A non-partisan, neutral perspective supporting diversity in the color of water

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Questioning the Status Quo in Qatar

Water shortages are no news in the Middle East. This article in Gulf Times caught my eye for a number of reasons. First, the institution where I work, Oregon State University, recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Qatar for technology transfer. OSU is not unique in this regard; many schools have done the same, and some have even opened campuses in Qatar. According to the press release *The Oregon and Qatar representatives discussed near term collaborative projects in the areas of new desalination technologies, irrigation and monitoring procedures and agronomic methods.  They also discussed a multi-institution, multi-state effort to establish a "next generation" irrigation management program based largely on using brackish water and reclaimed waste water to optimize agricultural use of water*. The only challenge I see in fulfilling this MOU is that OSU, like many other US institutions, is seeing their world-class faculty with expertise in these areas retiring. And the State of Oregon is still just on the first baby steps in approving the rules of greywater reuse in the state, so there is not much active research in this arena within Oregon, save the folks at the award winning Oregon-based company Puralytics.

*Qatar could develop a number of small, decentralised sewage treatment and water-recycling units instead of relying on centralised plants that receive all the greywater and blackwater through a communal system* is what a UNESCO advisor is recommending. *Independent sewage treatment facilities, if installed at housing complexes, shopping centres, and institutions with a large number of employees, would streamline the entire process and save huge quantities of fresh water*.

Previous postings have discussed greywater reuse in the Middle East, specifically this excellent document published by the Canadians and this posting about the importance of greywater to national security in the Middle East. Dr. Peter Gleick of the water thinktank Pacific Institute came out with a comparable challenge to centralized water distribution and wastewater treatment in this posting, suggesting *The old centralized model of water purification, delivery, and wastewater treatment could use some competition from small-scale, distributed systems that may produce better local benefits. This includes expanding local efforts to use greywater*. And who can forget this classic posting on the challenge to the wastewater treatment industry's local pocketbooks with decentralized water/wastewater systems.

How big is the market? According to this article, *Distributed water purification could, potentially, also finally open up the long-awaited flood of investment into water...The field of water treatment could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year...A shift to distributed water and private sector customers could accelerate the market. You could even see companies like IBM, Bechtel or Siemens offering the complete off-the-grid package to new housing developers and contractors*.

Contesting the status quo in Qatar just might be what it takes to make a shift from *protecting the power* of the proponents of centralized water/wastewater treatment. According to the UNESCO official studying the Qatar situation, the region is very dependent on desalination plants that *...are not really clean factories...They cause brine pollution in the marine environment with the output of higher saline water, which in turn brings biodiversity down...The desalination plants, which cause thermal pollution by heating the water a little bit, are also responsible for substantial air pollution as they are using fossil fuel*.

Of course, the more water needs to be produced, the more these plants will pollute the air. So taking care of the waste water, trying to recycle it, is in all of our interest, it is in the interest of our environment, and human health,” Dr. Boer added.

* * *

"Those individuals, communities, and institutions that benefit from the current allocation or perceive they will suffer from a change have great power to defend the status quo." Hamman, R. 2005. The Power of the Status Quo.  In Adaptive Governance and Water Conflict: New Institutions for Collaborative Planning, J.T. Scholz and B. Stiftel, editors. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, pp.125-129.

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