Saudi Arabia reinforces water supply as food challenges mount

Significant ongoing population growth means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has had to be extremely diligent in managing food security and water supply. Water supply is not abundant in the region and the 2020 pandemic has hastened efforts to maintain water resources vital to the country’s agriculture and food.

The coronavirus has influenced a greater shift to food self-sufficiency, prompted by faltering global food supply lines.

Foreign land acquisition taking pressure of domestic water

Saudi’s ministry of agriculture is taking a multichannel approach to the problem. Most notably and even before this year’s disruption, the country was consistently purchasing land in other regions, where water is more plentiful. Riyadh-based Almarai, the world’s largest vertically integrated dairy company is making acquisitions wherever land is cheap and there are favourable water conditions to produce enough feed for its 365,000 cattle.

The company has acquired land as far afield as California for that purpose. It paid $31.8m for 1,790 acres of land in the Golden State as the optimal means of growing alfalfa for its cattle. The crop is grown using water diverted from the Colorado River, then sent back to Saudi for use by its vast herds. It helps avoid the excessive domestic growth of fodder crops that previously threatened the Kingdom’s scarce water capacity.

Agtech contribution to maintaining food-water balance

There is also a deliberate focus on agtech to get the best possible crop yields using the least possible amount of water. Last year, the output of tomatoes and cucumbers were up 50 per cent thanks largely to the proliferation of hydroponics, which uses 90 per cent less water than traditional methods.

Authorities, keen to maintain progress in this key area, are offering loans to cover a larger share of capital investments.

There is a considerable investment in other technological areas aimed at meeting policy requirements for sustainable water and food. In 2019, the kingdom invested $9 million in British agtech firm Hummingbird Technologies, which uses drones and Artificial Intelligence to produce high-resolution maps that help farmers forecast crop stress and predict yields.

Saudi Arabia water supply infrastructure investment

At the same time, the government is working hard not just to bolster agriculture but also to improve the entire infrastructure for water. In early November 2020, the Kingdom launched a new company, Water Transmission and Technologies Company (WTTCO), dedicated to the management and maintenance of water transmission, distribution and storage systems that span over more than 8,000 km and transmit more than 7 million cu m per day of desalinated water across the country.

Part of the Saudi 2030 vision, the mission of the new entity is to achieve higher efficiency and impact for the water sector while driving innovation in water technology and research. These lines will distribute more than 4 million cu m per day of desalinated water to communities and businesses throughout the kingdom. Saudi Arabia water supply will continue to be a serious concern in a country dominated by desert but this type of investment shows the government are not complacent in catering for the future.

Farrelly & Mitchell will launch its KSA Water Report, Getting the balance right: Water resources and food security in Saudi Arabia on the 24th November 2020 with an exciting live online panel discussion. Register now for the ‘Sustainable agribusiness in water-scarce Saudi Arabia Webinar’ for expert panel insights on a highly topical theme for agri-food interests.

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