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Could Agriculture Bloom in the Desert? Qatar Works to Invent an Innovative Oasis

June 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Thanks to Qatar's harsh desert environment and growing population, researchers have embraced the tiny country as a laboratory to address global concerns. As part of the NewsHour's series "Food for 9 Billion," special correspondent Jon Miller reports on their inventive efforts to ensure water and food security for the future.

GWEN IFILL: Next, we continue our weeklong look at food security and how climate change is affecting what we produce and how we eat.

Tonight, special correspondent Jon Miller reports from the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Qatar on inventive ways to get the most out of water in the desert.

It’s part of our series “Food for 9 Billion,” in partnership with Public Radio International’s “The World,” Homeland Productions, American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

JON MILLER: Every day, hundreds of tanker trucks line up at the Mazrouah pumping station outside Doha, in the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. They start rolling in at 6:30 in the morning and keep filling up until 10:00 at night.

Their cargo is not oil or gas, the resources that have given Qatar the highest per capita income in the world, but water from an underground aquifer that’s quickly drying up.

JONATHAN E. SMITH, Qatar National Food Security Program: We have got about two years left of an adequate supply, a usable supply of high-quality freshwater in this particular aquifer.

JON MILLER: Jonathan Smith has been thinking about water since he was a kid. He grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, where his grandparents lived through the Dust Bowl. He came to Qatar in 2012 after making documentaries about water problems in the American Southwest. Now he’s a spokesman for Qatar’s national food security program.

JONATHAN E. SMITH: It’s a very exciting time to be in a place that is struggling with food security and water security and really trying to rethink what it means to have a long-term and durable prosperity.

JON MILLER: Qatar is growing incredibly fast. But the growth masks some troubling numbers. The population, just under two million, has more than doubled in the last 10 years. The country imports 93 percent of its food. It gets less than three inches of rain a year. Temperatures top 120 degrees in the summer. Climate change is just going to make things harder.

JONATHAN E. SMITH: Qatar is in many ways ground zero for a lot of the challenges we’re going to see in the century ahead.

JON MILLER: Already, 99 percent of the water people use for farming, drinking, or swimming comes from the sea. It takes a huge amount of energy to remove the salt and a huge amount of money.

For now, Qatar has both. But the country’s leaders know the oil and gas won’t last forever. So they’re taking a radical step, planning ahead, and not just for themselves. Worldwide, more than two billion people live in dry areas, where climate change poses an urgent threat to food, water, and energy supplies. Qatar’s leaders say they want their country to be a laboratory for solving those problems before it’s too late.

JOAKIM HAUGE, CEO, Sahara Forest Project: It’s not unheard of that areas that has deserts in them are brought back to vegetation.

JON MILLER: Joakim Hauge is happy to take up the challenge. Hauge was a biologist working for a Norwegian environmental group when he heard about a plan to green up the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. Now he’s the CEO of a company called The Sahara Forest Project.

JOAKIM HAUGE: It is these saltwater-based greenhouses.

JON MILLER: He says it was founded not on a specific product or technology, but on an idea.

JOAKIM HAUGE: And that was, well, let’s take what we have enough of, like seawater, like sunlight, like sand, like CO2, to produce what we need more of, food, water, energy, in an environmentally friendly way.

JON MILLER: In 2012, with backing from two big fertilizer companies, the group built a $7.5 million dollar pilot site next to a giant ammonia plant in an industrial zone outside Doha.

The design is meant to mimic a natural ecosystem, where the waste product from one component provides the food or fuel for another. The raw materials are sunlight and saltwater. These curved mirrors intensify the sun’s heat to power a thermal desalination unit. Soon, algae will be growing in these ponds to be harvested for biofuel and possibly to feed fish or shrimp.

Seawater runs through cardboard panels, cooling the air in this greenhouse, where cucumbers grow in coconut fiber. And CO2 is pumped in from the factory next door, making the plants grow dramatically faster.

VIRGINIA CORLESS, Scientist, Sahara Forest Project: Three weeks ago, they were about this big. And they have grown to here.

JON MILLER: Virginia Corless had gotten her Ph.D in astrophysics, and was working at the U.S. Senate when she first heard about the Sahara Forest Project.

VIRGINIA CORLESS: I gave the first brochure to all of my science friends in D.C. and said, tell me what’s wrong with this, because it sounds great. Is there anything I’m missing? And our consensus was, no, it actually — it all holds together.

JON MILLER: Today, Corless is the project’s research director.

VIRGINIA CORLESS: The core innovation in the Sahara Forest Project is the integration of technologies. So while many of the individual technologies have been developed elsewhere in the world, they have never been brought together in this way.

JON MILLER: Corless says she’s most excited by an experiment to cool and moisten the air outside the greenhouses ever so slightly, so shrubs and trees and even food crops can take root and grow.

VIRGINIA CORLESS: And as they grow, they’re adding organic material to the soil, to the sand.

JON MILLER: If it works — and results have been good so far — she can imagine vegetation spreading out into the surrounding desert, creating an ecosystem of its own.

The goal? A system to produce food and water and energy that actually reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Corless is quick to point out that this pilot site is for testing ideas, not for making money. Once the kinks are worked out, the goal is to build much bigger commercial facilities around the world.

VIRGINIA CORLESS: The technologies that we’re being developed here can be applied anywhere that is a desert with a hot and relatively dry climate and where you have access to salty water. That’s a lot of regions in the world.

JON MILLER: But it’s a risky business. In a complex and expensive system like this one, if one thing goes wrong, it can sink the whole enterprise. Qatar’s Jonathan Smith says it’s great to think big, but you need to spread your bets.

JONATHAN E. SMITH: The question of whether, is it a responsible technology to bring up to scale and does it provide a resilient enough solution to call it the silver bullet for food security for a country, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think any single technology is going to do that. It’s going to take a mix of things.

JON MILLER: And a lot of those things can happen with existing technology right now. To illustrate the point, Smith takes us to see Nassir Al-Kuwari on his family’s farm about an hour from Doha. He’s covered his crops with mesh to shade them from the blistering heat. And he’s built hundreds of low-cost plastic greenhouses.

Plans are to build hundreds more. In the meantime, he’s cut down on water and waste. With temperatures rising and groundwater falling, Al-Kuwari knows he’s in a race against time. But he thinks he’s winning.

NASSIR AL-KIWARI, Farmer: People think that Qatar is nothing but desert. But when they come here, they see that we have fertile soil. If we protect our crops, I think agriculture will only get bigger in the coming years.

JON MILLER: That’s good.

The next few years will bring enormous challenges for the world’s driest areas in energy, food, and water. There’s no telling where the search for solutions will lead. But it will likely be fueled by renewable resources, like ingenuity, imagination, and perseverance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can find links to stories by our partners in the “Food for 9 Billion” series on our website. And, tomorrow, we will look vertical farm fields that rise high into the skies over Singapore.