EXPLAINER: World Cup host Qatar relies on desalination

WASHINGTON (AP) — Arid and surrounded by the salty waters of the Persian Gulf, World Cup host Qatar is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. The nation of 2.9 million people has no rivers and receives an average of less than 10 centimeters of rain per year.

It’s a condition the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate has paid for handsomely, thanks to an expensive technology known as desalination that makes seawater safe to drink.

In doing so, Qatar is not alone. The other Gulf Arab monarchies, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, also lack fresh water and depend on desalination. Israel too. But the solution comes at a cost: Removing salt from seawater uses a lot of energy and burns a lot of fossil fuels. It also creates a by-product which, when released into the ocean, can affect marine ecosystems.

Here is an overview of the country’s water supply and the role of desalination.


A process that makes fresh water, which humans can consume, from sea water.

Desalination plants draw water from the ocean through large pipes and blow it through thin membranes that allow water molecules to pass but keep salt out. This process is known as reverse osmosis.

There are other types of desalination but reverse osmosis is the most common. Brackish inland waters can also be desalinated.


Desalination plants are scattered along coastlines around the world, but the largest capacity plants are located in high-income, water-hungry Middle Eastern countries with a wide coastline, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Saudi Arabia is home to the largest factory in the world.

Reverse osmosis technology has been around since the 1950s. Gulf Arab nations were among the first to adopt it. After soaring oil revenues in the 1970s and 1980s transformed them into some of the wealthiest countries in the world, they began to invest heavily in infrastructure. Israel took desalination seriously in the late 1990s following a severe drought.

There are nearly 16,000 desalination plants worldwide, according to a 2019 estimate by researchers from the United Nations Water and Human Development Programme. About half of the water they produce is in the Middle East and North Africa.

Qatar depends heavily on desalinated water from the Persian Gulf. Desalinated water accounts for about 60% of its total supply and almost all of its domestic water, according to 2019 data from the country’s planning and statistics authority. The government heavily subsidizes water for its residents. Groundwater makes up an additional quarter of the country’s water supply and is mainly used by farms. It is over-pumped and runs out quickly.


Large-scale desalination of seawater consumes a fair amount of energy. Often the electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.

“It simply takes a lot of energy to extract salt from water,” said Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the California-based Pacific Institute, which has studied water resources for decades.

The process has become more efficient in recent decades. But it still takes between 3.5 and 4.5 kilowatt hours of electricity to desalinate 264 gallons (1,000 liters) of water, according to a 2019 analysis by researchers at Korea University. over 70 large-scale installations. An American refrigerator consumes about 4 kilowatt hours of electricity per day.

Then there is the brine or very salty sludge left over from the filtration. Some facilities dispose of it on land or inject it underground. But most desalination plants return it to the ocean. Some dilute it before making it.

Brine also often contains heavy metals and chemicals used to treat seawater upstream. Its high salinity and temperature can damage algae, coral reefs and seagrass beds. Worldwide, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar account for 55% of desalination brine, according to researchers from the United Nations Water and Human Development Programme.


Qatar plans to increase its water supply by 10% during the World Cup, said a spokesman for Kahramaa, the country’s water and electricity utility. That means it will tap into its vast desalinated reserves and could even increase the amount of ocean water it filters each day, said Amin Shaban, a hydrologist at Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research and an expert on Middle Eastern hydraulic systems. East.

This water will be used to accommodate approximately 1.2 million fans and to maintain thousands of acres of cultivated grass for football pitches and training venues.

The energy cost of desalination and Qatar’s heavy dependence on it add to questions about the promise of Qatar and FIFA that the World Cup will have almost no effect on the climate.

Officials respond that toilets and dust control at all eight World Cup stadiums use recycled water. But the football pitches that gardeners have been watering for months – including during the country’s scorching summer – use desalinated water.

“The water footprint will increase,” for the World Cup, said Mohammed Mahmoud, director of the climate and water program at the Middle East Institute think tank. He said the increase would still not compete with the water used by Qatar’s agricultural sector. “They are nowhere near the same scale.”


Follow Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @SumanNaishadham


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