LIANE HANSEN, host:
One of the biggest dairy farms in the world is in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert. It was founded decades ago when Arab countries wanted to become self-sufficient in food production. These days the question isn't whether or not to import food, but whether the farm's owners can continue tapping so heavily into a dwindling water supply. Kelly McEvers has more.
KELLY MCEVERS: It all started like this: The son of a king came to America to learn how to make milk in the desert.
Mr. RUSSELL WARDS (Manager, Al-Safi Dairy): He went to California, he saw some dairy farms there and he said, okay, I want one same as that, but I want two of them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MCEVERS: That's Russell Wards. He manages tens of thousands of cows here at the Al-Safi dairy - founded in the 1970s by Prince Abdullah bin Faisal.
Mr. WARDS: So he took the plans, basically, of a fairly sizable dairy farm from California, he came here and doubled it.
MCEVERS: At the time, oil prices were high, Saudi Arabia was booming. But its leaders also worried about fallout from the oil embargo in 1973 when Arab oil-producing nations temporarily stopped shipping crude to countries like the U.S. that supported Israel.
Mr. WARDS: While the rest of the world was dependent on oil, Saudi Arabia was dependent on food from the rest of the world. So they could actually be vulnerable to a food boycott.
MCEVERS: As America looked for ways to become more fuel independent, Saudis worked to become food independent - building massive grain and dairy operations like this one. They used oil-drilling technology to tap water aquifers deep beneath the desert.
Mr. WARDS: And this particular building has 1,680 animals.
MCEVERS: And we can see all these black and white heads poking out of these gates.
Now, much of that water gets sprayed directly onto the cows while they eat.
Mr. WARDS: Into the cooling fan we're actually injecting water. It's a fine mist of water.
MCEVERS: I can feel it.
Mr. WARDS: It's raining in here at the moment.
MCEVERS: These cooling systems were invented in Arizona. Here, where it gets up to 120 degrees in the summer, each cow uses about 30 gallons of water every day. That's for cooling and drinking and washing in the milking parlor.
There's constant, it seems like, hosing going down. Hosing off the walls, hosing off the floor. And then as the cows leave, there's another sprayer system that comes on and sprays out where they've been.
That's 30 gallons of water a day times 38,000 cows. Trouble is, the aquifer that first provided the water has run dry. So the Saudi government has ordered the grain industry - that's also dependent on this water - to be phased out completely by 2016. For now the dairies can continue. This dairy recently won approval to dig even deeper to a new water aquifer that's a full mile underground.
How much water's coming out of here per day?
Mr. WARDS: One thousand two hundred U.S. gallons per minute.
The other trouble is this aquifer could also run dry in just a few decades, and that's only if the current rate of water extraction doesn't increase.
'Cause, I mean, I have to say when you look at - and don't take offense to this - but you look at something like this and you kind of just go, why?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MCEVERS: Why use all this water when now it would be so easy to get it from somewhere else - the milk?
Mr. WARDS: It could be easier to get it from somewhere else.
MCEVERS: In fact, that's what many countries in this region are starting to do. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates are buying up huge tracts of land in places like Ethiopia and Sudan to grow food and produce milk. This, in places that often are unable to provide enough food for their own people. U.S. companies are buying up land, too, in China and Ukraine.
(Soundbite of cows)
MCEVERS: Which makes me think about the prince and his trip to America. I mean, everything about this dairy came from the U.S. - the technology, the cows themselves, even the semen used to fertilize these ladies once they're old enough. Turns out Saudi Arabia's learned a lot from America, not just how to drill for oil or drive SUVs or eat too much junk food, but the larger idea that you can do anything you want if you have enough time and money. When that system doesn't work, just throw it out and start a new one, no matter what the consequences.
(Soundbite of cows)
MCEVERS: For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers at the Al-Safi dairy in Al-Kharj, Saudi Arabia.
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