Farming the Desert

from TIME Magazine,

New ways to get water. Greenhouses that stretch for miles. Qatar's audacious plan to grow its own food defies the limits of an arid land.

Nowhere are once ludicrously expensive ideas suddenly seem plausible than in Qatar, a spit of land the size of Connecticut that has no rivers, no lakes and annual rainfall averaging 2.9 in. And where Qatar goes, other water-poor countries in the region are likely to follow. The man responsible for increasing Qatar's food-supply independence, Fahad bin Mohammed al-Attiya, believes the iceberg dreamers weren't ambitious enough: that Saudi princeling's planned 100 million-ton chunk of glacier would have produced only 60 days' worth of water at current consumption levels. "And then what?" asks al-Attiya. As executive chairman of Qatar's National Food Security Program (QNFSP), al-Attiya is trying to turn Qatar's food-import ratio on its head: instead of importing 90% of its food, he hopes, Qatar will produce nearly half of it locally within the next 12 years.

To get there, al-Attiya envisions nothing less than the complete re-engineering of Qatar's environment, from new desalination plants and an upending of how Qatar uses energy to greenhouses that cover square miles instead of acres and a social revolution that will elevate farmers.

Qatar's drive for food independence has its origins in the 2007--08 global food crisis. Drought in grain-producing countries, combined with export restrictions and commodity speculation, sent prices soaring. "That was a real wake-up call," says al-Attiya.

Residents consume about 2.6 billion gallons of desalinated water a day, a third more than what Israel uses for a population nearly four times the size. Agriculture on a scale big enough to feed Qatar's 1.8 million residents would require up to an additional 91 billion gallons of desalinated water a day, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The infrastructure for Qatar's future farming will be heavily subsidized. The desalinated water, piped in from new facilities on the coast, will still be free but carefully monitored. Farmers will be trained in the latest conservation techniques--and regulated. Anyone caught growing tomatoes the wrong way will risk having his tap turned off.

When the desalination facilities are completed in 2025, Qatar will inject additional water into the depleted aquifer. But desalination isn't cheap economically or environmentally. Qatar's scheme will produce nearly 175 tons of salt per day. Qatar pumps the resulting brine back into the Gulf, as do Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Kuwait, and the long-term effects of that pollution are not yet clear. "The Gulf is already a stressed body of water," says Fadhil Sadooni, assistant director of the Environmental Studies Center at Qatar University, "and I don't think it can sustain this kind of pollution for the long term."

Plowing Cash Into the Ground. Like its tomatoes, Qatar's projects can flourish only in a hothouse environment--in this case, the one created by natural gas riches. "If there is a significant fall in gas prices, [Qatar] will have to revisit all of these plans and may have to scale back," says Dubai-based energy analyst Robin Mills. Al-Attiya brushes those concerns aside.

Sixty-eight countries are considered too arid for adequate agriculture, a number likely to rise as global warming turns wet regions wetter and dry lands drier. By using its wealth, says al-Attiya, Qatar is lowering the costs of research for everyone else.

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