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Neighbor, Can You Spare My Camel A Drink?

Gene Royer

Gene Royer is a staunch conservative. He is also a Policy Governance ® consultant and writer. He is the author of School Board Leadership 2000 - The Things Staff Didn't Tell You At Orientation and his international practice is based in Houston

Gene Writes:
August 30th, 2002

A wise man mused, why is the planet called Earth, when clearly it is water?

Lesser minds can easily see that if bread is the "Staff of Life", then surely water is the wellspring that sustains it. Without drinkable water, civilization ceases to flourish, and mankind becomes a brief entry on the fossil record.

Water has allowed man to exist in places where even lower-life forms fear to tread. More often as not, it is man's mobility--his ability to go to the water--which has sustained his species, as civilization has historically grown up around lakes, rivers and shorelines.

A questionable exception to this is Saudi Arabia, which lies in an arid area with severe climate conditions and an absence of permanent surface water such as rivers and lakes. Its rapid urbanization, industrialization and agricultural development since post WWII make water one of the most precious resources in the Kingdom.

But the Saudis took the Prophet to heart when he said, "If the mountain will not come to Mohammad, Mohammad will go to the mountain." In the absence of safe, potable water in the heartland, they have gone to the sea to get it.

As a result, the Saudi Kingdom relies on desalination to help meet the large demand it has for water, and it has become the world's largest producer of this valuable commodity, producing 30 percent of the world's capacity.

To meet this need, Saudi Arabia operates two-dozen desalination plants, mostly on the Red Sea. The water is transported by a network of pipelines, varying in diameter from 20 inches to more than six feet and extending some 1250 miles inland. Twenty-four massive pumping stations then dispatch it to storage in scores of huge reservoirs where it is then pumped and trucked throughout the Kingdom for consumer and commercial use. Nine of these desalination plants also produce electricity, generating 33 percent of the Kingdom's capacity.

At first blush it may seem that Saudi has it all together, using its vast supply of oil not only as a provider of wealth for its citizens, but also as fuel for its life-sustaining desalination industry (a full ninety-three percent of Saudi's population now has access to safe water). But a closer look reveals a festering economic and humanitarian carbuncle on the horizon.

They have been taking oil out of the ground over there since the 1930s, and the "vast" Saudi oil fields are now entering their eight decade of production. As a child in the late 1940s, I recall pictures in Life Magazine of Nomadic herdsmen sitting afar, shading their faces from the heat of huge gaseous flares. In "oil patch" terminology, this is "old oil". Moreover, much of the machinery and ancillary oilfield hardware is old technology, increasing the need for maintenance and replacement.

When one considers that America's own "Spindletop" and it liquid-gold brethren only yielded about 40 good years before sulfur and brine became the drillers' fare, it is not irresponsible to presume that the Saudi fields will very soon reach their point of decline. --If that point has not already come.

And then there is water.

Despite Saudi's investment in new and renovated desalination plants, the Kingdom is still not coping with its rising demand for water. What happens (for them) when the Saudi oil patch dries up? What will they use to fire the boilers of the water plants? What will drive the generators to bring the water inland? Oil they now sell in abundance and use without regard to its finite existence, will become more than a commodity of wealth and luxury. More than ever before, it will be a "spoils of war", as it represents a line to their element of life: Water.

Saudi's current population of 22 million can top 40 million by the year 2020, with two-thirds of those being below the age of 30. "Restless", is a word that quickly comes to mind. But *thirsty* is one that could likely
best describe it.

Some have speculated that the next big war will not be fought over oil, but water. Chemistry tells us water and oil don't mix, but the future could prove the two inseparable.
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"...Some have speculated that the next big war will not be fought over oil, but water..."

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