In Gas-Rich And Fast-Growing Qatar, A Focus On Food Security

The Gulf nation of Qatar has nearly depleted its groundwater, and will increasingly need to import food. Some farms still operates on ground water, but in the long haul, Qatar is counting on desalination and using money to import food.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. And this week I've been reporting on the state of Qatar, home to 2 million people, only about 13 percent of them Qataris. The rest are foreign workers of all stripes and income levels. Qatar is the world's biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, which makes that 13 percent, fewer than 300,000 people very rich.

How rich? Well, Justin Gengler is an American political scientist and researcher at Qatar University.

JUSTIN GENGLER: I've done the calculations and the per citizen income simply from gas is something like $180,000 a year, so if they simply split the gas revenue 300,000 ways including babies and old people and everybody else, it'd come up to something like $180,000 per person, which is a lot of money to deal with.

SIEGEL: And to build with. Fueled by gas, Qatar's economy and population have boomed over the past two decades. The monuments to Qatar's phenomenal growth are the skyscrapers that tower over the Corniche, Doha's Waterside Drive, and it's an amazing skyline. It's all popped up over the past 20 years. There's a building that looks like a great blue cylinder whose top - I suppose it's a rotating restaurant up there.

It looks like Darth Vader helmet at the top of it. There's my favorite, a building that looks like a big pickle with a toothpick stuck out of the top and another that's kind of like a vase on a potter's wheel. It's narrow in the middle and broad at the base and at the top. This skyline, it looks as if it was a huge architectural competition and everybody won and everybody got to design a building. It's stunning and it bespeaks the phenomenal wealth and success of Qatar.

Here are two things that Qatar is not rich in by any standard, food and water. Just ask Fahad al-Attiya who works in one of those skyscrapers, the one that's home to the ministry of environment.

FAHAD AL-ATTIYA: We import 95 percent of our food. We desalinate almost 100 percent of our water requirements.

SIEGEL: In order to desalinate the water supply, you have to expend a great deal of energy.

AL-ATTIYA: Correct.

SIEGEL: So it's fortunate that this is a hugely energy-rich country.

AL-ATTIYA: Right. Thanks to the resources that were discovered here, mainly oil and gas, we can urbanize for the first time in God knows what, 10,000 years or so.

SIEGEL: Fahad al-Attiya was educated at the British military academy Sandhurst and he epitomizes the Qatari attitude of both can do and can pay. Attiya directs the country's National Food Security Program. It was started in keeping with Qatar's vision for the year 2030, transition from a hydrocarbon based economy to a knowledge-based economy.

His mission is to turn his country into one that produces a substantial share of its own food, even as the economy grows and the population swells with foreign workers.

AL-ATTIYA: The National Food Security Program is one of those pioneering, very ambitious programs the government has put in place under the auspices of His Highness Sheikh Tamim having the authority of the emir to simply align the principles of growth with the principles of sustainability. I'm saying are these two in conflict with each other or are they aligned with each other?

SIEGEL: Let me put the intuitive reaction to it, which is they're in conflict with each other.

AL-ATTIYA: That is true, but we're trying to change that.

SIEGEL: Here's how hard changing that is going to be. Fahad al-Attiya's aide, a native Oklahoman named Jonathan Smith, took us out to that most improbable of enterprises, a Qatari farm. There's a seven acre patch of squash and some greenhouses where the farmer grows tomatoes and cucumbers. The point of the greenhouses and of the trees that ring the farm is to shelter the crops from a wind that rakes this unearthly, almost lunar landscape.

JONATHAN SMITH: We're about 12 kilometers really from the middle of Doha. So just outside.

SIEGEL: Twelve kilometers and a world away. We're in this arid, parched windswept desert.

SMITH: We absolutely are and we're standing right on top of one of the things that made Qatar, especially Doha, even possible and that is freshwater from the ground and this is a tiny nugget of what's left of that supply.

SIEGEL: Farms like this one and other remote locations are off the water grid that supplies Doha and most Qataris with desalinated water. Here, they get their freshwater either from tanker trucks that fill up at a pumping station or, as on this farm, from a pump of their own.

SMITH: So as you can see, it's just gushing up and that's why, really, it makes farming still possible in a place like Qatar. This beautiful water is still coming from beneath us. A hundred years ago, this aquifer was so rich that it was literally pushing freshwater out into the sea. So the traders and the fishermen and the pearl divers could actually tip over the side of the boats, swim down into that zone with a leather bag and bring freshwater back up.

So it's what made settlement ever possible in this part of the world and it really is one of the great treasures.

SIEGEL: That was then. Over the years, Qatar has overdrawn from the aquifer and the country's supply of freshwater is almost completely exhausted. The aim of the food security program is to make farms like the one we visited much more efficient with their use of water to irrigate the way farms do in Australia, California and Israel so that they're capable of producing 40 percent of Qatar's food. That's actually a target for the year 2030.

The way the Qataris see it, it's a fair match, paying for the best technology to triumph over the most adverse natural environment. To produce more food, there has to be more water and the plan is to give the aquifer a rest and put the whole country on desalinated water. Again, Fahad al-Attiya.

AL-ATTIYA: There is about a million cubic meters of water being produced every day that is distributed for all kinds of use, support our overall economy. We will increase that by another 7- to 800,000 cubic meters and that is to give to the agri-sector and so what the program was about to do is about to reform the entire sector, upgrade the production methodologies and systems and give them water from desalination in order to get them off the aquifers because we need our aquifers as our strategic reserve.

SIEGEL: What's left of your aquifers.

AL-ATTIYA: What's left of our aquifers. But luckily, there's a natural replenishment program. We get 50 million cubic meters of water through rain or through underground channels and that should be sufficient enough to give us two years to three of water resources that we can tap into in times of emergency which then should be able and enough to supply all the requirements of our economic needs.

SIEGEL: I asked Mr. al-Attiya what kind of potential emergency or crisis worries him most, depending so heavily on desalination, it turns out to be any threat to the waters of the Gulf.

AL-ATTIYA: Those we can think of is pollution when we come to desal and contamination. These are the kind of things that we are worried about.

SIEGEL: Like a BP-like spill.

AL-ATTIYA: A BP-like spill. We know that there are some nuclear plants are being built on the Gulf and the potential of another Fukushima. And so, who knows?

SIEGEL: Fahad al-Attiya's National Food Security Program for Qatar is ambitious befitting a country that has no shortage of ambition. It's also a reminder that for all the oil and all the natural gas you can bring up from under the earth, there is no liquid more valuable and more central to a country's future than water.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Our stories from Qatar this week were produced by Art Silverman.

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