Saudi Arabia: Poor irrigation practices is causing water scarcity

The following is an excerpt from my research article in 2018. The theme was “Water as a human right”. Featured image photograph by Tomasz Filipek on Unsplash.

Irrigation involves delivering water to crops in order to maximize crop production (Sentlinger 2018). Having an irrigation system is critical for sustaining agriculture as rainfall is seasonal, or even sparse, in many places (Rutledge et al. 2011).

Aquifers is a source where water is tapped for irrigation. Some aquifers replenish very slowly and therefore are considered a non-renewable resource (Wright 2017). An individual’s daily water intake of 2 to 4 liters, but the food we consume requires 1000 times as much water to produce (Water and food security 2014).

The expanding use of irrigation is depleting aquifers, which in turn decreases the amount of global freshwater available for drinking and hygiene purposes (Rutledge et al. 2011). The natural resource of water is clearly exploited in an unsustainable manner.

In Saudi Arabia, at least 5 trillion gallons of water is pumped annually since the 1990s. There was no limit implemented to prevent landowners from extracting water in aquifers to irrigate their fields (DeNicola et al. 2015). Drinking water and irrigation draws water from the same source: groundwater from aquifers.

The matter is made worse as Saudi Arabia is a water-scarce nation with little annual rainfall (DeNicola et al. 2015). Poor communities in the country are the first to suffer as they would not be able to afford to buy water if water becomes increasingly scarce.

The government holds the authority over how the country’s natural resources are used, but they are giving priority to large-scale agriculture and the export of crops for the benefit of the economy and to meet the global growing demand for food. Groundwater scarcity is now linked to the global food trade, in which irrigation plays a significant role in production (Dalin et al. 2017).

The utilitarian approach adopted by the government ensures that food supply is secure, but it has overlooked water distribution and availability. Poor irrigation practices are causing the problem of water scarcity, which in turn is depriving people of their rights to clean water for life and basic sanitation.


Dalin, C, Wada, Y, Kastner, T, & Puma, MJ 2017, ‘Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade’, Nature, vol. 543, no. 7647, pp. 700-704.

DeNicola, E, Aburizaiza, OS, Siddique, A, Khwaja, H, & Carpenter, DO 2015, ‘Climate Change and Water Scarcity: The Case of Saudi Arabia’, Annals Of Global Health, vol. 81, no. 3, pp. 342-353. 

Rutledge, K, McDaniel, M, Boudreau, D, Ramroop, T, Teng, S, Sprout, E, Costa, H, Hall, H & Hunt, J 2011, Irrigation, National Geographic, viewed 15 September 2018, <;.

Sentlinger, K 2018, Water Scarcity And Agriculture, The Water Project, viewed 15 September 2018, <;.

Water and food security 2014, UN, viewed 17 September 2018, <;.

Wright, E 2017, Irrigation and Groundwater Depletion, NASA Scientific Visualization Studio, viewed 16 September 2018, <;.

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