Qatar: Farming Ambitions Detrimental to the Environment

Seriously affected by the diplomatic crisis that has divided the Gulf countries since 2017, Qatar brandishes its determination to achieve food self-sufficiency as a political riposte at the risk of durably depleting its precious subsoil hydraulic resources.

Products “made in Qatar” on the shelves of a supermarket in Doha
© Sebastian Castelier

A stone’s throw from the Qatar National Museum designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, we see golden letters on a building meant to reassure whomever has doubts about the future of the peninsula: “Everything is going to be alright.” And yet the proactive political slogans and the declared ambition of achieving food self-sufficiency in the near future designed to reassure the local population over the short term, cannot conceal a very different environmental reality. Normally unwilling to speak out publicly on such issues, today Qatari officials do reluctantly admit to being sincerely worried about the impending exhaustion of the country’s water tables. A governmental report has confirmed that the natural reserves of fresh water, estimated at 2.5 billion cubic metres, are shrinking by 100 million cubic metres every year due to the thousands of wells that have been dug to satisfy the galloping appetite of a farming sector thriving principally on water. “It may not be a good idea to mention these figures in your article,” a Qatari farmer suggests with an embarrassed smile.

Given this alarming situation, the UN notes the danger of “total exhaustion” of the geological strata from which the Emirate draws 70% of the ground waters it consumes. A scenario of this sort would put Doha in a precarious position since, due to low precipitation levels, the country has no permanent watercourse and is classified among the nations of the world most vulnerable to water stress. “What Qatar is doing could turn out to be dangerous!” Alain Gachet exclaims. He is a French geologist, a world-class pioneer in the exploitation of underground water. And yet in the minds of ordinary people, this is a time for national unity in the face of the political offensive conducted by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with the 2022 Football World Cup just a few years away.

A desert environment

For the last two years now, produce labelled “Made in Qatar” has flooded the supermarkets of the capital, local agricultural production has quadrupled and the food industry has known unprecedented growth. In the years to come, Qatar intends to produce locally 40 to 50% of the fresh products consumed by its population. “Professionals in the dairy sector tell me that their plants are running at full capacity, which is completely new,” says the enthusiastic assistant under-secretary for fishing and agriculture with the Ministry of Municipality and Environment, Galeh bin Nasser Al-Thani. This is in sharp contrast with the pre-blockade years when Qatar imported up to 80% of its foodstuffs and brought its dairy products in by lorry from neighbouring Saudi Arabia. To get around the blockade and supplement its local productions, Qatar is now using new import routes.

However, despite the rapid progress being made by Qatari farming and the subsidies granted the agricultural chain, the retail price of tomatoes went up by 60% between 2016 and 2017. A figure that could be a lot higher if the sector did not benefit from those generous governmental subsidies. Indeed farmers are not charged for the water they draw from the subsoil to irrigate their crops when they are using half of that precious resource to produce fodder for 50 to 70% of Qatar’s 1.6 million farm animals. “Fodder uses up a lot of water and when you don’t have that much, you have to be careful about what you do,” Alain Gachet reminds us. In his view, managing hydraulic resources is like managing a bank account: “If you dig into your capital, sooner or later you’ll be bankrupt.” Aware of the absurdity of producing fodder in a desert environment, the Ministry of Municipality and Environment wants recycled waste water to replace subsoil water by 2025.

The Qatari dairy giant, Baladna, which produces 500 tons of fresh milk and other dairy products per diem, imports the fodder for its 12,000 milk cows. The company’s smiling press attaché proudly paraphrases the saying attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Impossible is not Qatari.” And yet, Saba Mohamed Nasser Al-Fadala is aware of the environmental cost of the company’s approach, because “cows aren’t made for the desert,” she says. To keep them alive in the stifling heat that prevails on the arid plains of Northern Qatar, where the thermometer goes over 50° Celsius in summertime, each animal requires 700 litres of water per day, for drinking and for the misting system. “Water is so precious that farming in those conditions seems completely insane to me. Committing hydraulic suicide for political reasons and not for reasons of survival, I find that a little hard to swallow,” Alain Grachet remarks. In his opinion, Qatar should increase its research efforts in agricultural development.

A quest for innovation

In the Baladna stables all the cows belong to the Holstein race, the international reference for dairy products. Yet the company’s former general manager, John Dore has doubts about their superiority when it comes to “bearing up under the Qatari climate.” According to this Irish farmer who has spent his whole career in the Arabian Peninsula, a race that has been developed in Brazil has shown to be better adapted to high temperatures and humidity: the Guirlando cow. Saba Mohamed Nasser Al-Fadala bluntly dismisses the idea: “That isn’t the way the company’s founders see things.” Yet she does go to some lengths to stress the company’s concern for the environment, its determination to use solar energy and limit the quantity of plastic packaging “to make life better for turtles and dolphins!”

At the head of the agricultural development company Agrico, Nasser Ahmad Al-Khalaf is especially concerned about the overuse of hydraulic resources and is very aware that 92% of the water drawn from the Qatari subsoil goes to the farming sector. While many Qatari farms still use the ancestral irrigation technique of submersion, Al-Khalaf insists on the need to “respect the environment”. He was one of the first to invest heavily in hydroponic technology to adapt farming to the country’s arid subtropical climate.

Today his company’s water needs have been divided by nine and Agrico wants to serve as a model and induce Qatar’s 916 active farms to follow its lead. The turnkey service contracts offered by Agrico have already attracted six farmers and 500,000 more square metres of farmland developed by the company for its clients are under study. This policy is encouraged by the Ministry of Municipality and Environment which has earmarked a budget of between 2.1 and 2.6 million pounds sterling (2.7 and 3.3 million dollars) to equip 140 farms with these soil-less technologies. A political momentum which delights Al-Khalaf: “We are having a lot of discussions, so is the government, and behind the scenes, the Emir is encouraging all of us.”

According to the recent declarations made by Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al-Thani at the 2019 UN Action Climate Summit, the Qatar government has taken many steps to “promote the recycling and re-utilisation of water.” Indeed such initiatives are of major importance for the future of the Qatari Peninsula, since the depletion of the water tables is making the soil saltier. “There is a serious risk that the land will become unfit for farming,” Alain Gachet warns. In 2014, 69% of Qatari wells were classified “moderately saline,” which means that water drawn from them is harmful to delicate crops.

Lack of awareness

Despite their fundamental importance, the environmental challenges which Qatar must face often remain little understood by the bulk of the local population. “The Qatari are still a long way from any real comprehension of these issues, they do not appear to perceive any immediate threat,” says Neeshad Shafi, an Indian citizen and co-founder of the Arab Youth Climate Movement in Qatar (AYCMQA). His aim is to put the civil society in touch with the local authorities and make room for a multidimensional dialogue wherein environmental issues can be dealt with in a critical and constructive spirit. In jovial tones, Neeshad points out that campaigning “in the manner of Greenpeace” is out of the question here. “Qatar is not a European country where 100,000 signatures can trigger a debate in parliament. Our approach consists in understanding the local dynamics, the culture, the government, the legislation, merging with the heart of the system in order to promote a dialogue.”

In his opinion, the awareness campaigns conducted by the local authorities in order to get the population to economise their fresh water are approaching the problem the wrong way round because most Qataris and most expatriates have no idea where Qatar gets its water from. Bringing people and their environment closer together in order to raise their consciousness regarding environmental issues, that is the AYCMQA’s objective. “The blockade has given a boost to ‘made in Qatar,’ but the population forgets about the environment,” Neeshad Shafi laments. He regrets the lack of awareness of the issues concerning water resources in the Gulf countries, when the six-member States of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are all classified among the fifteen countries in the world most exposed to water stress. “The dominant rhetoric is that whatever happens, the government will take care of it. People imagine that water and other natural resources are easily come by,” he adds.

Seated on the terrace of a café in the Souq Waqif, the main street market in Doha, Nasser Ahmad Al-Khalaf of Agrico tells of the work that remains to be done to raise the general public’s awareness: “We still use a lot of plastic bags [. . .] Before people can understand that producing this or that vegetable uses up less water than others, we still have a long way to go in Qatar.” As things stand today, Qatar’s water tables are being depleted four times faster than it takes for the natural cycles to replenish them. “Protecting the population is a wholly praiseworthy endeavour, but political constraints are contrary to the basic laws of the environment,” is Alain Gachet’s conclusion. The geologist is worried that the short-sighted policies of Qatari agriculture aimed at achieving food self-sufficiency are signing away the capacities of future generations to make use of the Emirate’s subsoil resources.