Saudi Arabia Mulls Water Imports from Sudan

A recent study recommends Saudi Arabia to import water from Sudan.

It was “drafted ahead of the upcoming 6th Riyadh Economic Forum, [and] urged the Ministries of Agriculture, Water and Electricity to approach the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to work out international agreements for the import of water and to ensure rights.”

Plans to import water from Egypt, Iraq or the mountains of Turkey go back to the 1950s in Saudi Arabia (see Oil for Food p. 69). In the 1970s a Saudi prince even wanted to tow icebergs from Antarctica.

Such plans never materialized for various reasons. Some of them technical (icebergs melt when transported to lower latitudes……), some of them economic (costs forĀ  water transportation are high), some of them strategic (Saudi Arabia was afraid that a water pipeline form Turkey might be vulnerable to disruptions, preferring desalination instead).

Sudan will have maxed out its allocation quota of the Nile water sharing agreement of 1959 when it will have finished its current dam program towards the mid of the decade (see Oil for Food, ch. 6). The agreement is openly questioned by Ethiopia and other sub-Saharan riparians who do not have any water allotment. Three quarters go to Egypt, one quarter to Sudan.

High leakage losses of 30-40% along the water pipeline that leads from the Gulf to Riyadh do not bode well for any pipeline from Sudan that would span even larger distances. Add Sudan’s lacking infrastructure, notorious corruption and political instability and you might call water transportation the crazy part of the paper. Much more reasonable parts call for a reduction of water subsidies and higher water tariffs.

At the end of the day Gulf food security is about food and hence virtual water trade rather than blue water trade. (See the recent Chatham House report for the food trade case). Ensuring trade routes and the ability to pay for food imports while downsizing domestic agriculture to be able to source blue water supplies locally would be the most realistic approach.