Here’s looking at you, Qatar: Water management in a desert state

With just 1000m2 of natural fresh water available per person, one of the Arabian Peninsula’s smallest countries has to innovate to irrigate. We look at what that means, and how other parts of the planet can learn from this arid playbook. 

When we think about different climate-related challenges, specific locations often spring to mind. If you’re investigating wildfires North America, Mediterranean Europe, and Australia might be logical places to start. The Netherlands is a leader in flood protection measures, and at the other end of the spectrum, nations facing severe drought conditions can offer insight into effective water management. 

Dr Jenny Lawler is Senior Research Director of the Qatar Foundation’s Water Centre at the Qatar Environmental and Energy Research Institution, or QEERI. Moving to the post from Dublin City University, she has been a professor of bioprocess engineering for around a decade, having trained as a chemical engineer with a PhD in membrane separation. All of which is useful given Qatar’s precarious access to clean, fresh water, and the technology it relies on to quench the thirst of its growing population. 

‘Qatar is classified as one of the most water stressed countries in the world. Water poverty is classified by the availability of freshwater per person. We’re way below the poverty line, at about 1000 metres cubed (m2) per person. There’s virtually no fresh water here – there are no rivers, we don’t have lakes or streams. So this means the country is entirely reliant on the removal of salt from water. Even the groundwater is salty and has to be treated before it can be used,’ Lawler explains.

Historically, underground aquifers flowing from neighbouring Saudi Arabia met the needs of a small, sparse population. Between 1960 and 2022, the number of residents in Qatar exploded, from 47,000 to 2.7million – or 5,588% in 62 years. Understandably, managing this has required extensive infrastructure investment, not least to provide fresh water to homes and businesses. But now global net zero ambitions have rendered the current approaches unworkable in the long term. 

 ‘There are two types of desalination. One is thermal, which relies on heat to drive the salt extraction. This has worked very well here, for the main reason that heat is pretty much free. Typically, it’s been an act of cogeneration, producing water and power through turbines burning gas to produce electricity, with the heat generated then used for desalination,’ Lawler tells us. ‘It is technically energy intensive, but actually it’s waste heat from energy generation. 

‘At the moment, around 50 or 60% of the desalination in Qatar is thermal, through these cogeneration plants. But the new climate strategy has outlined a transition to renewables. So when you’re looking to integrate solar energy, the first 800MW solar plant is now operational here, you need to find alternative processes,’ she continues. ‘Reverse osmosis is less energy intensive than thermal, by more than half. But it still requires electricity… a lot of research at QEERI is looking at how to deal with things like intermittency in solar power. Reverse osmosis as a process doesn’t like to be switched on and off, it’s continual, so how to we achieve that?’ 

Another major issue facing Qatar’s water programme comes in the form of brine. Once desalinated, water comes in two streams – fresh, or potable, and another with high concentrations of salt. Chemicals to prevent corrosion and scale buildup are also present in this second type. Simply discharging into the ocean risks environmental impact, so tight rules exist on how this water should be returned to source. With the establishment of marine protected areas, this is becoming more difficult still, so work is underway to to do more with the brine. 

‘Obviously, the main component is sodium chloride. And there are a lot of things you can do with that beyond table salt. It’s a useful chemical, it can be used to produce hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide. You can use it to recover lithium, which is there in low concentrations but once you concentrate that it becomes easier, and more economically feasible, to use this process,’ says Lawler. ‘There’s a lot of global work happening in this area, looking at valorisation. It always comes with environmental protections. Once the mandate is there, the regulations are there, then there’s the will and the funding to put these technologies in place.’ 

While always headline news, technological breakthroughs are only part of the climate solution. Hearts, minds and communications are equally essential. We need more effective, efficient, and less wasteful approaches to resource management and consumption, which is true whether you’re in Doha or Derby. Again, Qatar has several examples of how to increase awareness around use and trigger behavioural changes. 

‘I’ve seen on the news many times reports about Qatar having the highest level of water consumption in the world, but that’s a bit of a misrepresentation. Qatar has very high production of potable water per capita, something like 600 litres per person, per day… But that’s not actual consumption. Drinking water is used for everything, not just households, or personal use. There’s construction, irrigation, all sorts of things. If we look at wastewater, which reflects actual use, it’s around 220 litres per person per day. Much closer to what you see in Europe, the UK or Ireland,’ says Lawler, before moving on to how this has been achieved. 

‘They’ve conducted a lot of drives to inform and educate the public in Qatar, and they also have the Kahramaa Water Awareness Park. It’s a public facility where people can learn about different environmental conservation measures,’ she explains. ‘They have smart billing, which shows exactly how much water has been used and where, and there’s a charge for wastewater treatment. All this raises awareness. They have information campaigns on social media, surveys, your monthly billing includes tips on saving water.’ 

Citing a number of institutions that also have dedicated teams and resources looking specifically at water consumption, including the Qatar Foundation, Lawler makes it clear that a pluralistic approach – harnessing expert knowledge and the direct messaging of corporations – has worked well for the state so far. As have large scale events, with the 2023 Expo set to hit Doha, this year and focus on horticulture and agriculture. Two disciplines that will need significantly improved water conservation to survive in years to come, given efforts already underway it’s hard to think of a more appropriate stage. 

More features:

In an era of ecological crisis, we need experts as influencers

First of A Kind: FOAK thinking is essential in climate technology

Full scope: A guide to cutting your supply chain emissions

Images: (top, middle) / Kahramaa Water Awareness Park (bottom)



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