Using solar power to desalinate water and become food secure has sceptics asking if the plan will ever come to fruition.
Rhodri Davies Last Modified: 02 Dec 2012

Doha, Qatar – The dusty, barren ground of Umm Salal, 20km outside Qatar’s capital, makes an unlikely spot for a bumper harvest.

On a 40 hectare (99 acre) patch of desert – ringed by trees where there’s otherwise little vegetation – zucchinis, iceberg lettuce and sweetcorn are some of the produce being plucked from the land.

In a nearby settlement, there’s little public activity. During the day, a few cars pass slowly through an ill-defined centre. A fork on a road leading out of it simply fades away.

The terrain is all rock and dust – uninviting and uncomfortable. But despite the desert conditions, the manager of Al Sulaiteen farm, Mahmoud Refaat Shamardal, is expecting to double his crop this year.

“We believe Qatar can produce the vegetables for the local market, without any need to import.”

– Mahmoud Refaat Shamardal, farm manager

About 200 staff, mostly from other Middle Eastern nations and the Indian sub-continent, tend to crops on the irrigated, semi-arable land and in greenhouses.

More than a dozen greenhouses are set in rows and cooled to deal with summer temperatures that frequestly exceed 50° Celsius (122°F). Hydroponics – a soilless, mineral-infused water growing system – helps to produce tomatoes, eggplants and green peppers.

Qatar wants to increase these farms twofold to about 3,000 as part of a plan to become food secure by 2024.

“We believe Qatar can produce the vegetables for the local market, without any need to import,” Shamardal says.

‘Dreaming’ of food security

Shamardal, however, knows Qatar’s ability to become food secure faces significant challenges.

“Everything started as a dream. We are dreaming now, but I think in the future it will be realistic,” he says.

Qatar is aiming to produce about 70 per cent of its own food, up from only ten per cent now, within the next decade. It also wants to become a major regional food processing and trade hub.

With the second highest income per capita in the world, thanks to the third largest natural gas resources, Qatar has the huge advantage of cash to bring the scheme to fruition.

Qatar’s residents have been hit by price shocks on the world market. From 2006 to 2011, the cost of food has increased by about five per cent every year.

Fahad bin Mohammed al-Attiya, chairman of the Qatar National Food Security Programme, said Qatar is wealthy – but that doesn’t mean people here should pay more for food than those in other countries.

“We intend to reduce the level of volatility and make sure there is certainty within the system and build confidence that this country is not going to be prone to food price shocks and food supply shocks in the future,” al-Attiya said.

Alongside affordability, the programme wants to ensure a high quantity, healthy food basket for a population that’s expected to grow more than ten per cent in the next six years.

Water desalination a key
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With such heat, water is the other principal factor needed to produce food. The Al Sulaiteen farm desalinates its water from natural underground aquifers that the country has drained. Nationwide, all water for residential use is desalinated.

The food security initiative plans to do the same for all of its irrigation water – but using solar power, rather than fossil fuels, to power desalination sustainably.

US energy firm Chevron is running a solar testing plant in the capital, Doha. It is assessing solar panels from the United States, Germany, Japan and South Korea to develop a system that best suits Qatar’s conditions – in particular the heat and large amounts of dust and sand.

Chevron’s manager in Qatar, Carl Atallah, is aware of the challenges Qatar’s conditions pose.

“Perhaps four months of intense heat and a couple more months of intense sand – those are the two competing problems that we see,” Atallah told Al Jazeera.

“There is a misconception that there is lots of sun in Qatar, therefore solar is going to work really well. It’s very hot, and solar technologies have really been designed for lower temperature climates. So the question is really, how do we do it in this climate? And the efficiency decays with high temperatures. So that’s a very important test. I don’t know if anyone has done that.”

Atallah adds that Qatar’s small land mass – it’s an entire country the size of Connecticut, the third smallest state in the US – is also a constraint that amplifies the need for efficient technologies.

Food security scepticism

Some observers are wary about Qatar’s goal of becoming food secure.

“There’s some scepticism if it is realistically possible to also end up desalinating large amounts of water for irrigation purposes,” says Zahra Babar, the assistant director for research at Georgetown University in Qatar.

“Economically it doesn’t make any sense, because of the outlay in investment in trying to grow vegetables in the desert, compared to what you purchase it at.”

– Zahra Babar, Georgetown University Qatar

“I think there is a degree of success we can hope for. Whether you actually are going to achieve the target levels of self-sufficiency production – 70 per cent – that’s a bit ambitious,” Babar says.

Qatar is looking to different dry-land countries – for instance in Latin America as well as the Middle East – to study best practices.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia abandoned attempts at food self-sufficiency in wheat in 2008, saying it wasted water resources and was too expensive.

Babar also notes the argument that attempting to become food secure in such an extreme climate as Qatar may drain resources.

“Economically it doesn’t make any sense, because of the outlay in investment in trying to grow vegetables in the desert, compared to what you purchase it at. Why not depend on international trade for your needs?” she concluded.