a low profile on the feasibility study, for fear that target countries might inflate the cost of farm-land in anticipation of investment. Al Sadhan specifically mentioned Sudan and India as potential target countries.  He also suggested the possibility of future collaboration with the U.S. farming industry.

SAG interest in these investments appears genuine for the primary purpose of addressing the fundamental food security issue, though the driver behind this new initiative is the sudden price inflation of basic commodities.  Rapid rise of oil prices has caused sudden price inflation, but because of variants in income distribution, there is the risk of civil unrest if food prices become too high, particularly from the lower and middle class Saudis, as well as the foreign worker population.

Food price inflation could pose a direct threat to the social contract between the House of Saud and the bulk of the population.  Therefore these programs seem aimed less directly at the economy and more at the goal of maintaining political stability in the Kingdom.  Although keen to keep these projects quiet during the initial fact-finding stages, it seems highly probable that upon announcement, the SAG will accentuate the public relations angle of sustainable development and job development in less-developed countries.

2009 Yemen cable (rest of it here)

… small riots take place nearly every day in neighborhoods in the Old City of Sana’a because of lack of water, and he predicted that the capital could run out of water as soon as next year. One of the major causes of Yemen’s dwindling water supply is the lack of water governance. Hundreds of privately owned, unregulated rigs are used to drill private wells deep into the earth in search of water. The owners of these drills are “running wild, drilling holes everywhere.  We need to control these private rigs.”  A major obstacle to doing so is that fact that the rig owners are powerful individuals – army officers, sheikhs, members of the president’s family, and certain government ministers – who are “untouchable” by the law.  Another major cause is agriculture.  Up to 85 percent of water is used for agriculture, and half of that is for growing the narcotic drug qat.

O one “very easy way to make water use more efficient” is to lift diesel subsidies.  Cheap diesel is leading to the water crisis because, on the one hand, “many farms would no longer be sustainable if their owners were paying the right price for diesel,” and on the other, it fuels the private rigs that are running rampant across the country.

This story was originally published by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting  

Further reading

This entry was posted in Caused by Scarce Resources, Drought, Mass migrations, Middle East, Social Uprising, Starvation, Water and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why world leaders are terrified of water shortages

  1. david higham says:

    This will become an increasingly severe problem in many countries,including here (Australia). Fred Pearce in ‘When the Rivers Run
    Dry’ discusses India ,which has fossil aquifers depleting rapidly,and other