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The Mirage of Arab Food Self-Sufficiency

 

Introduction

 

Foodstuffs are an encapsulation of water. Food is virtual water. Generally, 1,300 tonnes of water [1,300 cubic meters (m3)] are needed to produce a tonne of wheat, 15,500 m3 for a tonne of red meat, 6,100 m3 for a tonne of sheep meat, 3,900 tonnes for a tonne of chicken meat, 3,400 m3 for a tonne of rice. A slice of bread requires 40 litres (kilograms) to produce; a cup of tea, 30 litres; a cup of coffee, 140 litters; an apple, 70 litres; and a glass of beer, 75 litres.

 

An individual requires one cubic meter of drinking water per annum, between 50 m3 and 100 m3 for domestic uses, and about 1,000 m3 of water to raise the food requirement of that individual.[i] On a macro level, a country of, say, one million in population needs one billion m3 of water and suitable land to produce its food requirements.

 

Typically, a country allocates around 90 per cent of the water it uses to food production.[ii] The water can either be harvested from rainfall, rivers, and ground aquifers and/or imported from the international markets in the form of virtual water.

 

The composition of diet determines the volume of water embedded in the food an individual consumes. The more meat in a diet, especially red meat, the more water would be consumed.

 

The mirage of food self-sufficiency in arid and semi arid lands

 

Food self-sufficiency in the arid and semi-arid Arab countries is wishful thinking, not reasoned strategy. Rapidly growing populations and insufficient water resources make food self-sufficiency in the Arab world a mirage. Notwithstanding, Arab rulers turned food self-sufficiency into a sacrosanct national security mantra.

 

Behind the obsession with food independence, particularly in the oil exporting Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, is the fear that grew since the mid-1970s that the United States might use the food weapon to retaliate against the 1973 use by GCC states of the oil weapon. The notion was proposed by some Washington politicians and seized upon by the media. Smelling commissions and the riches to come Arab politicians, agri-equipment distributors, and investors exaggerated the fear. Multi-national agri-business manufacturing companies, sensing lucrative business opportunities were eager to help their Arab clients turn the desert green in the biggest white elephant projects ever.

 

Food is neither the only nor the most effective weapon to use against GCC states. They import not only wheat, but also every other essential product imaginable. More effective than wheat would have been the threat to stop the supply and maintenance of desalination plants, military hardware and spare parts, pharmaceuticals, hospital equipment, and the myriad of other essential products that flood Arab markets.

 

Except for Iraq, which has 22% more agricultural water than it needs to feed its population of 32 million and for Sudan, which is able to just feed its population of 35 million all other Arab countries cannot meet their food needs. Arab governments supplement domestic food production with virtual water imports from the international markets, quietly, as if to disguise from the masses their failure to achieve the promised food independence strategies.

 

The following table shows Arab countries’ food self-sufficiency ratios and virtual water imports in recent years.

 

Table 1. Food self-sufficiency ratios and virtual water imports in Arab countries

 

Country (1)

Population (million) (2)*

Water needed for food

(Billion

m3)

(3) = (2) x 1,000

Fresh water withdrawal

(Billion m3)

(4)*

Water available for agriculture (%)*

(5)**

Agri-water use (billion m3)

(6) = (4) x (5)

Food self-sufficiency ratio (%)

(7)=(6)/(3)

Virtual water import ratio (%)

(8)=100%-(7)

Algeria

38 Mil.

38 Bil.

6.07 Bil.

65%

3.95  Bil.

10%

90%

Bahrain

1.28

1.28

0.3

75

0.225

18

82

Egypt

85

85

68

86

58.7

69

31

Iraq

32

32

42.7

92

39.3

122

-

Jordan

6.5

6.5

1.01

75

0.757

12

88

Kuwait

2.7

2.7

0.44

52

0.23

9

91

Lebanon

4

4

1.38

67

0.925

23

77

Libya

6

6

4.27

83

3.54

59

41

Morocco

33

33

12.6

87

10.96

33

67

Oman

3.15

3.15

1.36

90

1.23

39

61

Qatar

2

2

0.29

72

0.21

10

90

Sudan

35

35

37.3

97

36

104

-

Tunisia

10.8

10.8

2.64

82

2.16

20

80

Saudi Arabia

26.9

26.9

17.3

89

15.5

57

43

Syria

23

23

13

95

12.35

55

45

UAE

5.47

5.47

2.3

68

1.56

29

71

Yemen

25.4

25.4

6.6

95

6.3

25

75

* Source:https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html

** Excluding rainfall.

 

 

The table shows that food self-sufficiency in the Arab world is low. It ranges from 9% in the case of Kuwait to 69% in Egypt. Between the two countries, the ratio in Algeria is 10%, Yemen; 25%, Morocco; 33%, and Syria; 55%. Said differently, Kuwait imports from the international food markets 91% of its needs, Algeria; 90%, Yemen; 75%, Morocco; 67%, Syria; 45%, and Egypt; 31%. While it is easy for GCC states to pay for food imports, as well as frivolous luxuries, it is dauntingly challenging for their non-oil exporting brethren to find the foreign currencies to pay for wheat imports.

 

Table 1 raises three observations. First, food self-sufficiency ratios would be lower if the water allocated to cotton growing in countries like Egypt, Sudan, and Syria is taken into account. Second, future population growth would lower food self-sufficiency and raise food imports. Third,global warming could lower the region’s water availability and, consequently, food production.

 

In what follows, water and food issues in two major Arab economies will be discussed. The first is Saudi Arabia’s wasteful experiment in desert irrigation. The second is Egypt’s perilous hydropolitics.

 

Saudi Arabia’s wasteful experiment in desert irrigation

 

Following the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973, Saudi Arabia embarked upon an astonishing project to attain wheat independence. Despite the absence of rainfall in the desert and the country’s scant history in settled farming, Saudi investors were induced by spectacularly huge government subsidies to import all that’s needed to attain food self-sufficiency from water well drilling rigs, center-pivot irrigation systems, seeds, fertilizers, pumps, tractors, harvesters, to the engineers, mechanics, drivers, even menial jobs. Between 1980 and 1992, wheat production in the searing desert grew 29-fold to 4.1 million tonnes;[iii] making Saudi Arabia the world's sixth-largest wheat exporter.

 

The project was expensive in financial and water terms. Between 1984 and 2000, about $100 billion were spent on wheat growing.[iv]And, between 1980 and 1999, 300 billion cubic meters, the equivalent to six years flow of the Nile River into Egypt was used.[v] According to estimates by the Saudi Ministry of Agriculture and Water, two-thirds of the water was thought to be non-renewable.[vi]At this rate, the non-renewable aquifers will eventually get depleted. When that happens nature will reclaim the desert again, causing the farms to be abandoned, investments lost, and expatriate workers returning home.

 

Sustainable food independence is impossible for a country like Saudi Arabia. With a population of 27 million, it requires about 27 billion m3 of water annually to grow its food needs. But, the country pumps 15.5 billion m3 for agriculture, or 57%. The remaining 43% is imported from abroad in the form of virtual water.

 

Indeed, on January 8, 2008, the Saudi wheat self-sufficiency fable came to an end. Starting 2008, the agriculture and finance ministries announced that purchases of wheat from local farmers would be reduced by 12.5%, with the aim of relying entirely on imports by 2016.

 

With this profligate project, Saudi Arabia demonstrated that money and water could make the desert bloom until either the money or the water runs out.The project will leave a footnote in Saudi Arabia’s history. It will tell the story of the generation that wasted tens of billions of dollars and the country’s finite non-renewable water inheritance on the fruitless mirage of making the desert bloom and in so doing squandered the water endowment of their grandchildren without regard to posterity.

 

 

Egypt’s perilous hydropolitics

 

With a population of 85 millions, a quarter of the Arab world’s population, Egypt requires 85 billion m3 of water annually to grow the food it requires. However, Egypt’s available water for agricultural is estimated at 59 billion m3, or a food self-sufficiency ratio of 69%. The remaining 31% of the country’s food need is imported from abroad. Egypt, with 10 million tonnes of wheat imports annually in recent years is the world biggest. If Egypt’s cotton water use is accounted for, its ratio of food self-sufficiency will decrease and food imports will increase.

 

Egypt’s huge dependency on water from the River Nile for food production exposes its national security to serious danger. The entire river’s water originates outside Egypt’s borders. It flows via Sudan from Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Eritrea. Future irrigation projects in these countries, especially in Ethiopia, could expose Egypt’s food security to further danger.

 

Ethiopia provides two thirds of the Nile’s flow to Sudan and Egypt  (55 billion m3 annually out of the 84 billion m3). With a population nearly the size of Egypt’s population and only 200,000 in irrigated hectares out of a potential 3.7 million hectares Ethiopia can pressure Egypt’s economy should its government decide to irrigate even a small proportion of its irrigable land. Irrigating 500,000 hectares, for example, would reduce the flow of the Nile to Sudan and Egypt by about 6.25 billion m3 per annum.[vii]

 

Exacerbating Egypt's food deficit is its rapidly growing population, expected to reach 123 million by 2050.[viii] Worrisome, as well, is the potential effect of global warming on reducing the flow of the Nile from less rainfall and increased evaporation. Facing this grim reality, Cairo has threatened its upstream riparians with war if they build irrigation projects.

 

War need not be started over water disputes. Money buys from the international markets all the food a country might need, if that country has the money.

 

The Cairo government should not allow a drop in the Nile’s waters to become a matter of life or death to Egyptians. To meet the challenge of population growth and a possible future drop in the Nile’s waters Egypt ought to shift its investment focus from irrigation and land reclamation to expanding its service industries and increasing the export of low water-using manufactured goods in order to import high water-using foodstuffs. In Singapore, for example, the contribution of agriculture to GDP is zero.[ix] Singapore imports its entire food need by exchanging export proceeds from electronics and other low-water using manufactured goods for foodstuffs.

 

Efficient allocation of scarce resources

 

Investment in irrigation and land reclamation, like investment in any other project should be decided on rate of return criterion with full costing of water that ensures maintaining the quantity and quality of the aquifers and accounting for the negative and positive externalities of production and consumption.

 

Rate of return criterion allocates scarce national resources to more rewarding projects for the country as a whole, not to any one segment of society, farmers, for example, at the expense of the other segments. Other approaches are inefficient because of the ethical and ideological biases and the narrow personal interests that cloud decision makers’ judgement.

 

Why do Arab regimes pursue unsustainable irrigated agriculture?

 

Pursuing food independence in Arab countries is an extreme case of a politically determined ecological policy with the negative tendencies of a poorly informed elite.

 

Until the Arab Spring brought hopeful budding signs of democratic rule, governance in Arab countries has been absolute, non-representative, and non-participatory. Such a system cannot balance environmental, economic, and social issues sustainably. Without separate legislative, judicial, and executive powers along with a free press and egalitarian non-governmental organizations economic efficiency will not materialize.

 

Presided over by a king or a president, Arab ruling polity is composed of a narrow coalition of the ulama, business tycoons, the military, and tribal leaders (in the Arabian Peninsula) with national decision-making being the preserve of the ruler and a coterie of his close family members.

 

In return for their loyalty and blind obedience, the ruler ensures that members of the ruling group are well rewarded. He enacts labor and financial laws to profit them. He allows ruling group to violate the law with impunity. Absence of transparency and accountability yields enormous riches and rampant corruption. Self-enrichment and corruption are a part of the glue that keeps Arab dictatorial power pyramids together. Patron-client relationships cascade down from the ruling families through the ruling groups to the rest of the populace. Perpetuating such structures are the poverty and/or religious devoutness that grip the Arab masses.

 

These characteristics are incorporated in the scores developed by The World Bank Group on Worldwide Governance Indicators. As a guide to the quality of Arab governance just described, which determined Arab rulers water politics, three of the six governance dimensions would be illuminating. These are presented in Table 2.

 

Table 2. Scores achieved in 2011 and 1996 by Arab countries in three areas of governance indicators

 

Country

Voice and Accountability

           Rule of Law

   Control of Corruption

2011

1996

2011

1996

2011

1996

Algeria

-1.03

-1.27

-0.82

-1.19

-0.57

-0.48

Bahrain

-1.17

-0.74

+0.35

+0.04

+0.23

+0.17

Egypt

-1.13

-0.76

-0.42

+0.05

-0.68

-0.07

Iraq

-1.13

-1.96

-1.50

-1.51

-1.22

-1.53

Jordan

-0.88

-0.17

+0.24

+0.28

+0.04

-0.12

Kuwait

-0.54

-0.20

+0.50

+0.60

+0.07

+0.72

Lebanon

-0.41

-0.29

-0.68

-0.24

-0.91

-0.47

Libya

-1.57

-1.40

-1.16

-1.06

-1.31

-0.78

Morocco

-0.71

-0.36

-0.21

+0.24

-0.26

+0.33

Oman

-0.99

-0.52

+0.63

+0.69

+0.08

+0.04

Qatar

-0.96

-0.69

+0.78

+0.09

+1.02

-0.09

Sudan

-1.71

-1.89

-1.26

-1.63

-1.30

-1.28

Tunisia

-0.37

-0.90

-0.10

-0.04

-0.21

+0.55

Saudi Arabia

-1.84

-1.41

+0.07

+0.25

-0.29

-0.64

Syria

-1.74

-1.59

-0.66

-0.42

-0.97

-0.24

UAE

-0.98

-0.40

+0.46

+0.69

+1.08

-0.09

Yemen

-1.35

-0.68

-1.25

-1.35

-1.18

-0.35

Source: The World Bank Group, The Worldwide Governance Indicators.

http://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/sc_chart.asp

 

Noteworthy, are the generally low scores achieved, particularly in “voice and accountability” and the deterioration that took place over the 15 years between 1996 and 2011 in most scores, particularly, again, “voice and accountability”. Voice and accountability is defined as the extent to which a country's citizens are perceived as being able to participate in selecting their government, as well as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and a free media.

 

Under such poor governance conditions, politically determined agendas dictate how scarce economic resources are allocated. These agendas are based on narrow rather than collective interests and on subjective rather than objective criteria or scientific analysis. Self-interest is the main motivator in governmental policy-making, not the collective good, not the welfare of society. White elephant schemes, which are unsound economically and environmentally, are attractively packaged to resonate with nationalistic slogans and rhetoric. Government controlled media at home and well-rewarded media barons abroad compete in hailing the foresight and wisdom of their benefactor behind every unsustainable white elephant extravaganza.

 

 
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[i] Tony Allan, The Middle East Water Question Hydropolitics and the Global Economy (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000), p. 6

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Elie Elhadj, Experiments in Achieving Water and Food Self-Sufficiency in the Middle East: The Consequences of Contrasting Endowments, Ideologies, and Investment Policies in Saudi Arabia and Syria. A Ph.D. dissertation, London University, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), 2006, p. 77.

[iv] Elhadj, Experiments in Achieving Water and Food Self-Sufficiency in the Middle East, pp. 81-82.

[v] Ibid., p. 83.

[vi] Altakhis, Ali bin Saad; Vice Minister, Ministry of Agriculture and Water Affairs of Saudi Arabia. The future of Water Resources in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a paper presented at a Ministry of Planning conference in Riyadh (October 19 – October 23, 2002) entitled “Future Vision for the Saudi Economy 2020.” p. 3.

[vii] J. A. Allan (1996) "The Nile Basin: Water Management Strategies," and "Development Policies for Harmonized Nile Waters Development and Management," in The Nile: Sharing a Scarce Resource, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 299-301 and 385-393.

[ix] Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Singapore,

 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sn.html