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Parched for Peace: A Slight Digression, Just for Kicks

I know I began this series with the stated desire to examine the connection between the Mideast water crisis and unrest in the region. I still fully intend to do that, but some discoveries are too shocking (Dubai’s water security – see last post) and some decisions too absurd (see below) to overlook, even if they don’t necessarily fit within the arena I set out to examine. There’s more to come on the regional tensions being aggravated by severe drought in Syria and Iraq, but for today, I find it necessary to go back to the region I wrote about two weeks ago: the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Qatar's Sheika Mozah bint Nasser al-Misned is handed the World Cup trophy following FIFA's annoucement that the Middle Eastern nation would host the tournament in 2022. (Source: AP)

Yesterday, FIFA announced that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar, the first Middle Eastern country ever chosen to host the tournament. The decision has been met with heavy criticism, particularly from Americans, many of whom feel that the USA was robbed of its chance to host the event for the first time since 1994.

I’ll admit here that as an American, I was hugely disappointed to learn that the World Cup would not be held here. As both a soccer fan and an environmentalist, however, my disappointment with FIFA’s decision is based on more than wounded national pride. And while some of the criticisms and accusations hurled at the voting committee are not based on much more than that (“Qatar has never even qualified for a World Cup,” point out American fans and reporters), some of the concerns raised actually seem very valid from where I’m sitting at the Water Center.

First, there is Qatar’s size: as former US national team member Eric Wynalda pointed out in an interview with the Associated Press, “a successful World Cup would mean the attendance would be twice the population [of Qatar]”. This might seem like something to chuckle over but if you know anything about Qatar’s water supply and sewage treatment capacity (and who isn’t well versed in such matters?), you know this issue is no laughing matter.

A large desalination plant in Qatar is one of many that supply the nation with a vast majority of its water. (Source: Texas A&M University)

Like the UAE, Qatar relies heavily on desalination plants to supply water to its very thirsty citizens (according to a report in Market Research, Qatar is one of the largest per-capita consumers of water in the world) and currently only has the capacity to store 1.5 days worth of water for use in an emergency. Similarly, Qatar’s sewage treatment plants have struggled to keep up with the growing population. While new desalination and sewage treatment plants are being constructed and more plants are being planned for, such a massive influx of spectators – relative to the population – could strain even expanded facilities, which would pose a serious risk to both Qatar’s residents and environment.

One of the many stadium designs proposed by the Qatari World Cup bid team. (Source: AP)

Second, there is the lack of venues to consider: at present, there is not a single stadium in Qatar fit for World Cup play. Instead, the very tiny, very wealthy nation will spend billions of dollars to construct 9 new stadia and renovate 3 existing ones. To ensure that athletes will be able to play in the high desert temperatures (which, in the month of June, can reach upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit) Qatar’s bid team has designed air-conditioned outdoor stadia. In a country that, among other environmental issues, has a severely limited water supply and the highest per-capita carbon emissions in the world, air-conditioned soccer arenas seem like a short-sighted and extravagant development investment.

Former President Bill Clinton supported the American bid in Zurich, where the final decisions for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were made by FIFA on Thursday. (Source: AP)

The final sticking point for me in this matter is FIFA’s apparent disregard for the environment, which seems to me to be implicit in their selection of Qatar. As Wynalda said in his AP interview, “basically, oil and natural gas won… This was not about merit, this was about money.” FIFA essentially sent the message that minimizing the capital that the federation itself has to invest in the World Cup is more important than the social and environmental costs associated with their decision. FIFA had an opportunity to take a stand against environmentally destructive development practices and instead, it got in bed and snuggled up with them.  As an international organization with the ability to reach so many, FIFA’s decision and failure to use its position to spread a positive message will have lasting effects, not the least of which is the poor example they set for other international organizations.

What’s the most immediate consequence of the decision? Well, yesterday the #1 search on Google was “Qatar”; the #2 search was “Quatar”. FIFA may not question Qatar’s environmental negligence but Americans at the very least question how a “q” can fail to be followed by a “u”.

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Alexandra Smelt
Alexandra Smelt
13 years ago

While I appreciate your concern with environmental issues surrounding the World Cup, I have some criticisms of your argument.

Firstly, under any circumstance and in any country the World Cup is going to be a devastating environmental expenditure. The travel involved will add carbon to the atmosphere, and the influx of tourism will strain any country’s water supplies. World Cups are large, one-time expenditures in the celebration of a sport. From an environmentalist perspective, they are wasteful. That is always true, no matter what FIFA’s decision as to the geographic location.

Secondly, to argue that the USA is an environmentally-sound choice is preposterous. To expect FIFA to be making a “green” decision in selecting the most serious carbon polluter to host the games is absurd. Sure, Qatar is no saint, with the highest per-capital emissions, but with such a tiny population that is still peanuts compared to the carbon output coming out of the States every year. Not to mention, travel to the USA is so much farther out of the way. Qatar is actually more centrally located in terms of world football fans. Travel is a big carbon cost. Also, in such a small country, the distance between stadiums will be many times smaller than that between the stadiums in the US.

The construction of the numerous stadiums does seem excessive. However, as a current resident of Qatar, I can lend some insight into how this country is working. The capital city, Doha, where most of the population is concentrated, is completely unrecognizable when compared to the same city 6 or 7 years ago. The amount of construction happening is absurd. Whether building empty skyscrapers or football stadiums, the show will go on, World Cup or not. In fact, the Emir had already stated that the country would go ahead with all building plans, regardless of the final outcome of the World Cup bid. In fact, once the World cup is over, many of the football stadiums will be wholly or partially disassembled and sent to developing nations that cannot afford to build their own.

I also have a problem with the argument that oil and gas money won. The oil and gas money does not come from within Qatar, it comes from elsewhere (cough cough, the UNITED STATES). The oil and natural gas interests of the US are so great in this country and in the Gulf region that the US has an absolute monstrosity of a military smack in the middle of Qatar’s desert to protect its “strategic interests.” How much water do you think that military base uses, considering it’s the largest in the region? I don’t have exact figures, but I know it’s more than a few gallons per day.

In conclusion, I think it’s difficult to point fingers at FIFA and Qatar when many of the environmental issues elsewhere in the world have a lot to do with the United States.

As a US citizen living in Qatar, while disappointed to see my home country lose the bid, I also rejoiced to see the excitement it brought to Doha and to the Middle East. Qatar, unlike the US, has football fever, and is about to host the Asian Football Games in January. In fact, international sporting events come to Qatar all the time.

For FIFA to support a “green” World Cup, perhaps it should next be held on the plains of Inner Mongolia, where tourists stay in yurts and travel by oxcart. Until then, I have the feeling that the extravagance will continue.

Katie Horner
Katie Horner
13 years ago

You’re right, of course: regardless of where it is held, the World Cup will of course generate environmental externalities. My argument is not that the World Cup will carry environmental consequences solely because it will be held in Qatar, but that holding it in Qatar will generate some consequences that could be avoided were it held elsewhere.

First, if the World Cup were held in a country where stadia already existed, money and resources would not need to be wasted to construct venues that, come the end of the tournament, will simply be taken down. While it seems that you view this as a positive, I respectfully disagree. Many of the environmental problems that Qatar currently faces could be immediately addressed by investment in green infrastructure and public awareness campaigns to reduce energy and water consumption. It seems imprudent to me to invest so many billions in a venture as transient and, in my opinion, pointless as impermanent football venues when that money could instead go towards more impactful applications. Additionally, I think it’s important to consider that precisely because Qatar’s main sources of national income are non-renewable energies, in order to ensure the country’s own energy self-sufficiency and economic wellbeing in the future, Qatar must take steps now to develop alternative energies and make sustainable economic investments.

Second, you’re right in saying that an influx of tourists on the scale of the World Cup would place increased pressure on any nation’s water supply. However, the difference lies in the means by which countries procure potable water. In a desert nation like Qatar, where a vast majority of water is gotten through desalination, the marginal cost of procurement in terms of environmental impacts is much greater due to the byproducts of the standard desalination process (high carbon emissions and saline effluent that is contributing to habitat alteration and increased water temperatures in the Persian Gulf).

Additionally, because of Qatar’s present inability to produce and store large amounts of emergency/reserve water, there are some added concerns for me:
1. Will Qatar be able to produce enough water to meet the needs of players and fans (the total number of which will amount to more than double the current population of Qatar)?
2. If Qatar does achieve this, what will the environmental impacts be, given the externalities of Qatar’s primary means of water procurement?
3. Presuming Qatar does expand its water supply infrastructure, will this result in even greater national water consumption after the world cup is over and spectators have left? If so, the World Cup will have contributed to an unsustainable and environmentally destructive national mentality regarding water usage.

Conversely, I certainly did not mean to imply that the US would be an environmentally sound choice for the World Cup. I meant only to convey my own disappointment that it won’t be held here, which I assure you is based solely on a personal desire to attend the world cup without traveling to another continent to do so. Your comparison of the US and Qatar as locations, however, was interesting. I think you’re right that in this regard, Qatar would be a more environmentally desirable location than the US or any other large country. Indeed, it’s great that come 2022, the proximity of Qatar’s stadia will result in a big reduction in the energy usually expended for transportation of players and spectators between venues. Your point about the centrality of Qatar is also interesting to consider, although I’m not sure anyone can say with certainty what the respective travel magnitudes to the two countries would be. I’d say that something to keep in mind there would be the number of host-country spectators: so many Americans would likely purchase tickets that there would probably be much fewer sold to spectators hailing from outside of the US. This would mean that fewer people would be flying into the US than will be flying into Qatar (which is of course not the fault of Qatar – it can’t help its size).

Finally, I’d point out that the argument surrounding historical polluters and current conditions is one that is rife with political, social, and economic biases and implications. Yes, there is no getting around the fact that the US has historically contributed and currently contributes atmospheric greenhouse gasses on a much larger scale than has Qatar. But like Qatar, the US cannot help its size. To overcome this spatial inequality I personally would look to per capita emissions, an important statistic in my opinion because of the national mentality that it belies. Despite having the monetary capacity to invest in clean technologies, Qatar still has the highest per capita carbon emissions and there is really no getting around that. It doesn’t mean that American citizens are conservationists by any means – certainly this is woefully untrue. It is, however, an indisputable fact. On a semi-related note, I loved your point about American activities in Qatar and would be really interested to know whether our military bases get water from Qatari desalination plants or import it from elsewhere. I’ll look into it.

Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be much widespread desire or effort to reduce energy or water consumption in Qatar. In America, however, that is undeniably something that is entering into public awareness and dialogue with increasing frequency. While I’d be the first one to agree with you that the US is nowhere near where it should be in terms of regulating greenhouse gas emissions (among other things), it does seem to me that even our insufficient and frankly embarrassing environmental policies chalk up to a bit more than do Qatar’s (although here I should admit a level of ignorance regarding the history and evolution of Qatar’s environmental policies).

Finally, I just want to reiterate that of course I agree with you that events like the World Cup are inherently wasteful and necessarily carry environmental consequences. The points I wanted to make were that 1. In my opinion, holding the event in a country where billions will be spent on construction of brand new stadia seems to be an unnecessary augmentation of the unavoidable environmental consequences of the tournament, and that 2. Given these considerations, FIFA could have brought some publicity to the issue of sustainable development (as well as some integrity to their organization) just by not choosing the location that will (probably) incur more waste via preparatory investments than any other location would have. In addition, there’s no getting around the fact that Qatar faces some serious ecological constraints that do not apply (on the same scale) to other countries that were vying for the bid (I’m referring here specifically to water scarcity). Despite differences in opinion, I really enjoyed reading and responding to your comment. It highlights a lot of interesting and very valid points and makes me think that if an American scholar of environmental policy feels that Qatar is not as ecologically negligent as my research led me to believe, perhaps there is hope for that tiny little desert nation you currently call home. There’s certainly the possibility that the World Cup will do for Qatar’s water issues what the Olympics did for China’s air quality ones. Here’s to hoping.