Establishing green practices in Qatar

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Sixty years ago, while Pittsburgh was enjoying its peak, Doha was a sleepy fishing town of a few thousand. Today, the city is larger than Pittsburgh by nearly 100,000 inhabitants, not to mention itinerant workers, and shows little sign of stopping. Like nearby Dubai, Doha, the capital of Qatar, exploded in the second half of the 20th century after the discovery of oil and natural gas resources in the late 1940s, and it continues to develop at a rapid pace.

Throughout the city, old buildings are demolished and new ones put up in the course of only several months. Development projects that might take a decade in the U.S. are complete in less than two years in Doha. One Carnegie Mellon Qatar staffer whom I spoke with on a spring break trip to Doha remarked only half-jokingly that he saw land leveled and a building go up, get torn down, and be replaced by a new building within the course of a year. This is growth at such a pace that Americans, except perhaps those in some parts of the Southwest, would have trouble comprehending.

Still, all of this growth is occurring in a country firmly entrenched in a set of practices and planning decisions that are environmentally destructive. The most apparent problem is Qatar’s lack of recycling practices, which will likely be easier to tackle than some of the city’s design problems. On a city planning level, Doha often takes on the feel of a contemporary American suburb; it’s difficult (and often either prohibitively dangerous or hot) to get anywhere on foot, and in the absence of effective mass transit, most get around by driving from place to place in energy-inefficient SUVs or vans. Lastly, dredging for land reclamation projects continues to tax the marine ecosystem, and the city often uses its limited water resources for irrigation of decorative landscaping.

In speaking with my comrades at the Neville Co-op about these problems, one of them hit upon an interesting point. How can you conceive of a green lifestyle in the desert, where nothing is green? The question is not superficial: Without evidence of either polluted or resuscitated rivers, deforestation or reforestation, or years of research on the effects of pollution in diverse ecosystems, how do you sell the idea of green practices in this region?

On top of this problem, it remains the fact both here in the U.S. and in Qatar that economic incentives for business and governments to adopt green practices are not always readily apparent. The problem is even worse in Qatar, where the small number of residents can consistently rely on huge natural gas revenues, so that even if the externalities of growth pose risks to the environment, they are not likely to be prohibitively expensive.

To further exacerbate my friend’s point, though Qatar is arguably one of the most open and progressive nations in the Gulf, it is not a democracy and the ability of residents to put pressure on the government and create change in environmental practices is severely limited. Because there is not democratic representation and the residents of Qatar are not subject to taxation from the government, it would be difficult to muster enough political leverage to create change.

This is exactly the set of problems that student organizations in Doha are currently facing. The Carnegie Mellon Qatar campus, for example, is home to Livegreen, a student group working to promote and raise consciousness of green practices despite these seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Its members believe, and I agree, that despite massive difficulties, there is potential for Qatar to accept green practices.

While visiting Doha, I frequently heard that green practices will be hard to implement because they are not a part of the established culture. This notion, however, is inconsistent with some current Qatari practices. For example, many toilets in Qatar come not with a single handle, but with two buttons, one for a light flush and one for a heavy flush, in an effort to conserve expensive desalinized water. Moreover, every electrical outlet, including individual outlets on power strips and outlets for dishwashers, refrigerators, and air conditioners, has its own switch, which allows consumers to control and monitor their electricity use more effectively. Thus, it is clear that Qatar has a widespread understanding of conservation, which is a central idea in any system of green practices.

Moreover, saying that green practices are inconsistent with the values of Qataris ignores the tenet of sustainability, which is the foundation of the green movement. Indeed, the goals of green practices and the goals of Qatar’s leaders in developing that nation’s infrastructure and industries are largely consistent. Qatar is investing its natural gas revenue in education, science, and technology for a reason: The emir, Sheik Hamad, knows that while his country’s natural gas resources may last for a while — 50, 100, 200 years — they will not last forever. At some point, Qatar will be left to sustain itself with only sand and ocean, at which point it had better have a diversified economy and some unique goods and services.

In a mind-boggling twist, Sheik Hamad’s government is spending its gas money on developing education and science at a rapid pace in order to end the country’s future dependence on non-renewable resources like natural gas and ensure a diverse economy in the future. Though it would be too much of a stretch to call this a green practice outright, it still suggests that Qataris are concerned, at the very least, with sustainability in the economic sense. Grassroots student groups like Livegreen understand that concern for the future economy and stability of the country must be tied to current environmental practices, and as such, have taken on the difficult task of working with Qatar’s younger generations to raise awareness of this vision.