AP Explains: Qatar Depends On Desalination

WASHINGTON (AP) — Arid and surrounded by the salty waters of the Persian Gulf, Qatar is among the world’s most difficult nations to access clean drinking water. The World Cup host, with a population of 2.9 million, has no rivers and receives less than four inches (10 centimeters) of rain per year on average.

It is a condition that the wealthy emirate has managed to circumvent by spending thanks to an expensive technology known as desalination, which makes seawater drinkable.

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In doing so, Qatar is not alone. The monarchies of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also lack fresh water and rely on desalination. Israel does too. But the solution comes at a cost: removing salt from seawater is an expensive process, requiring additional energy demand from fossil fuels.

And it also creates a secondary product, which when thrown into the ocean, can affect marine ecosystems.

A look at the country’s water supply and the role of desalination.

WHAT IS DESALINATION?

It is the process of generating fresh water. that humans can consume, from seawater.

Desalination plants draw water from the ocean through huge pipes that then pass through a series of membranes that allow water molecules through but remove salt. The process is known as reverse osmosis.

WHERE IS IT USED?

There are desalination plants on coastlines around the world, but the largest capacity ones are in Middle Eastern countries — high-income and water-stressed — such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Saudi Arabia has the largest plant in the group.

Reverse osmosis technology began to be used in the 1950s. The countries of the Persian Gulf were the first to use it. After the oil boom of the 1970s and 1990s made them some of the richest countries in the world, they began to invest heavily in infrastructure. Israel seriously embarked on desalination in the late 1990s after a severe drought.

There are almost 16,000 desalination plants around the world, according to researchers from the United Nations Human Development Program. Approximately half of the water they produce is in the Middle East and North Africa.

Qatar is heavily dependent on water that is desalinated from the Persian Gulf. The water from which the salt has been extracted represents 60% of its total supply, and almost all of the residential consumption, according to data from the country’s planning entity. The government subsidizes water for its residents. Groundwater makes up the other quarter of the country’s supply and is used by farms. It is extracted with mechanized pumping systems and is running out fast.

WHAT ARE THE ENVIRONMENTAL FEARS?

Removing salt from the ocean requires a lot of energy. Often electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels.

“It just takes too much energy to extract salt from water,” said Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute in California, who has studied aquatic resources for decades.

The process has become more efficient in recent decades. But it still requires between 3.5 and 4.5 kilowatt hours of electricity to desalinate 264 gallons (1,000 liters of water), according to a 2019 study by Korea University of more than 70 large-scale facilities. A refrigerator in the United States uses 4 kilowatt hours of electricity per day.

The other problem is the discharge of the brine, the water with the highest concentration of salts after filtration. Some facilities deposit it in the ground or inject it underground. But most return it to the ocean. Some dilute it before doing it.

The brine usually contains heavy metals and chemicals for seawater treatment. Its high salt content and temperature can harm marine algae, coral reefs, and seagrass habitats. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar generate 55% of brine from desalination, according to UN researchers.

WHAT ABOUT THE WATER IN THE WORLD?

Qatar anticipates a 10% increase in its water supply during the World Cup, according to a spokesman for Kahramaa, the national water and electricity utility. It means it will make more use of its desalinated water reserves and could even increase the amount of seawater it needs to filter each day, said Amin Shaban, a hydrologist at Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research and an expert on aqueducts in the Middle East.

That water will be used for the 1.2 million foreign visitors and to maintain the grass of the stadiums and training fields.

The energy cost of desalination and Qatar’s reliance on it raises questions about promises by Qatar and FIFA that this World Cup will not affect the environment.

The authorities ensure that the toilets and cleaning machines in the eight World Cup stadiums will use recycled water. But soccer fields, which workers have been irrigating for months — in the blistering summer heat — will use desalinated water.

“The impact will increase” during the World Cup, said Mohammed Mahmoud, director of climate and water at the Middle East Institute, a think tank. He added that the increase will not reach water consumption by Qatar’s agricultural sector. “They’re not anywhere near the same scale.”

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Follow Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @SumanNaishadham

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Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. AP is solely responsible for its content.

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