Qatar’s Fresh Water Challenges

by  — 10 July 2012

As a small peninsula in one of the most dry and arid regions in the world, it is no secret that Qatar faces incredible challenges in securing fresh water for private and industrial usage. Barry Mansfield looks at what steps Doha is taking as well as the role of private business in tackling Qatar’s future water management issues.

With an average of around 80 millimetres a year, Qatar has one of the world’s lowest levels of rainfall. The Qatar National Development Strategy (QNDS) has admitted that the three key water sources on which Qatar depends – desalination, groundwater and recycled water – are under stress.

Qatar’s natural evaporation rate of 2000 millimetres puts it into a water deficit, while consumption and network leakage rates are staggeringly high. Per capita water use is one of the highest in the world, estimated at an average of 460 litres per day, according to the Permanent Committee on Water Resources. Though the Qatari government openly acknowledges the urgency of tackling water stress, a network of privately-owned enterprises, spanning multinationals to family-run start-ups, to lone entrepreneurs, is also looking to apply its talents and expertise to address the challenge this reality brings to the country.


Although by Q3 2011 the Qatar Electricity and Water Company had reached a water desalination capacity of 265 million gallons per day, Qatar still plans to invest heavily in further desalination facilities, with around US$16.8 billion (QR61 billion) in total slated for power and water supply schemes. According to Commercialbank Capital, Qatar’s likely spend in coming years for the water sector alone is US$6.9 billion (QR25 billion) and most recently as last year, three projects were awarded with a total value of US$362 million (QR1.3 billion).

There is no shortage of funds to spend, it seems, since the Qatar National Vision for 2030 identifies water stress as severely impacting on food security. Accordingly, Qatar has commissioned the US$3.9 (QR14 billion) Ras Girtas plant at Ras Laffan, which will produce 286,404 cubic metres (m3) per day of desalinated water. Qatar water and electricity utility Kahramaa has invested in water storage construction activity, undertaking a US$2.8 (QR11 billion) reservoir project capable of holding seven days’ worth of fresh water as a backup for desalinated water supply. The 1.9 billion gallon facility will include a network of reservoirs connected by a 183 kilometre, 2.5 metre wide pipeline linking the Ras Laffan desalination facility in Qatar’s north and the Ras Abu Fontas plant in the south.


Despite all these grand projects, problems remain and it has been felt that even these massive investments are a short-term fix. This is because in Qatar the absence of permanent surface water means that agriculture is almost entirely dependent on irrigation from pumped groundwater. It is estimated that Qatar’s aquifers will be depleted in 20 to 30 years at recent rates of withdrawal. International watchdog, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has predicted that with increasing urban and rural development, groundwater pollution (by nitrates) is a probability.

Analyst Dr. Charlie Beldon of United Kingdom (UK) risk assessment firm Maplecroft has emphasised the need for “a cohesive policy for water that involves all stakeholders and considers all sectors.” Thankfully, there are signs that the Doha government is beginning to prepare the groundwork for such a policy. For example, Qatar’s Ministry of Environment and the International Fund have recently chaired weeklong capacity building workshops for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

One of these events made headlines when development analyst Taysir Al Ghanem warned that 2025 could see annual per capita water supply standing at 500 m3, or 15 percent of what it was fifty years ago. “It is not an encouraging scenario, as five percent of the world’s population is in Arab countries – a region having less than one percent of global water resources,” he lamented. As for the dilemma facing the agricultural sector, Al Ghanem said that it consumed over 83 percent of the water in the region. He believes larger quantities of the clean water resources that are now used in agriculture should be diverted to cities for domestic consumption.


According to Torbjorn Soltvedt, Senior Middle East North Africa (MENA) Analyst at analyst Maplecroft, Qatar’s population grew faster than any other country in the world between 2007 and 2011, with the increase estimated at 9.6 percent, which exacerbates the problem. Qatar has relatively low water tariffs (free for Qatari households and low-cost for non-Qatari households), which recover less than a third of the cost of water production.

On the possibility of cutting water subsidies to reduce overall consumption, Soltvedt suggests, “potentially unpopular policies are unlikely to be given priority given the current emphasis on mitigating the risk of social discontent.” Instead, the Qatari government has resolved to improve awareness of water scarcity among young people, launching a campaign through the Water Interest Group of Qatar Green Building Council (WIG) to target students.

“We intend to prepare educational materials for students, ranging from kindergartens to universities, in consultation with agencies including UNESCO says WIG co-chairman Peter Neuschaefer. Leaflets or brochures are to be prepared explaining where the water used in Qatar originates from and how to conserve and recycle it. These will support the environmental principles outlined in the QNDS and complement national and regional efforts to utilise water resources and green infrastructure.


Nevertheless, Soltvedt is sceptical that Qataris will be able to solve the water stress crisis on their own. “While the Qatari Electricity and Water Company has been partly privatised, the small size of the private sector in Qatar is a potential obstacle to developing innovative new technologies and providing a foundation for entrepreneurs to offer new solutions,” he points out. “With only 0.5 percent of Qataris working in the private sector, boosting the role of private enterprise is likely to be a long term project.”

This means it will fall on entrepreneurs from overseas, like Neuschaefer, to show the way. The Austrian has stressed that “one of the major solutions for our future challenge is going to be reuse of water,” which is what his award-winning TerraSave concept is designed to do. It combines photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power, the cooling of the PV modules using treated wastewater, harvesting of reeds as biomass, and the storage of the solar power into batteries, thus achieving much-needed carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions.

Giving an example of eco-friendly wastewater treatment applied in Qatar, Gulf Contracting Company (GCC) operations manager Andrew Ford says Canadian firm Bionest had helped him to revolutionise the supply of water to accommodation camps. Installations of Bionest at GCC camps have resulted in the recycling of all human and other liquid waste generated by some 3100 workers. The system has eliminated the need to remove sewage by truck. About 20 percent of the recycled water is used for urinals and toilet flushing, with the balance transferred to construction sites for use in dust suppression and concrete curing. “We are saving QR3.5 million a year on sewage disposal and the reuse of the by-product,” Ford states.

Furthermore, the Pearl-Qatar’s process engineer Ajit Gokarn has claimed that water consumption might be reduced by around 40 percent by using spray diffuser heads on taps. Other WIG members have suggested that automobile service stations could install recycling systems to put the wastewater to maximum use. Their thinking is that the high carbon content found in a municipal wastewater system could be converted to energy; phosphorous, a dwindling resource globally, could be recovered from waste streams.


Rising Brazilian companies such as Maccon have their sights on partnering with Qataris in the area of water treatment, following a trade mission in late May. It would be for the best, however, if the Brazilians are not focused purely on desalination feels Soltvedt, who has dismissed the solution as “not one that can be maintained in the long term,” as it is so energy intensive and also dangerous to the water system and ecology.

Regular desalination has highly saline brine as a by-product, which is up to three times denser than saltwater – and toxic if disposed of in the ocean. Oxygen depletion is a hazard of reverse osmosis (RO)-derived brine, as sodium bisulphite is commonly used as a neutralising agent for chlorine; the lack of dissolved oxygen can be dangerous to marine organisms, while some by-products of chlorine are carcinogenic. Brine may also contain residual chemicals from the pre-treatment process, heavy metals or cleaning agents.


Even bottled water is highly polluting. Not only do most of the plastic bottles end up in landfills or as litter – only about 10 percent of water bottles are recycled – but the energy required to produce and transport bottled water equals tens of millions of barrels of oil, according to the Pacific Institute. One company planning to make the Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) bottle largely redundant is AquaDania, which has developed what it describes as a ‘multi-effect solar powered water distillation’ technology called WaterStillar.

WaterStillar Water Works is a unit measuring 0.6 square metres in area, which can be fixed onto a rooftop or underneath the roof in a loft, or basement. It is a modular system designed to purify 50 to 300 litres per day of water from any source, using solar thermal collectors. Made of silicone and enamelled stainless steel, it is corrosion proof with a lifespan of 20 years. “We believe in a low tech solution to provide cheaper, clean drinking water, where you drink it, at home and at work,” explains Tom Juul Andersen, CEO and founder of AquaDania. “We put up a tap for our drinking water, so we do not transport water or need plastic bottles. We clean whatever water is available locally.” So far, the leisure and hospitality industry forms WaterStillar’s biggest customer base, although Bedouin communities have been using the technology for years.


Another key part of the puzzle may have been identified by the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), which advertises a method for recovering already contaminated, highly saline land for agricultural use. It has used plant beneficial microbes called Mycorrhiza in problematic soils for more than a decade, including those in the hyper-saline region of Dukhan, in western Qatar. Here, the accumulation of white salts such as soluble chloride and sulphates of calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium, on the soil surface, is a common phenomenon. TERI also claims that with its method, the quantity of water required in farming is reduced by 25 percent; high water use efficiency is enabled by almost doubling the green matter produced per unit intake of water.


The good news for all these companies is that investment in the Qatari water sector is likely to remain high.

Based on current trends, consumption through 2020 is expected to increase 5.4 percent per year for Qataris and seven percent per year for expatriates – leading the government to commit to a National Water Act by 2016, together with a system of integrated regulation.

Soltvedt confirms, “alongside the country’s cradle-to-grave welfare system and increasingly assertive foreign policy, the country’s economic and infrastructural modernisation process over the last two decades remains a source of popular support.”

As part of the Act, Kahramaa will look to piping and leak-sealing operations to lower network water losses from 35 percent to 10 percent. Mandated use of water-efficient appliances could reduce consumption. The government will monitor diminishing fresh groundwater levels and seek to eliminate excess flows into the Doha water table.

This strategy will no doubt prove to be a lucrative business over the next ten years, for those businesses able to successfully evangelise their technologies.

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