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Qatar blockade is a warning to desert countries that rely on imported food

Connections between food, water, energy are at heart of security issues in many parts of the world

Zahir Irani | The Conversation 

Sahara Desert, Desert

The wealthiest nation on the planet is facing a sudden experience of what poverty might be like, if relationships with its neighbours are not restored. Though has an extraordinary per capita income of $130,000, compared with around $57,000 in the US, it has a glaring weakness – the small desert peninsula imports around 90% of its

This has come to a head as a result of the blockade placed around by neighbouring members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, who accuse it of supporting militants. It furiously denies the claim. Because most of Qatar’s had previously arrived across its only land border with Saudi Arabia, the blockade created the potential for imminent shortages, food inflation and unrest. Severe food shortages have only been averted thanks to urgent new deals with Iran and Turkey, which are flying and shipping in.

is an important example of a nation potentially made complacent by its wealth. Why cultivate your own when you can simply buy it in? The country also has a major waste problem exacerbated by a regional culture of social extravagance. It appears to have given little attention to securing resilience within its supply chains.

The blockades have exposed Qatar’s lack of domestic production. Its hot, dry climate means most land is unsuitable for agriculture, and costs are high. The local industry therefore does not have the knowledge, expertise or infrastructure to compete with cheaper, sometimes “loss leader” ranges of imports that are seeking to create an anchor presence in anticipation of other ranges to follow. Huge economic inequality also plays a role: wealthy, status-conscious Qataris prefer higher quality imported food, while at the other extreme a cost-conscious imported workforce cannot afford to be choosy.

So what can be done? The connections between food, water and energy are at the heart of security issues in many parts of the world – and is no different. Huge oil and gas reserves mean the country is obviously rich in energy, but it needs secure supplies of all three to underpin its development. at least has the financial resources to invest, reducing its reliance on others in respect of and water.

Desalination plants have been used since the 1950s in the Middle East to convert seawater for drinking and But the financial and environmental costs are unsustainable: it has been estimated that the 30 desalination plants in rely on around 300,000 barrels of crude oil each day. Solar-powered desalination plants look to be the future as they are capable of producing a litre of water for around 2 cents (compared with US$1 for a litre by conventional desalination plants), but it still isn’t certain whether these plants can be deployed quickly and cheaply at the sort of scale required.

Costly and unsustainable green lawns on the outskirts of Doha. Philip Lange / shutterstock

To get its industry going, needs to promote new generations of “agro-preneurs”. They’ll need to be backed with subsidies, business-friendly start-up policies and the necessary capital for facilities. The fledgling enterprises will need an ecosystem of knowledge and expertise in to demonstrate how they can become established in local markets and be more attractive than imported goods. Limited land mass and already large numbers of small individual plots means that creating some sort of “National Corp” would not be easy – but not impossible.

Current legislation tends to encourage rather than limit waste – and this needs to be reversed. has a system of strict expiry dates, with no “best before”. This affects consumer attitudes and, in a more major way, that of retailers. Any expired products are often sent to landfill as this is cheaper than returning them to distant manufacturers.


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Smart marketing and widespread education is needed to change “normal behaviour” among consumers who currently reject “non-perfect” foods, see excess as rubbish, and prefer luxury global brands as a definition of status. A culture of good hospitality and buffets for every social occasion and event isn’t helping the food waste problem. In particular, Qataris will need to learn to accept the lower standard (at least initially) of produced locally by an immature industry but one with much potential for enhancement.

A combination is needed of new enterprise, new regulations to limit waste and new technologies. Here, should develop its own research, and become a leading innovator in technology designed to grow, transport and store even in an arid climate – it certainly has the resources.

Zahir Irani, Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law, University of Bradford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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First Published: Wed, July 05 2017. 08:24 IST