Global food shortages have placed the Middle East and North Africa in a quandary, as they are forced to choose between growing more crops to feed an expanding population or preserving their already scant supply of water.
For decades nations in this region have drained aquifers, sucked the salt from seawater and diverted the mighty Nile to make the deserts bloom. But those projects were so costly and used so much water that it remained far more practical to import food than to produce it. Today, some countries import 90 percent or more of their staples.
Now, the worldwide food crisis is making many countries in this politically volatile region rethink that math.
The population of the region has more than quadrupled since 1950, to 364 million, and is expected to reach nearly 600 million by 2050. By that time, the amount of fresh water available for each person, already scarce, will be cut in half, and declining resources could inflame political tensions further.
"The countries of the region are caught between the hammer of rising food prices and the anvil of steadily declining water availability per capita," Alan Richards, a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said
Losing confidence in world markets, these nations are turning anew to expensive schemes to maintain their food supply.
Djibouti is growing rice in solar-powered greenhouses, fed by groundwater and cooled with seawater, in a project that produces what the World Bank economist Ruslan Yemtsov calls "probably the most expensive rice on earth."
Several oil-rich nations, including Saudi Arabia, have started searching for farmland in fertile but politically unstable countries like Pakistan and Sudan, with the goal of growing crops to be shipped home.
"These countries have the land and the water," said Hassan Sharaf Al Hussaini, an official in Bahrain's agriculture ministry. "We have the money."
In Egypt, where a shortage of subsidized bread led to rioting in April, government officials say they are looking into growing wheat on two million acres straddling the border with Sudan.
Economists and development experts say that nutritional self-sufficiency in this part of the world presents challenges that are not easily overcome. Saudi Arabia tapped aquifers to become self-sufficient in wheat production in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the kingdom had become a major exporter. This year, however, the Saudis said they would phase out the program because it used too much water.
"You can bring in money and water and you can make the desert green until either the water runs out or the money," said Elie Elhadj, a Syrian-born author who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the topic.