“Saudi Arabia isn’t just running out of oil — it’s running out of water. So is the whole region.” So explains Jeff Rubin in his latest book, Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller (2009) (read my review of Jeff Rubin here).
If you thought it was bad enough to see the extent to which OPEC countries are overconsuming severely underpriced energy resources, wait til you hear about what they’re planning to do for their water and food needs. My point in this article is not to make any moral judgments – just to discuss the points in support of Rubin’s central thesis that the world is going to run out of oil a lot sooner than it thinks.
- fresh underground water levels in Saudi Arabia are down 50% already from mid-1990 levels
- yet current water use in Saudi Arabia is seven times sustainable levels
- Saudi Arabia drained most of its water in order to become self-sufficient in wheat
- In the UAE, water use is at 15x higher than natural replenishment
- In Kuwait, water use is running 20x higher than sustainable levels
These are some troubling facts. Especially when viewed in light of the relentless population growth of the area and the higher food and energy demands that will create. Rubin explains that most of this water usage, naturally, goes towards trying to grow food in the desert. Unsurprisingly, given its declining water levels, the Saudi kingdom has since begun to invest in the agricultural sectors of Thailand, Pakistan and Sudan in order to secure some of its future food supply. But they’ve got a plan B, as well: Use their seemingly ever-plentiful oil fields to turn salt water into drinking water.
How Saudi Arabia Will Create Fresh Drinking Water From Oil
Given the vast crude oil resources it has, its access to saltwater, and its shortage of freshwater, Saudi Arabia has turned to desalination in order to provide for its drinking water and agricultural needs. But as Rubin cautions, “desalination is a solution whose energy requirements will make the energy costs of Dubai’s ski hill look trivial by comparison.”
- Reverse Osmosis – this process “forces saltwater through a semi-permeable membrane under enormous pressure to remove impurities.”
- Flash Distillation – an alternative process that “vaporizes seawater by passing it through a drum of reduced atmospheric pressure then reliquifying it once it is free of impurities.”
The problem with Shuaibah 3, the world’s largest desalination facility, is that it will be powered by one of the largest generation plants in the world, too. A generation plant that burns a constant stream of underpriced oil up its smokestacks. So not only is Saudi Arabia not even yet desalinating enough water to replenish their own freshwater levels, but the closer they get to doing so, the more cheap oil they have burned in the process. Apparently, World Bank estimates show that the amount of desalination the region will need in the years ahead will ultimately require the burning of a million barrels of oil a day.
“That’s a million barrels a day that won’t be fueling the world’s cars and trucks. To put that in perspective, the largest oil field discovered in the North Sea in the past twenty-five years, Buzzard, has a daily output of less than a fifth of that. All of the Alaskan oil fields put together pump out considerably less than a million barrels a day. Peak water will hasten peak oil.”
And given Dubai’s indoor ski resort, you know that all that water isn’t strictly going to drinking and agriculture needs. And given how much electricity and gasoline are overconsumed in the region, one wonders how much of this extremely expensive water is also overconsumed. How much can the region cut back on its water usage? Why is the answer always “we need more” of everything?
I remember traveling through Europe and using showers that automatically shut off after 20 seconds (in France and Germany, I think). This was annoying at first, but I was able to quickly adapt to it. Then I really appreciated that enough people would care that much about conservation to make it a widespread practice. Compare that to the energy usage in the Middle East – the discrepancy is frightening.
With Western mainstream media’s focus on the Middle East in terms of politics only, or oil supply, or nuclear development in relation to how this is good or bad or not for the West (i.e., the U.S.) – the energy depletion problems get swept under the carpet. One of the benefits of Iran developing their own nuclear technology, of course, is that it would also enable them to wean themselves off such heavy oil consumption – and that would be good for the whole world. But we don’t hear that side of the story, either – at least not on any front pages.
From Shorter Showers To Self-Reliance and World Peace
I think it’s good to heed Jeff Rubin’s observations – while we can only control our own individual energy and water usage, it helps to be thankful for the resources we do have in North America and the West more generally, and to realize that these all come at a price. The mere fact that we have so much access to freshwater that doesn’t require extra oil energy for processing is a blessing in itself.
What this tells me is that “being green” isn’t just about being a moral citizen. It’s not advisable simply for ethical reasons. It’s seriously practical. And, potentially, political, as the world’s resources might dry up sooner than some are expecting. If Canada and the U.S. – as well as Europe and Asia – can become more energy efficient sooner rather than later, it will also be a great boon to political stability and sovereignty. Self-reliance has meaning at the national and international levels, too.
You might also like to read what I recently wrote about this topic:
Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller
10 Fast Facts About The World’s Declining Oil Supply
Where the U.S. Gets Its Oil (can you guess the top 5 countries oil is imported from?)
The OPEC Oil Consumption Cycle and the Dangers of Cheap Energy
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