Water scarcity and food security

Water scarcity and food security
Updated 15 June 2014

Water scarcity and food security

Water scarcity and food security

In recent decades, agricultural policies across the Gulf region paid scant heed to its extreme water scarcity.
Led by the understandable goals of food security and self-sufficiency, the GCC governments for years directed substantial financial and water resources toward agricultural expansion in spite of the fact that the sector offered little to no economic advantage in the arid Arabian Peninsula.
In spite of the exceptional scarcity of water in the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the highest total per capita consumption and jointly make up some 90 percent of the region’s total water demand.
According to academic estimates, the average daily per capita domestic water consumption in rural areas is approximately 15-20 liters, which compares to as much as 100-350 liters in urban centers.
The Saudi expatriate population, ranging from 23 percent of the total to nearly 90 percent in the UAE, resides primarily in urban areas and is a heavy consumer of utilities of not only water but electricity as well.
Saudi Arabia has clearly recognized the unsustainability of its old food security strategy, which put extreme strain on the country's natural water resources. It is generally accepted that the appropriate approach in this area has been multipronged revolving around a number of initiatives.
As per the initiatives, some parts of the Kingdom are suited for agriculture production and further efficiency gains are achievable in many areas. New techniques and technologies, such as hydroponics and vertical farming, offer opportunities for profitable operations with minimal drain on water resources. Water recycling is another area for improvement.
Also, integration in the global trade system through a portfolio of relationships and delivery arrangements is central. Fluctuations in supply and prices can be mitigated through reserves.
Outsourcing is largely considered as necessary and a desirable part of production and an additional source of security.
For outsourcing to be effective, it should be undertaken in a way that produces a win-win for all interested parties and is ideally conducted on a commercial basis. This is something that in the past has not always worked very well. Investments by Saudi food companies are more likely to deliver enduring value than bilateral inter-governmental deals.
It is common knowledge that water is scarce in Saudi Arabia and it has no fertile land. It is a mistaken notion that Saudi Arabia wants to rely on resources to grow its own food. Records show that the precious resource of water was wasted in wheat production which, no doubt, some decades ago had set a record in the Kingdom.
But the ripple effect has been that this use of water resulted in a faster depletion of water resources across the Kingdom. So, in this context, the outsourcing of food production is considered a good alternative. Countries chosen for such outsourcing include Sudan and Ukraine, and those in South America and Asia.
The government is encouraging and facilitating private investments in overseas food production by providing legal protection through contractual arrangements with foreign governments.
Once these arrangements are through, Saudi Arabia will be able to grow its own food in these countries and export it back to the Kingdom.
What needs to be done is not to depend only on one or two countries but spread the net to as many countries as possible to insure against disruptions caused by possible political developments.
So, the initiative of outsourcing should be considered only as a temporary move. For its long-term food security, the Kingdom should consider diversifying its own sources. How this can be done is for all experts to come up with novel, practical ideas that authorities can implement.
The bottom line is we must have a level of production here in the Kingdom in the designated cultivable areas where there is availability of water.

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