DOHA, Qatar –Mohamed Ali Darwish, a principal investigator at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute, and one of the Gulf region’s leading experts on desalination, is a mechanical engineer assigned to help this dry nation of nearly two million residents develop a more efficient and ecologically safer means for securing its freshwater supply. Since 1959, when a Scottish engineer developed what is called “multi-stage flash evaporation,” or MSFE, Gulf coast nations have ardently pursued the extraordinarily reliable but hyper energy-consuming technology to produce their drinking water.
Qatar, which operates eight major desalination plants, is so confident about the technology, regardless of the energy consumption, that it is preparing to build a ninth MSFE installation at the Ras Abu Fontas water plant on the Gulf shore south of Doha.
As I noted in an earlier post, risks to the Gulf’s ecology and energy security are tightly wrapped up in the program pursued by Qatar and its neighbors to produce desalinated water. Qatar’s production, 1.5 million cubic meters daily, is said by authorities here to represent five percent of the Gulf’s total production of desalinated water.
The new plant will increase production by roughly 10 percent annually when it opens in the spring of 2015. Plant managers, who led us in a discussion and tour of Ras Abu Fontas, declined to disclose the cost of construction. But they did note that of the 1.5 million cubic meters of desalinated water produced in Qatar, half by the Ras Abu Fontas Plant, about a third is wasted once it leaves the plant boundaries. Leaking pipes managed by a separate state-owned utility have not been repaired or replaced, and precious water is draining away, they said.
In an interview, Dr. Darvish noted that more than 10 percent of the nation’s domestic natural gas consumption and a fifth of its electricity is devoted to producing desalinated water. I mentioned what we’d been told earlier in the day, that a third of the water produced never makes it to domestic taps and toilets. Given the energy demands and cost of building a new plant to produce more water, I asked whether it would be more efficient and less expensive to upgrade the water transport infrastructure?
Darvish immediately arched his eyes and shifted in his chair. “You see,” he said. “This is Qatar.”
Since December 2008, when I joined colleagues at Circle of Blue to report on the drought-driven collapse of farm production in Australia’s Murray Darling River Basin, I’ve journeyed across the United States and the world to better understand the implications of the contest between rising demand for energy and food, and diminishing reserves of fresh water. The privilege of spending weeks in China, and in India, also produced events, generated new friendships, and yielded insights about how nations managed under the stress of providing enough water, food, and energy, even as they contended with the powerful collision between economic, ecological, civic, and governmental interests. Very clearly, the Earth is pushing back and human systems are being forced to adjust.
Qatar, small as it is, occupies a place at the table of nations that are part of the problem and at work on the solutions. Since 2008, when food grain supplies plummeted and prices jumped sharply around the world, in part because of the collapse of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin rice industry, Qatar launched a new national project to develop a formula for making itself less vulnerable by pursuing an ecologically and economically sustainable way to produce energy, secure food, and yield a safer quality of life.
The basic ingredient fueling the new formula, though, is Qatar’s own treasure trove of oil and natural gas. While such alchemy is intensely significant, whether it’s possible to yield a golden future from an oil-rich present is not at all assured. But the process of exposing the basic ingredients to new substances and new ways to mix them also produces distinctive narratives that I call TIQ. This is Qatar: (more…)