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By Andrew Holland on Jun 5, 2013 with 7 responses

Qatar’s Renewable Energy Solution to Middle East Food Security Problem

From late 2007 through 2008, the global price of food saw an unprecedented upwards spike in prices, measured by the UN’s food price index, a broad measure of food prices. That spike was followed by another one in 2010 through early 2011 (see chart).

food price index

Here in the United States, we hardly felt the pinch at all. Food prices for the average American in the grocery store have almost no link to world food prices – as marketing, transportation, and processing can account for up to 80% of the total cost of food in the grocery store. However, major grain importing countries are sorely affected by these price spikes. For instance, as the Egyptian government continues to negotiate a new IMF loan, a sticking point is that over 9% of its total budget outlay is devoted to subsidizing food.

The countries of the Middle East are particularly vulnerable to price spikes. They are arid countries with rapidly growing populations. Some, like Egypt, Syria, or Iraq are historical breadbaskets – the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Valley are where agriculture was first exploited thousands of years ago. However, today their agricultural sectors have suffered from years of government mismanagement, price ceilings, and underinvestment. As the 2nd chart shows, all of the Arab countries are net importers of grains, with small Gulf States like Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman dependent on imports for over 90% of their grain.

arab reliance grain imports

Even so, these Gulf States had thought they were insulated from food price increases before 2008 because of their wealth. However, in the food price spikes of 2008, there was a time in which countries were unable to buy grain on the world markets at any price. Unlike the global market for oil, food markets are neither deep, nor liquid, nor transparent. Only about 18% of world wheat production is globally traded, and state-owned monopolies dominate export markets. For countries that are dependent for up to 90% of their food on imports, the fear of unavailable imports was a shock.

Food Prices and the Arab Spring

The next price spike, in late 2010 and early 2011, caused largely by drought, heat, and fires in European Russia and the Ukraine (compounded by a Russian government directive to halt wheat exports) drove home the threats posed by high food prices. As we all remember, in December 2010, Tunisia erupted in revolts, followed by Egypt, Libya, and the rest of the Arab world. Although the protestors in Tahrir Square would have been unlikely to say they were protesting the price of food, there is a clear line between food prices and the likelihood of urban riots (for more on this, see my paper, “Climate Change, The Arab Spring and Food Prices”). The Gulf Monarchies took careful note of the link between food prices and realized they were vulnerable to a restive population, should food become more expensive, or – worse – unavailable.

(Read more: International Action on Climate Change for Obama’s 2nd Term)

The Qatari government, like on many areas (al Jazeera, the Syrian civil war, the 2020 FIFA World Cup), has been the most proactive in the region in addressing its food security challenges. In 2008 Qatar begin the Qatar National Food Security Program (QNFSP) in order to address the problems of food insecurity through increasing domestic production.

The fact that Qatar has the second highest per capita income in the world (thanks to export revenue from its vast natural gas resources) has certainly helped to bring capital into this project. However, by being a pioneer, Qatar can prove to be a constructive, sustainable model for the rest of the region.

Water Desalination Using Renewable Energy

The Qatari program aims to utilize seawater in order to make the arid desert bloom. The problem is that desalinating water is very energy intensive – and that has been a limiting factor in utilizing it for the relatively low-value irrigation (as opposed to high-value drinking water). The QNFSP aims to meet this energy challenge by utilizing renewable energy to desalinate the water. Logically, this makes sense; while there’s little water in the desert, there is more than enough wind and sun. Qatar aims to use these techniques to move from its over 90% dependence on imports to being able to produce 70% of its food at home. If successful, this model promises to be exportable across the region.

However, it will be important that this is a sustainable model, unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia. For decades, the Saudi government had made the desert bloom. In the 1970s, in the face of an earlier spike in food prices, the Saudis were determined to become self-sufficient in wheat production. That they succeeded in becoming self-sufficient in wheat production was a testament to their ability to subsidize farmers and drill deep into underground aquifers. However, by 2008 it became apparent that utilizing what’s called ‘fossil water’ was unsustainable because the water was running out. The government reduced agricultural subsidies in 2008 and has quickly phased out wheat production.

The Qataris have begun to help promote their model of food security by forming the Global Dry Land Alliance within the United Nations. This alliance, composed mostly of Arab countries, will set up an early-warning system for vulnerable countries facing droughts and food price spikes so that they can build up their food reserves. It will also seek to improve agricultural productivity over the long term by promoting the development of solar-powered desalinization in producing water.

Economically, it may not make sense to desalinate water in order to grow it in the desert, when food can be imported much cheaper. However, the security that assured access to domestic food production provides is worth more to these countries than the pure dollar value. In an era in which climate change will make food prices more unstable and production in drylands more unpredictable, using sustainable technology to boost much-needed food supplies could prove to be a more important Qatari export than the huge volumes of natural gas sent abroad every day.

  1. By Cynthia Dearin on June 5, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Hi Andrew, this is a really interesting article, not least because it demonstrates that the Qataris are taking a multi-faceted approach to ensuring that their food needs are met.

  2. By David on June 6, 2013 at 10:54 am

    What the paper fails to mention, and that the Qatari’s well know, is that desalinating seawater for agriculture creates a tremendous amount of collected salt that needs to be disposed of. No mention of how they are going to resolve that problem.

    • By Andrew Holland on June 6, 2013 at 6:17 pm

      David – I don’t actually know the answer to that. Good question.

    • By Betty Jo Hvistendahl on June 7, 2013 at 5:54 pm

      Do a search on “seawater greenhouse.” This greenhouse produces enough fresh water to supply some to the surrounding area. The salt-enriched water is returned to the sea. It is good for any ocean neighboring land where the price of vegetables is high enough to cover the costs.

    • By Tom G. on June 7, 2013 at 11:52 pm

      I don’t know if this is still true or not but here goes anyway. There are two main seawater lines on most desalination plants. An intake line and a return line called the outfall or brine solution return line. One of the lines is close to shore and the other line is some distance offshore [can't remember the numbers]. This is done to reduce the concentration or salinity of the water both entering and leaving the plant.

      Desalination is a very old process. You can use high pressure pumps to force water through membranes [reverse osmosis] or use flash evaporators where the seawater is heated, flashed to steam, condensed and the distilled water is captured. In both cases I believe most of the salty brine is returned to the sea.

      There is a new desalination process called forward osmosis just now coming online. Here is the company working on this technology.

    • By Roy Wagner on September 12, 2013 at 11:48 pm

      Salt especially sea salt is a commodity that can also be a revenue source.
      Fresh water and salt are both essential to maintain life.
      If the concentrated brine is returned to the ocean and if it is done in the correct way into a moving current at the correct depth the impact is minimal.

  3. By Cl1ffClav3n on June 17, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Excellent article. Compliments to Mr. Holland.

    The Qataris today are starting down the same path as the Saudis 40 years ago and will learn the same lessons. The most cost-effective and sustainable way to bring irrigation water to the desert is by importing embedded water in food crops purchased from water-rich nations. In this respect, water is essentially one of the United States’ chief exports.

    The reason only 18% of wheat is traded on the open market is that more and more agricultural commodities are under direct contracts between producer and importer. This reduces price volatility and increases security. Another food security strategy is for fiscally wealthy but land/water-poor nations to lease agricultural land and water rights in other countries, and this is also an exploding trend. Unfortunately, most available and affordable land is in African and South American nations where many of the native population are living in poverty and hunger and being displaced from their historical lands by governments which are enriching themselves from such foreign investment. So far nations including China, South Korea, and Japan have leased more than 27 million acres in Sudan, Mozambique, Liberia, and Ethiopia, where millions are living off of food handouts from the UNFP and private charities. The bulk of the world’s undeveloped farm land remains in Angola, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. It is estimated that the world will need 296 million acres of additional farm land by 2050, despite all predicted improvements in intensive farming practices.

    All of the above are why biofuels made from any cultivated crop are unconscionable. Regardless of whether they are food or non-food feedstock, they compete with food for land and water and fertilizer and labor and financing, etc. Only two years after Al Gore helped push through huge corn ethanol subsidies in the US did the resulting linkage between food and fuel lead to tripling of food prices in the 2007-2008 price spike. Global food prices today are still double what they were before the 2007 spike. Thus have we made the world.

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