Saudi Arabia's Thirst

Saudi Arabia's Thirst


There are no rivers or lakes in Saudi Arabia.


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Over the past three decades, Saudi Arabia has been drilling for a resource more precious than oil. Engineers and farmers have tapped hidden reserves of water to grow grains, fruits, and vegetables in the desert. The series of false-color images above show the evolution of agricultural operations in the Wadi As-Sirhan Basin, as viewed by satellites in 1987, 1991, 2000, and 2012.

There are no rivers or lakes or areas of abundant natural vegetation because rainfall is scant to non-existent. Over the centuries, through oases and then desalination plants, the Saudi people have found enough water to support their daily lives. But a relatively recent national effort has brought changes to the desert and created much greater demands for water resources. Zooming in on certain areas shows that there are indeed regions of intense greenery that nature did not create.

From the sky, the Saudi landscape is checkered with green, showing farm fields made possible by irrigation. Enormous buildings nearby house tens of thousands of milk cows, whose drinking and cooling needs are prodigious. The water to perform these miracles in the desert is pumped from far below the surface, from aquifers filled thousands of years ago, when the climate in Saudi Arabia was much wetter. Water in this most improbable place gave the nation the hope to achieve its long-sought goal of feeding itself rather than importing food from other countries. However, this solution has a limited lifespan and the end is near.


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