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Lecture: 'The Well and the Water Machine: The History of Desalination and Fossil-Fueled Water in the Long Shadow of Arabia’s Climate-Altered Future' - UNC Global

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Lecture: ‘The Well and the Water Machine: The History of Desalination and Fossil-Fueled Water in the Long Shadow of Arabia’s Climate-Altered Future’

October 18, 2021 at 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm

It is an undisputed truism that the story of the 20th-century Arabian Peninsula is synonymous with the story of oil. Particularly after the 1973 oil crisis, exploding oil prices launched the region into significant socio-economic transformations. And while oil infrastructure has rightfully been understood as the lifeblood of this growth, another infrastructure remained virtually invisible, desalination facilities.

Despite this seeming invisibility, desalination has become a defining material feature of life in the Arabian Peninsula. Since the 1970s and even before, oil and water production have become inextricably linked. Not only have oil revenues subsidized low water prices, oil itself has become the key ingredient running the desalination process. Partly as a result of the carbon-intensive nature of desalination, Gulf kingdoms are the world’s leading per-capita consumers of oil and water. However, this energy-intensive solution to the problem of water scarcity depends on the conceit that oil production will indefinitely keep pace with the development it has enabled. But, unlike the technopolitical alchemy of turning crude oil into government revenue, the desalination of water has fostered an even deeper infrastructural dependency.  Desalination infrastructures have allowed Gulf states to imagine their water supplies as infinite. Despite their recognition of a looming post-oil future, Gulf monarchies continue to reassure their subjects that carbon-centric lifestyles will endure. Moreover, both in the Gulf and more globally, desalination is often positioned as a “green” solution despite its energy-intensive nature.


Michael Christopher Low is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Iowa State University. Since 2020, Prof. Low has devoted his attention to a project focused on water production, desalination, energy, and climate change in the Arab Gulf, and the Middle East more broadly. Exploring the environmental impacts and energy requirements of desalination, his work presses the question of how to move towards more sustainability ways of water provision, especially at a time when the effects of climate change and energy scarcity are adding to concerns about water scarcity.


Sponsored by the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies. Co-sponsored by The Water Institute at UNC and the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies. For more information, please contact


October 18, 2021
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
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UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies