"As we're thinking about the role of shale gas and oil fracking in the western United States, it would behoove us to keep in mind that this is a water-poor environment already," says Michael Christopher Low. "This incestuous relationship between oil extraction, water scarcity, and water quality is one that haunts us." Above, a water tower in Saudi Arabia. (Credit: edward musiak/Flickr)

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Is Saudi Arabia’s oil-water loop a warning?

Saudi Arabia’s search for water led to the discovery of oil. And that’s ironic, according to historian Michael Christopher Low, given the country’s current dependence on oil to produce drinking water.

Low, an assistant professor at Iowa State University who specializes in modern Middle Eastern and environmental history, says 15 percent of the oil Saudi Arabia produces is used to power its desalination facilities, which convert salt water into potable water.

“Without desalinization there is no possibility that any major cities in Saudi Arabia could exist,” Low says. “What happens if there is less oil in the future? The Saudis are completely dependent on oil for water. At what point will they not be able to devote those oil resources to run this energy-guzzling process just to create enough water, never mind the environmental consequences along the coasts?”

Saudi Arabia uses 15% of the oil it produces to power desalination facilities.

Low’s paper in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History highlights the precarious relationship between oil and water in Saudi Arabia—as well as the United States.

There are no simple answers to these questions that have global implications. Low says these are issues the United States must also consider as it explores alternatives to lessen dependence on foreign sources of energy. The cost of oil and oil extraction is often defined by gas prices, availability, or the impact on the economy, without much consideration of the environmental impact, Low adds.

“As we’re thinking about the role of shale gas and oil fracking in the western United States, it would behoove us to keep in mind that this is a water-poor environment already,” Low says. “This incestuous relationship between oil extraction, water scarcity, and water quality is one that haunts us. That’s one way to think about this issue.”

Cholera and the Hajj

Low’s essay traces the origins of desalination back to the 1890s, well before it became widely used in the 1970s. The Ottoman state developed the technology to meet the demand for clean water and limit the outbreak of cholera during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

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Insufficient efforts to repair the region’s 9th-century aqueduct system, and thin, desert water resources made desalination an attractive option.

Low is the first to translate the documents, written in Ottoman Turkish, outlining the prehistory of desalination in Saudi Arabia. His research of Ottoman Turkish, British and American Archives, as well as Arabic printed sources, illustrates how the push to expand the technology overshadowed environmental concerns. With the help of US geological and hydraulic expertise, Saudi Arabia now has more than 30 desalination facilities.

Double the salt

While the country could not survive without desalination, its history is a lesson for other countries. A new desalination plant in Carlsbad, California, is expected to start producing water by the end of the year. The US has had the technology available for decades, but Low says there are reasons for its relatively limited use.

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“Partly, because it’s expensive and it massively sucks up energy, so it’s polluting. The effect of the waste product, the excess saline, is also very damaging and detrimental to the coastline,” he says.

According to the project’s website, the wastewater from the treatment process has twice the salt content of seawater. This water will be discharged back into the ocean.

Florida is another consumer of desalination in the US. Low plans to explore the impact of desalination in the US in future work. In addition to the environmental lessons derived from Saudi Arabia’s large-scale dependence on desalination technology, Low wants his work to offer an alternative to how Middle Eastern states are traditionally defined.

“Saudi Arabia was not always a petro state. In the early stages, it was very much dependent on the pilgrimage and the health of the Hajj. It was the way Saudi Arabia gained its power and legitimacy,” Low says.

“I’m constantly pushing my students to think about how the Middle East and Islamic world functions and take it down to a granular level. To demystify the Islamic nature of these places and think of them as very much having the same kind of ecological, public health, and energy concerns as we do.”

Source: Iowa State University

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