Post-water CliFi — Los Angeles and Riyadh

NB: I wrote these four CliFi scenarios* in 2019 for a paper on life in a “post-water” world, but they had to go, so I am posting them here for your enjoyment (or horror). Please tell me what you think!

Scenario 3: Los Angeles loses its aqueducts

The City of Los Angeles imports about 90 percent of its drinking water via the Los Angeles, California and Colorado River aqueducts, which cross hundreds of kilome- ters of agricultural land on their way to the city (Lin, 2017). Although Los Angeles has been fighting others for decades over water rights, extractions and exports (Got- tlieb & FitzSimmons, 1991; V. Ostrom, 1953; Zetland, 2008), rights to these water sources are relatively secure. The story with conveyance is different because the aqueducts that bring water to Los Angeles could suddenly fracture as stress in- creases due to uneven ground subsidence caused by overdrafting groundwater. Let’s unpack that causal chain.

First, there’s a long history of California farmers using groundwater when surface supplies are absent or reduced due to a drought. In cases of “overdrafting” — using more water than is replaced by natural recharges — ground levels can subside as water is abstracted. In California’s Central Valley, many areas fell by 3–6m (with the extreme of 8.5m) between 1926 and 1970. In the past 50 years, there have been efforts to reduce overdrafting and subsidence (one persistent reason/excuse for importing more surface water to the region is to relieve pressure on aquifers), but normal and drought-response overdrafting continues to lower ground elevations. Between 1995–2010, the ground dropped by 22–60cm in the area through which the Colorado River Aqueduct passes (Sneed, Brandt, & Solt, 2014). In the southern Central Valley (through which the California Aqueduct passes), ground levels dropped by 12cm in most of the area between 2007–2010, with local extremes of 90cm (Faunt, Sneed, Traum, & Brandt, 2016).

Changes in ground elevations wreck havoc with water conveyance infrastructure that must be massive enough to carry large volumes of water but also precisely sloped to maintain flow. Chronic subsidence requires ongoing monitoring and maintenance, but all bets are off if there was an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, over which all three aqueducts (Lin, 2017) pass. A three-way failure would mean that Angelenos and the other 20 million residents of Southern California would lose 90 percent of their water supply.

Chaos would result. Although 50–70 percent of the the region’s residential drink- ing water is used for grass lawns and landscaping, it is hard to imagine people in the region coping, let alone cooperating. The first response — running the taps to fill bathtubs — would drain local and overwhelm pumps. Water distribution centers need to be numerous to prevent traffic jams that would result if the sprawl converged. These water troubles would be a lucky break. An earthquake is also likely to cause fires, and California is now said to have a “year-round” fire season (Economist, 2019).

Local water management institutions are somewhere between unprepared and lucky. They are unprepared with a system designed importing water, limited local storage capacities, and limited local supplies. Turning to local politics, it would take some time to agree on how to handle a crisis, given ongoing battles over everyday operations.

On the lucky side, people in Los Angeles and the area use vast volumes of water on landscaping, so a drastic cutback wouldn’t be too hard. Second, there is probably enough local storage to keep people going until emergency repairs of aqueducts were made. Finally, the earthquake would be during a rainy winter and not damage too much infrastructure.

In sum, Los Angeles is extremely vulnerable to the damages caused by overdraft- ing farmers whose consumption of a private good (irrigation water) is damaging the commons of the landscape. The city of Los Angeles and others in the region can probably get by if and when an accident happens, but they might be unlucky and pay dearly for ongoing poor management.

Scenario 4: Riyadh is stranded

The Saudi capital, home to at least 6 million people, gets half its water from desali- nation plants located nearly 500km away on the Persian (sometimes called Arabian) Gulf. The rest of the water comes from relatively local wells drilled deep into fossil (non-recharging) aquifers (Ouda et al., 2018). In the summer of 2027, demand for water is extreme due to average daytime temperatures of 36C, a culture of heavy water use, and population of over 8 million people. The Ras Al-Khair desalination plant (RAK) supplies 90 percent of Riyadh’s desalinated water due to the recent retirement of two older plants (Ouda et al., 2018), and SWCC (Saline Water Con- servation Corporation) is running it at full capacity in stifling heat, producing water that is raised 600m on its way to the thirsty distant capital. Groundwater pumps are working as usual, diverting their water into treatment plants whose potable water flows into one of the 50 storage tanks located around the capital (MEED, 2013).

Al Qaeda took these facts into account when planning their strike against the regime of King Mohammed Bin Salman, who has not only maintained diplomatic and military relations with the United States but also weakened the spiritual purity of his people. His reforms are not offensive because they allow women to drive, but because a majority of the population now goes to the movies instead of the mosque on Fridays. Donations have fallen as frivolous spending increases; Al Qaeda’s budget for justice is dropping.

The operatives work in five cells, unknown to each other. They have a date for action: August 15 2027, which is also the Prophet’s Birthday (Peace Be Upon Him). They have trained and prepared. They are ready.

In the early hours of the fifteenth, alarms sound in the RAK control center. Intake pipe #3 (out of 6) seems to be clogged at its mouth, which rests 30m below the gulf, 1.5km offshore. Control operators turn off pumps on #3 and order an inspection crew to go out. Due to the holiday, there are only two maintenance crews on hand, but this routine maintenance is not too difficult, so they leave shore within an hour. Just after 8am, and before that crew can report in, another alarm sounds as a cooling pump 22 shuts down after losing pressure. Perhaps a poor weld has burst due to load or heat. Roughly 15 minutes later, a radio cracks with static — someone from pumping station 4B is trying to get in touch. The control center staff, already distracted by two incidents, have a hard time understanding what the man is screaming, but they hear explosions and then static. Station 4B is 150 km away, on the pipe’s route to Riyadh. Pressure on line B drops to zero as the station goes offline. Only line A continues to operate, pumping water to Riyadh. Omar, the head of operations, suddenly realizes that the situation has exceeded the limits of bad luck. He triggers the emergency plan, which alerts the army, royal palace and SWCC staff that the Kingdom’s water is threatened.

Twenty minutes later, he’s still waiting for a response from the army, which attending upon a royal family pro-occupied with birthday festivities. The palace, likewise, is silent. His SWCC colleagues assure him that local storage is sufficient to meet demand while line B is repaired. Omar turns to report that news when two of his staff run up from opposite directions. “The maintenance crew was attacked by a drone on their way out to #3,” says one. “Their boat is on fire, and they have jumped into the sea.” The other man, barely listening to his colleague, says “we’ve also lost cooling on pumps 8, 17 and 32! Something is wrong with the systems. We’re losing capacity.” Omar flinches. The facility has multiple production units, but the leaks are scattered rather than concentrated. He tells the first one to call the navy. To the second, he says “reduce pressure — we need time to figure out what’s happening. Send out the other crew.”

Just then, the radio cracks to life. His colleague Dasan is calling from the capital. “Omar, we’ve got a real problem: Our storage tanks have been attacked by drones with explosive devices. We’re not sure which ones, yet, but we’re sending out crews.”

Just then, he gets a call from his wife. He doesn’t usually carry his personal phone at work, but his granddaughter is about to give birth any day. He picks up the phone: “Lala — I can’t speak now. We’ve—” She interrupts him: “Omar! Quick, look on Twitter!” He switches to his Twitter app and pales. The screen is filled with panic: #RiyadhDies and #poisonwater are trending in English and Arabic.

The loss of desalinated water supply, combined with mistrust of groundwater quality and ignorance of water safety (Alamri, 2019; Al-Omran, Al-Barakah, Al- tuquq, Aly, & Nadeem, 2015), leads to widespread panic. Tens of thousands flood hospitals and clinics with real or imagined sicknesses. Normal procedures grind to a halt. Over a hundred thousand cars flee the city. Thousands die in car accidents. Thousands drive into the desert to escape traffic jams, but their trust in GPS is defeated by sand washes and hidden cracks. Many stranded families die of thirst, clutching useless cell phones.

In the aftermath, over 50 officers and SWCC staff are arrested on the King’s orders. Five men are found guilty of “failure to protect the nation” and executed. Omar and Dasan are lucky to only be fired, in what the engineers call (under their breath) “Al Qaeda’s Plan B.” The death of 14,500 residents triggers an exodus of families from the capital to cities closer to reliable water supplies. By 2030, the capital’s population has dropped by 1 million, housing prices have dropped by 40 percent, and three-fourths of the staff of international firms have left the country.

These incidents are fictional, but not impossible. Riyadh’s vulnerability to sup-
ply disruptions is well known, as are its excessive demands (around 250 liters/capita/day) and 30 percent water losses (Ouda et al., 2018). Stress on this system will only grow worse as the capital’s population grows and temperatures rise. Riyadh will be able to manage its water with luck, but climate change will test that luck.

* CliFi (or Climate Fiction) draws on science fiction’s long tradition of thinking about possible future by combining human behavior with future technology. In the case of CliFi, the future “technology” is a changing climate, and these examples look into climate-related post-water shocks. I used this speculative method for two volumes of “CliFi” short stories [free to download] that I edited and published a few years ago.

  • Alamri, A. (2019). Water Usage and Human Health: A Preliminary Study in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Unpublished master’s thesis). Oregon State University.
  • Al-Omran, A., Al-Barakah, F., Altuquq, A., Aly, A., & Nadeem, M. (2015). Drinking water quality assessment and water quality index of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Water Quality Research Journal, 50(3), 287-296. 
  • Economist. (2019). Alaska hotshots. The Economist, 25 July.
  • Faunt, C. C., Sneed, M., Traum, J. A., & Brandt, J. T. (2016). Water availability and land subsidence in the Central Valley, California, USA. Hydrogeology Journal, 24(3), 675-684.
  • Gottlieb, R., & FitzSimmons, M. (1991). Thirst for Growth: Water Agencies as Hidden Government in California. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Lin, R.-G. I. (2017). California could be hit by an 8.2 mega- earthquake, and it would be catastrophic. Los Angeles Times, 8 Sep.
  • MEED. (2013). Riyadh plans water storage programme. Middle East Business Intelligence, 24 Apr.
  • Ostrom, V. (1953). Water Supply (Vol. VIII). Los Angeles: Haynes Foundation.
  • Ouda, O. K. M., Khalid, Y., Ajbar, A. H., Rehan, M., Shahzad, K., Wazeer, I., & Nizami, A. S. (2018, 02). Long-term desalinated water demand and in- vestment requirements: a case study of Riyadh. Journal of Water Reuse and Desalination, 8(3), 432-446.
  • Sneed, M., Brandt, J. T., & Solt, M. (2014). Land subsidence, groundwater levels, and geology in the Coachella Valley, California, 1993-2010 (Tech. Rep.). Reston, VA: U. S. Geological Survey.
  • Zetland, D. (2008). Conflict and cooperation within an organization: A case study of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Doctoral dissertation, UC Davis (Agricultural and Resource Economics). 

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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