The Water Crisis in Qatar

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Despite its minuscule size, Qatar has become internationally influential from many different angles. From winning the 2022 World Cup bid, to becoming the target of an extensive political and economic embargo led by the Saudi elite and their allies in the Emirates and Egypt, the tiny sheikhdom in the Gulf has made news headlines many times. A particularly interesting and somewhat peculiar story that popped up about two years back tells about Qatar flying in 4,000 milk cows in hopes of beginning a stable domestic dairy farm business. As funny as it sounds, the actual reason for doubt is the fact that Qatar, which consists of about 90% desert and is classified as the most water-scarce country in the world, is far from the ideal place to run a water intensive cattle farm. In addition, the particular cows Qatar brought in were the German Holstein brand, a type, while producing the best quality milk, is also known to use up the most water. Upon international outcry about this water wastefulness, farmers have refused to change them out for a lower-maintenance type that will use less than half of the amount of water, reasoning that having the highest possible milk quality is too important.

This extensive use of water does not stop there. For about two years, Qatar has been working hard to reach agricultural self-sufficiency by growing water intensive crops in greenhouses rather than importing them from places where they are more suitable to grow. In addition, there are little to no restrictions on water usage for farms and households and turning on the tap in Qatar is subsidized so extensively that it hardly costs anything. This makes us wonder, where does Qatar get all the water from? The answer is desalination from the Gulf – the process of turning salty sea water into fresh water that can be used for drinking, watering, showering etc. However, this process requires huge amounts of energy, produces harmful carbon emissions and requires the excess salty brine that cannot be used to be dumped back into the ocean.

It seems puzzling why Qatar seems to completely disregard wasting its economic resources, shortening its water supply and harming the environment in order to have a self-sufficient food production. To find out the answer, we must look a little closer at the geographic, political and societal nature in Qatar. While it is one of the smallest countries in the world, Qatar is the biggest exporter of natural gas. This has brought the nation excessive wealth and Qatar is ranked as the country with the highest GDP per capita in the world. Politically, Qatar has also not kept quiet and gained influence on the world stage through its controversial politics. By contributing to the already fragile state of political affairs in the region, Qatar made itself some big enemies, particularly its neighbors Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt who posed the diplomatic embargo on Qatar in June 2017. One last key fact to consider about Qatar is the demographic composition of the population within its borders. Only 12% of the Qatari population are citizens. The other 88% are all migrant workers, about half of which are white-collar workers from the west and rest of the Middle East and the other half are blue-collar workers mainly from South Asia.

Keeping the economic, political and societal factors just mentioned in mind, we can theorize the reason for why Qatar is making such large sacrifices to ensure self-sufficiency in food production. It seems as though Qatar is willing to trade environmental, economic and resource concerns for sociopolitical ones in order to ensure its own national security. For one, however wasteful, Qatar certainly has the energy and financial means to produce water through desalination. Due to political tension in the region, the government is willing to pursue this agenda in order to reach economic independence and ensure food security. This brings us back to the renown renter state theory, in which a country that has high rents (from oil, gas or another natural resource) is willing to distribute material wealth for free in order to ensure satisfaction among its citizens. Yet, in Qatar, we are not only concerned about the citizens, but also the other 88% of the population that is there for work reasons and on whom Qatar’s economy is dependent on. International migration theory tells us the reasons why people migrate to find work elsewhere: better wages and living conditions. It is therefore also important that Qatar keeps these people satisfied, and having adequate water and food supply is the bare minimum. A worker from the United States wouldn’t think to move to a country where water is rationed to the extent that he/she can only take three showers a week. Given the tense political situation in the Gulf, where Qatar has few friendly neighbors to rely on, it has therefore chosen the path of self-sufficiency to ensure its sustained existence.

So when Qatar is seemingly “wasting” its precious water resources, economic means and harming the environment, it is really ensuring national security by trading these off for more imminent sociopolitical concerns. For the moment this globally unprecedented strategy has seemed to work and Qatar is firmly keeping its position as the richest nation in the world. However, only time will tell if this can continue or if the nation will later have to pay the price for the way it is handling its precious and scarce water supply and its costly economic and environmental resources.

More posts by Heide Rogers.
The Water Crisis in Qatar
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