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Civil Engineer blog

How Qatar faced up to the water security challenge

26 July 2022

An ICE member working on a major reservoir project in the country shares his insight.

How Qatar faced up to the water security challenge
Qatar's domestic water consumption doubled between 2010 to 2020. Image credit: Andrzej K/Shutterstock

Water security is the most challenging issue the world faces today.

The UN estimates that 30% of the world’s population lacks access to clean water.

Qatar is a small country on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula.

It’s gone from being a country with the least amount of emergency freshwater in the region to being one of the most water-resilient in just two decades.

As a civil engineer working on a major project enabling this shift, I’m here to explain how.

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History of water in Qatar

Qatar is a peninsular, a desert with a long shoreline along the Persian Gulf Sea.

Until the mid-20th century, the country’s only known source of water was the groundwater aquifer (a body of permeable rock which can contain or transmit groundwater).

The only source of freshwater was found between the tertiary marine limestone aquifers.

A low number of storms in the Arabian Peninsula led to the aquifers being depleted. This made Qatar’s water security problems in the second half of the 20th century even worse.

A changing population

Water Sprinkler with Crop Field in Doha Qatar
Water demand for irrigation adds to the security challenge. Image credit: Hasan Z/Shutterstock

To address its water supply issues, Qatar constructed and expanded its first desalination plants, which supply 99% of the country’s water needs.

The plants changed how people moved in the region.

They went from being transient populations to permanent populations settled mainly in the city of Doha, the current capital of Qatar.

However, this population shift, with the associated economic growth, made the water scarcity problems even worse.

The water security challenge

The use of water in the domestic and industrial sectors is considered a major challenge to water security in Qatar.

As the country’s permanent population grew, its domestic water consumption doubled between 2010 to 2020.

At an estimated over 450 litres per person per day, Qatar has one of the highest domestic water consumption rates in the world.

The problem is heightened by citizens not having to pay water bills.

The depletion of natural resources

Massive development and construction in the country also means that industrial consumption of water is huge.

Meanwhile, the country’s Planning and Statistics Authority’s annual statistics show that the amount of groundwater being withdrawn from the aquifers is at a rate several times more than the rate it’s being refilled naturally.

Groundwater being overused for irrigation has been the reason given for the deterioration of the quality of groundwater aquifers.

Issues with relying on a desalination water supply

View of desalination plant in Qatar
View from an aeroplane of one of Qatar's desalination plants. Image credit: Oscar R/Shutterstock

While Qatar relies on desalination to meets its water needs, there are some issues around their use.

The plants are expensive and consume a lot of energy during operation, and arguably, not very environmentally friendly.

They’re also vulnerable to natural crises and security conflicts.

In the past, another big problem was that a large amount of water was lost in the network due to leakage.

However, investment in the water distribution network has helped significantly.

Water loss in the network fell from 30% to just 2% in 2020.

How Qatar is solving its water storage problem

Qatar doesn’t have enough freshwater resources, and water storage is a major concern.

In 2010, Qatar only had around 48 hours’ worth of water stored in case of emergencies.

This led to the state-owned water utility company Kahramaa to invest in drinking water storage capacity.

To increase the storage capacity, it began the Water Mega Reservoirs project.

The Water Mega Reservoirs project

The first phase of the project, which started in 2015, aims to build 24 large concrete reservoirs to store seven days’ worth of potable water.

This would meet the expected demand for water by 2026.

The second phase will provide seven days of water storage for the forecasted demand in 2036.

These mega reservoirs are in key strategic locations along the Qatar National Utility Corridor.

They’ve been built with an interconnecting network, and fully automated pumping stations to add security, contingency, and reliability to the system.

The system will have a 24-hour supply, increased coverage, and continuous flows of water that complies with World Health Organization standards.

The reservoir project is also record-breaking.

In 2020, it entered the Guinness World Records as having the largest-ever drinking water storage tank, measuring 436,633.45 m³ (96,045,931 imperial gallons, 115,346,354 US gallons).

My role

I’m fortunate to join this huge programme as civil engineer for KEO International Consultants.

My responsibilities cover the design review and approval of all contractor proposals, and daily site management.

This includes supervising, monitoring construction activities, and overseeing the project contracts, quality, health and safety matters at the project site.

It’s a magnificent programme.

I’m gaining experience of the design, construction, and operation of mega reservoirs, pumping stations, and control buildings, tanker filling stations, potable water, surface water networks, dry utilities, lagoons, and many more.

I’m being able to learn at a depth of knowledge I’d never have thought possible at such an early stage in my career.

Culture change

Alongside the technical work to address water security in the country, Qatar hopes a new marketing campaign will encourage people to live more sustainably.

Called Tarsheed, Kahramaa’s national campaign for the conservation and efficient use of water and electricity in Qatar wants to promote a change in habits.

The campaign is designed to provide information, raise awareness, and encourage the community to reduce their daily water consumption.

It’s too early to tell how well the campaign is doing.

Can ensuring water security and being low carbon co-exist?

All this activity is assuring Qatar in the race to water security.

However, not enough consideration has been given to the carbon impact of the programme during the reservoir construction and planned operation.

There’s an opportunity to fix this for phase two of the project.

For the planned expansion post-2026, we should be thinking of carbon emissions during the planning, construction and operation.

These could be addressed by rethinking the design, materials, and energy sources used to reduce emissions during each stage.

For example, renewable energy could be used to power the new infrastructure when it’s in operation.

The use of the huge water reservoir roof space with solar panels could be one of the answers to that problem.

The important thing is that we embed net zero carbon solutions from the start.

  • Hassan Suleiman, civil engineer at KEO International Consultants