In this country of just under 2 million, desert extremes meet a high-octane economy, testing both the limits and responses to the competition between water, food, and energy.
DOHA, Qatar — Seventy-five years ago, all of Qatar, a land of sand and Arabian (Persian) Gulf shoreline that is roughly the size of Connecticut, was home to 25,000 residents. Fishing was an economic mainstay. So was spending weeks at sea, diving for pearls. Doha, the capital city, was a seaside village.
Qatar today is a nation of nearly 2 million people, and Doha — its capital, a city swelled by hydrocarbon wealth and Arab ambition — is where almost 80 percent of them live. In 1940, oil was discovered in the country’s north. In 1971, the world’s largest natural gas field was found offshore.
The sizable fuel reserves make Qatar a significant player in the global economy and international security. Qatar, the world’s fifth-largest producer of natural gas and 19th-largest oil producer, exports most of its gas and oil. The revenue — more than $US 100 billion annually — built an impressive skyline, constructed miles of highways, and coaxed five American universities to dispatch faculty and staff to an impressive collection of architecturally distinguished university buildings here, known as Education City.
Still, underlying the dust and traffic and frenzy of new construction is a distinctive compact between the desert ecology and the high-octane economy. In almost every way conceivable, Qatar and its largest city are testing the durability of a resource-limited civilization that has plenty of fossil fuel and wealth, a storehouse of ingenuity, ample sun and sand — but not much else.
At the top of the list of resources that don’t exist in Qatar, or are in short supply, is fresh water. Average annual rainfall measures around 74 millimeters (2.9 inches). There are no lakes, no streams, no rivers in the entire country. What little shallow groundwater is available was exhausted decades ago in many regions. The deeper groundwater, so called “fossil” groundwater, is being depleted at a rate four to five times higher than available rainfall can recharge the aquifers.
Qatar’s fresh water is supplied by desalination plants, which require a significant share — more than one-fifth — of the country’s electrical generating capacity. And demand for water, which is supplied free to the country’s native-born Qataris and at significantly subsidized low cost to everybody else, is rising. A number of recent studies of water use here found that Qatar’s per capita water use is among the world’s highest.
Circle of Blue’s director, Carl Ganter, and I are traveling in Qatar this week to learn more about this nation that is rich in oil and gas, but poor in water and other resources. In the global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food during an era of diminishing freshwater reserves, Qatar’s challenge is more apparent than almost anywhere else — and it is profoundly significant.
–Keith Schneider, senior editor
Circle of Blue’s senior editor and chief correspondent based in Traverse City, Michigan. He has reported on the contest for energy, food, and water in the era of climate change from six continents. Contact