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Turning the Arabian Desert Green

The Saudi Initiative (SGI) plan was unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March 2021, seeksing to plant 450 million trees by 2030. The initiative seeks to halt desertification, preserve biodiversity and preserve limited water resources within this country.

Although the majority of Saudi Arabia’s terrain is covered by desert, a surprisingly large number of indigenous plant species are able to the harsh climate. Now, under the umbrella of the Saudi Green Initiative, efforts are underway to preserve, and even increase, the amount of vegetation across the Kingdom.

The SGI, announced in March 2021, is the largest the country has ever seen, with a target of planting 450 million trees by 2030. By the end of 2021, about 10 million trees had already been planted across all of the Kingdom’s
13 regions. When one thinks of Saudi Arabia, forests might not be the first type of ecosystem that springs to mind. However, the Kingdom has about 2.7 million hectares of woodland, primarily in the remote southwestern highlands of Abha and Asir. On the face of it, the goal of planting 450 million trees may sound ambitious, to say nothing of the planned greening of the desert, especially given the frenetic urban expansion the Kingdom is witnessing. But in fact, to counter the potential harm of urban sprawl, the Saudi government has set specific SGI goals to incorporate green spaces harmoniously into urban expansion, including parkland and afforestation within the limits of the Kingdom’s desert cities.

The greening of unmanaged surfaces within these cities will not only help to curb rising temperatures but also cut carbon dioxide emissions, improve air quality, provide opportunities for more active lifestyles, and beautify cities in a sustainable way. In more rural climates, meanwhile, the greening efforts have to work against encroaching desertification, limited water resources and record-high temperatures, all of which are thought to be the result of climate change caused by humans.

The SGI road map sets out to halt and reverse desertification and soil degradation, preserve the Kingdom’s unique biodiversity, and maintain limited water resources in a nation where rainfall in scarce and groundwater is being depleted.

Currently, Saudi Arabia has 15 areas that are protected because of their biodiversity; 12 areas on land and three of them are marine. The National Center for Wildlife proposes to increase that number to 75, 62 on land and 13 in coastal and marine areas.

The King Salman Royal Nature Reserve in northern Saudi Arabia covers about 6% of the Kingdom’s landmass. It includes mountain terrain, vast plains and high plateaus, and is home to about 300 animal species along with rare archaeological heritage sites, some dating back as far as 8,000 BC. The reserve’s management has recently planted 100,000 seedings with the help and participation of volunteers in partnership with Maaden, a joint effort by the reserve’s authority and partners to contribute to SGI’s goals.

Nevertheless, water remains a major challenge for conservation work and greening schemes in the Kingdom. Over the centuries, inhabitants of the Peninsula found ways to sustain life and survive droughts by digging freshwater wells. Over time, and in the wake of the Kingdom’s economic boom in the 1970s, Saudis turned to modern farming methods, increasingly tapping groundwater reserves.

Saudi Arabia and its journey to 10 billion trees – SGI is aiming to contribute to the largest afforestation project in the world. With no rivers or natural lakes, and very little annual rainfall to replenish sources, Saudi Arabia established seawater desalination plants in its eastern and western coastal areas to support inland cities. Nevertheless, the demand for freshwater is growing and natural aquifers are fast depleting.

The Saudi government is therefore exploring ways to preserve its water resources and use them more efficiently so that they can continue to meet the demands of a growing economy while also keeping green spaces well watered.

Given the Kingdom’s diverse topography, much will need to be done to restore arid or semi-arid lands, prevent soil erosion, retain water, farm using permaculture techniques, and plant vegetation that is tolerant of local conditions, including the growing threat of dust storms. Driven by necessity, Saudi Arabia is rethinking its water-conservation strategy. Given the ambitious goals of the SGI, a shift from irrigation with desalinated water to the use of treated water would be more appropriate due to of high energy demands of desalination.