Food and Water Shortages in the Middle East

Stephen DeAngelis

July 29, 2008

It doesn’t take an agronomist to know that growing food crops naturally is almost impossible in the desert. And it doesn’t take a sociologist to know that populations living in arid climates are likely to struggle to raise enough food to live. One would, therefore, surmise that people would shun such areas. Surprisingly, populations are growing in some areas where it is most difficult to grow food. This is particularly true in the Middle East according to an article in the New York Times [“Mideast Facing Choice Between Crops and Water,” by Andrew Martin, 21 July 2008]. He writes:

“Global food shortages have placed the Middle East and North Africa in a quandary, as they are forced to choose between growing more crops to feed an expanding population or preserving their already scant supply of water. For decades nations in this region have drained aquifers, sucked the salt from seawater and diverted the mighty Nile to make the deserts bloom. But those projects were so costly and used so much water that it remained far more practical to import food than to produce it. Today, some countries import 90 percent or more of their staples. Now, the worldwide food crisis is making many countries in this politically volatile region rethink that math.”

Humanitarian and development groups discuss all sorts “security” — human security, food security, military security, energy security and so forth. Each of those “securities” has a different set of challenges associated with it. Most of them, however, are dependent on basic security (i.e., relative peace and stability). Food security requires either the ability to grow and distribute all necessary foodstuffs within a country or region or the ability to reliably import food. As supplier countries begin to hoard foodstuffs for their own populations, the latter food source is looking less and less secure. That is the conundrum being addressed by Martin.

“The population of the region has more than quadrupled since 1950, to 364 million, and is expected to reach nearly 600 million by 2050. By that time, the amount of fresh water available for each person, already scarce, will be cut in half, and declining resources could inflame political tensions further. ‘The countries of the region are caught between the hammer of rising food prices and the anvil of steadily declining water availability per capita,’ Alan R. Richards, a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said via e-mail. ‘There is no simple solution.’ Losing confidence in world markets, these nations are turning anew to expensive schemes to maintain their food supply.”

In a recent post [The Future of Desalination], I discussed new research into desalination and how it has increased in importance as people realize that potable water is becoming a scarce resource. As climate change affects breadbasket nations, food is also becoming a source of concern.

“Djibouti is growing rice in solar-powered greenhouses, fed by groundwater and cooled with seawater, in a project that produces what the World Bank economist Ruslan Yemtsov calls ‘probably the most expensive rice on earth.’ Several oil-rich nations, including Saudi Arabia, have started searching for farmland in fertile but politically unstable countries like Pakistan and Sudan, with the goal of growing crops to be shipped home. … In Egypt, where a shortage of subsidized bread led to rioting in April, government officials say they are looking into growing wheat on two million acres straddling the border with Sudan.”

Of those strategies, the Saudi’s is probably the most risky. In times of shortage, it may prove difficult to get food out of countries like Pakistan even if it has been bought and paid for. Martin continues:

“Economists and development experts say that nutritional self-sufficiency in this part of the world presents challenges that are not easily overcome. Saudi Arabia tapped aquifers to become self-sufficient in wheat production in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the kingdom had become a major exporter. This year, however, the Saudis said they would phase out the program because it used too much water. … Egypt, too, has for decades dreamed of converting huge swaths of desert into lush farmland. The most ambitious of these projects is in Toshka, a Sahara Desert oasis in a scorched lunar landscape of sand and rock outcroppings. When the Toshka farm was started in 1997, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, compared its ambitions to building the pyramids, involving roughly 500,000 acres of farmland and tens of thousands of residents. But no one has moved there, and only 30,000 acres or so have been planted. The farm’s manager, Mohamed Nagi Mohamed, says the Sahara is perfect for farming, as long as there is plenty of fertilizer and water. For one thing, the bugs cannot handle the summer heat, so pesticides are not needed. ‘You can grow anything on this land,’ he said, showing off fields of alfalfa and rows of tomatoes and grapes, shielded from the sun by gauzy white netting. ‘It’s a very nice project, but it needs a lot of money.’ Mr. Mubarak calls his country’s growing population an ‘urgent’ problem that has exacerbated the food crisis. The population grows about 1.7 percent annually, considerably slower than a generation ago but still fast enough that it is on pace to double by 2050. Adding 1.3 million Egyptians each year to the 77 million squeezed into an inhabited area roughly the size of Taiwan is a daunting prospect for a country in which 20 percent of citizens already live in poverty.”

That’s the real dilemma in countries like Egypt — poverty keeps growth rates high and high growth rates exacerbate efforts to eliminate poverty. There is little debate about the fact that as populations become better educated and improve their quality of life that birth rates drop. Getting countries out of the poverty/growth rate trap, however, is extremely difficult. The irony for Egypt is that it will have doubled its population at precisely the moment in history where demographers now predict the earth will start depopulating — around 2050. The question is, where should countries like Egypt be focusing their economies?

“Economists say that rather than seeking to become self-sufficient with food, countries in this region should grow crops for which they have a competitive advantage, like produce or flowers, which do not require much water and can be exported for top dollar.”

That has always been the argument used by economists in support of globalization, but theory and practice have diverged, especially in the agriculture sector which is still rife with national subsidies. Rising oil prices also makes importing food more expensive. Martin reports that technology has a role to play and, if used wisely, may help the desert bloom profitably.

“For example, Doron Ovits, a confident 39-year-old with sunglasses pushed over his forehead and a deep tan, runs a 150-acre tomato and pepper empire in the Negev Desert of Israel. His plants, grown in greenhouses with elaborate trellises and then exported to Europe, are irrigated with treated sewer water that he says is so pure he has to add minerals back. The water is pumped through drip irrigation lines covered tightly with black plastic to prevent evaporation. A pumping station outside each greenhouse is equipped with a computer that tracks how much water and fertilizer is used; Mr. Ovits keeps tabs from his desktop computer. ‘With drip irrigation, you save money. It’s more precise,’ he said. ‘You can’t run it like a peasant, a farmer. You have to run it like
a businessman.’ Israel is as obsessed with water as Mr. Ovits is. It was there, in the 1950s, that an engineer invented modern drip irrigation, which saves water and fertilizer by feeding it, drop by drop, to a plant’s roots. Since then, Israel has become the world’s leader in maximizing agricultural output per drop of water, and many believe that it serves as a viable model for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Turning famine plagued countries into breadbasket countries would be a modern miracle. The experiences in Israel prove that it is possible — if expensive. The combination of drip irrigation and increased availability of water coming from desalination and treated waste water plants provides some hope.

“Already, Tunisia has reinvigorated its agriculture sector by adopting some of the desert farming advances pioneered in Israel, and Egypt’s new desert farms now grow mostly water-sipping plants with drip irrigation. The Israeli government strictly regulates how much water farmers can use and requires many of them to irrigate with treated sewer water, pumped to farms in purple pipes. It has also begun using a desalination plant to cleanse brackish water for irrigation. ‘In the future, another 200 million cubic meters of marginal water are to be recycled, in addition to promoting the establishment of desalination plants,’ Shalom Simhon, Israel’s agriculture minister, wrote via e-mail. Still, four years of drought have created what Mr. Simhon calls ‘a deep water crisis,’ forcing the country to cut farmers’ quotas.”

There is nothing like a crisis to get governments and other groups to make decisions that should have been made years before. It is simply the nature of politicians to delay painful decisions as long as possible. The irony in all of this is that if we figure out how to grow food in areas that are now almost entirely dependent on food imports then both food security strategies — domestic agriculture and food imports — become more viable. I suspect it will take a few more food and water crises to really capture the attention of politicians. Fortunately, research and development is continuing (with or without political support) in areas critical to mankind’s future.