The Water-Energy-Food Nexus: Understanding Qatar’s Challenges for Achieving Food Security
By DeLaine Mayer
“We clearly needed more farms, more greenhouses, but what about water? So we desalinate seawater, but with what power? You don't want more global warming by using fossil fuels, so it has to be solar...Everything has to work together.”
– Fahad bin Mohammed al-Attiya, executive chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Programme
Qatar faces food and water vulnerability due to its arid climate and reliance on imports. Its status as one of the world’s richest countries puts it in a unique position to advance global knowledge on what is technologically possible to combat food and water insecurity. The Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP), established in 2011, has an ambitious mission: achieve a state of food security (“Qatar National Food Security Programme - QNFSP”) through four core objectives:
1) “Domestic agricultural reform;
2) Diversify trade and global investments;
3) Maintain reserves of food and water
4) Reform market governance” (Fahad and Al-Attiya).
In 2014, Qatar imported $3.08 billion worth of food goods, 10 percent of its total imports, and 90 percent of its food (“Qatar.” OEC). The Qatar National Food Security Programme is tasked with producing half of Qatar’s food locally by 2025, an ambitious goal for a country with no lakes or rivers and an annual rainfall of less than 3 inches (Baker). Fahad bin Mohammed al-Attiya, executive chairman of QNFSP, believes more desalination plants, solar power, energy efficient greenhouses, and social change towards an “agricultural renaissance” can help the Gulf state reach the goal of growing “five times the amount of produce on the same amount of land using 30% less water” (Baker). These innovative, and costly, national food security projects aim to increase production of local foods, and expand the state’s geological and geographic limitations. This paper will examine Qatar’s water resources, new desalination technologies, and food imports and production, highlighting opportunities and challenges to the success of the food security program.
Limited Water Resources
Qatar occupies a peninsula in the Persian Gulf off Saudi Arabia. It has an area of 11,437 square kilometers (4,416 square miles) and a coastline of 563 kilometers (345 miles) (“Qatar.” Nations Encyclopedia). Only 1.2 percent of that land is arable (“Arable land (% of land area)”). As previously mentioned, the country has no rivers or lakes, and has annual precipitation levels between 10-200 mm (0.4-7.8 in.) (Alsharhan, Nairn, Rizk, Bakhit, Alhajari). Qatar’s problems with water resources are not just due to natural circumstances; they’re compounded by human activity and rapid growth. For decades, farmers drew water from Qatar’s underground freshwater aquifers without regulation. Now, most of the aquifers are depleted, with recharge (replenishment from rainfall or runoff) occurring at a quarter of the rate that water is extracted (“Fahad Al- Attiya, Qatar National Food Security Programme - Hub Culture Interview at GGCS3”). Much of the groundwater that remains has high levels of salinity due to farming processes that create brine (saltwater), which is discharged back into the ground. This groundwater is then left unusable for farming (Darwish). Heavy water exploitation including high consumption due to government subsidization, underutilized wastewater, and high-energy use for desalination further contribute to the “demand gap” (Darwish). Today, Qatar has a 48-hour water supply, meaning a disruption of water extraction would quickly and negatively impact life in the country within two days from cessation of production (“The energy sector stays ahead of demand as Qatar increases capacity”). This context helps to explain Qatar’s push for desalination plants.
Half the water used in Qatar is desalted water (DW). As the population grows and standard of living rises, DW demand will also increase. “Per capita domestic water consumption is directly [proportionate] to the GDP per capita,” and both numbers are rising in Qatar (Darwish). Meanwhile, low water tariffs disincentivize consumer conservation, leading to increased water waste, which further burdens the demand for water. With water consumption on the rise, “new water has to fill the demand gap” and most likely, “the new water would be DW” (Darwish). But desalination is energy intensive and expensive; the cost of DW and the reliance on fossil fuel to produce it must be reduced for desalination to be sustainable (Darwish).
Globally, freshwater resources are “strained by population growth, development, droughts, climate change and more” (Bienkowski). For many countries, the best option for developing new water sources is through desalination, the removal of salt and minerals from saltwater for residential and agricultural purposes. Desalted water, however, has two significant costs: one, it’s financially expensive to produce, and two, it uses significantly more energy than water treatment. Powering the plant is approximately 55 percent of a desalination plants’ total operation costs; “three to 10 kilowatt-hours of energy [are needed] to produce one cubic meter of freshwater from seawater. Traditional drinking water treatment plants typically use well under 1 kWh per cubic meter” (Bienkowski). The image at right shows the typical operations and management cost breakdown of a desalination plant according to BioLargo, a technology production company working on issues related to water, agriculture, and energy (BioLargo).
Desalination refers to a number of different processes and technologies that purify water for human consumption. Any process requires energy, but the amount of energy needed varies based on the temperature and salinity of the water. Energy differences between processes is a result of the efficiency of the chosen process, not the minimum amount of energy required for desalination (which is the same regardless of the process) (“Energy Use”). Qatar’s three primary desalination plants use thermal technology to evaporate water and then cool it back to a purified, liquid state. A fourth thermal plant is currently being built. Qatar’s latest desalination contract, however, is for a $500 million reverse osmosis plant (Kovessy). Reverse osmosis is more efficient than thermal processes because the conversion of water to steam (a phase change) requires more energy than pumping seawater through a filtering membrane (“Energy Use”). These two new plants, one thermal and one reverse osmosis, will be responsible for producing slightly less than a quarter of the country’s current water production (Kovessy). In 2013, Qatar announced a 200-megawatt solar initiative, in a bid to recognize and implement its full solar energy potential, which equals 1.5 million barrels of crude oil annually. Nationally, “Qatar hopes to produce 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2024” (“Qatari government launches 200 MW solar initiative”).
This is all connected with the region’s tacit acknowledgement that, while oil may provide the necessary revenue for development, alternative, cleaner technologies are required for sustainable development. The oil-rich Arab Gulf states gain significant revenue from fossil fuels, but even the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters recognize a need for greater energy independence and global trends towards pro-renewables investments. Today, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest petroleum exporter, (“Saudi Arabia facts and figures”) is building the world’s first solar-powered reverse osmosis desalination plant in Ras Al Khafji, blending two resources and technologies that will be crucial to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states’ survival and development (Casey).
After water is desalted at a desalination plant, brine discharge is returned to the water source, creating different impacts depending on the kind of water source. Brine discharge is the “fluid waste...which contains a high percentage of salt and minerals” that were filtered out during desalination (Danoun). The impact of high levels of brine discharge in a return to a seawater source may change marine habitats due to the following constituents: high salt concentration, high alkalinity from increased calcium, temperature change due to the high temperature required in the desalination process, and toxic metals (if brine has contact with metallic materials). In a marine habitat, water salinity may influence some species positively and others negatively. Changes could influence the following: species’ development and reproduction, larval survival and life expectancy, population density, and reproductive traits (Danoun).
In aquifers, the impact of brine disposal has more immediate impact on the land and people relying on it for sustenance. Qatar’s dependence on groundwater aquifers has led to depleted resources. In an unfortunate cycle, “overdrawing from aquifers has increased soil salinity which, in turn, has reduced agricultural productivity and caused significant land degradation” (Ismail). Qatar’s pursuit for food self-sufficiency may have significant negative consequences on the country’s land and water quality in the future.
Reliance on Food Imports
Qatar’s push for food self-sufficiency despite the cost, technological challenges, and environmental impact comes from its vulnerability in its reliance on global trade. Political-, health-, and economic- related shocks in food-producing countries or at exporting ports cause supply- chain disruptions, which immediately impact food prices and access in Qatar. During the 2008 global food crisis for example, cereal, of which Qatar imports 99.5 percent, (Ismail) reached a price index 2.8 higher than in 2000, and remained 1.9 times higher in 2010 (The Global Social Crisis: Report on the World Social Situation 2011). In The Global Social Crisis, the United Nations describes several global trends in food production and consumption that, in the Qatari context, make local production that much more necessary: climate change is worsening desertification, leading to water-supply problems which impact nations’ ability to produce food. Growing populations and trends towards urbanization globally has reduced available farmland, which is increasingly used to produce non- food items, like biofuel. Soil quality has been declining after years of fertilizer misuse and monocropping. Underground aquifers and other freshwater sources are being depleted or compromised, and there are fewer transitional agribusinesses for production and trade, which places undue burden on small farmers and consumers (The Global Social Crisis: Report on the World Social Situation 2011).
Qatar’s geographic position in a geopolitically tense neighborhood also threatens its food supply. Most imports come through the Strait of Hormuz or across Qatar’s border with Saudi Arabia. The map above shows Qatar in relation to its neighbors and the Strait (Gladstone). Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz over oil embargos, and has continued to engage American ships and planes in “unsafe and unprofessional” ways in the Strait (Mills). The civil war in Yemen (located south of Oman and Saudi Arabia), fueled by tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia with support from Russia and the United States respectively, has led to an increased presence of militarized units in the Strait. Any disruption of food shipments to the Persian Gulf due to fighting or closure of the Strait would have an immediate impact on the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait (Ismail). Even if Qatar’s food self-sufficiency target is reached, 60 percent of its food will still be imported. Supply routes and suppliers should be diversified to reduce the shock of supply disruptions on food cost and accessibility (Ismail).
More than half of Qatar’s water, 60 percent, is used for irrigation of farmland, despite producing less than 10 percent of food consumed in country (Ismail). A trade-off analysis was conducted through the Valuing Vital Resources initiative of Chatham House, a British policy institute. The analysis highlights “the trade-off between increasing local food production and impacts on...water, energy, financial and land resources” (Mohtar). Using data on food production levels for eight food products, water and energy technologies and efficiencies, and crop yields from 2010 (the year the study was conducted), Chatham House reported that to achieve a 25 percent increase in the yield of the eight food products would “require 206% more water, 382% more land, over 200% more energy and emissions, and a 196% increase in financial resources” (Mohtar).
In 2008, Saudi Arabia discontinued its national project towards wheat self-sufficiency due to financial and environmental (mainly water) waste. Qatar faces similar risks (Ismail). Regardless, Qatar’s push for self-sufficiency is advancing global research and knowledge on what is possible with new technologies and sustained innovation. The issue of lack of clean water for municipal and residential purposes will only grow as the global population rises and resources are further strained. Desalination is and will be, for many around the world, the only option for sustained access to clean water. The question for Qatar is if the money and waste will be worth it, though they may have few alternatives.
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