Opinion from global food and drink experts, Zenith Global

Middle East water export bans and the future

January 9th, 2013 | Posted by Ric Horobin in Environmental | Society | Water

Last year I discussed the water export bans from UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman. At BevME in December, I took that theme further and gave a presentation on my view of what the future holds. Here’s a summary:

There have been bans on exporting water from Saudi Arabia and UAE since September, and there is also now a ban on exporting produce grown in open fields from Saudi Arabia. I think this gives an indication of what the future holds.

Water exports are obvious. You can actually see the water leaving the country. The term ‘virtual water’ is now often used to describe the water used in the production of a product, and this is much less obvious. The virtual water in a tomato, for example, is not just the water physically in the fruit as it is exported, which is small. It includes all the water used to irrigate the tomato field which is lost through evaporation. A very rough back of the envelope estimate is that a single tomato can contain up to 13 litres of virtual water. So, the impact of ceasing exports of just a single tomato is that 13 litres of water are available for another use.

I believe that decisions like this will be made more and more often, particularly in Middle East where most countries are in the top 20 ranking of water stressed countries. It is not straightforward to calculate the virtual water content of individual products, but what is clear is that countries like Saudi Arabia are taking the issue of water seriously. At the Saudi Water and Power Forum in Jeddah last December, there was even discussion about stopping centre pivot irrigation systems. The impact on food production would be significant. The very fact that such a debate is being held gives some indication of the pressures on groundwater in this rapidly developing and arid region.

Dr Ric Horobin

Water & Environment Director at Zenith International

I’d love to hear your comments and views. Follow me on twitter @riczenith.

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