This piece is part of Water Grabbers: A Global Rush on Freshwater, a special National Geographic Freshwater News series on how grabbing land—and water—from poor people, desperate governments, and future generations threatens global food security, environmental sustainability, and local cultures.
Wheat is irrigated in the Saudi desert with a roving sprinkler system. Finding enough land and water to support the eating habits of the world's seven billion people is no small task, so the Saudis, among others, have taken to greening the desert. Their efforts are turning once barren land into sprouting oases through the use of modern, yet potentially short-sighted, watering technologies and methods.
Although most of Saudi Arabia is sandy desert, the country was blessed with a massive underground aquifer.
(Related: "Saudi Arabia Stakes a Claim on the Nile.")
Forty years ago, that aquifer held 120 cubic miles (500 cubic kilometers) of water, enough to fill Lake Erie. But roughly four-fifths of that water has been pumped out for irrigation over the past few decades, based on extraction rates detailed in a 2004 paper from the University of London. There is little hope for replenishment from rainwater, which averages less than eight inches (200 millimeters) a year.
As a result of this dwindling supply and the high energy costs of drilling and pumping, the Saudi government has said irrigated wheat production should end by 2016. In order to feed itself, the Saudis are increasingly turning to agricultural holdings abroad.
(See more photos of how we move water around the world.)