On the table: Increasing local production is key to meeting growing demand

As one of the only nations on the planet that is a desert ecosystem from border to border, Qatar faces the challenge of carefully balancing the food and water needs of a relatively small community in the global marketplace with the strictures of limited import routes and a harsh environment. However, as Qatar’s population broke through the 2m mark in 2013, ensuring a supply of good-quality food and water for a large and sophisticated populace has become an issue of concern. Depletion of natural freshwater reserves has also impacted the productivity of the domestic agriculture sector, while increasing wealth and globalisation have boosted consumer demand for a wide variety of new foods and beverages. Consequently, Qatar currently imports more than 92% of its food. The hazards of having such a high import dependency in this area struck home in 2008, when global food prices rocketed.

Paying The Bill

Food makes up one of Qatar’s largest and most volatile import bills. According to the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics , food and live animals accounted for QR2.18bn ($596.8m) in imports in the second quarter of 2013 – 12.9% up on the same period in 2012. This constituted 9.1% of the total import bill. When beverages, tobacco, animal and vegetable oils are added in, the figure is closer to 10%. Meanwhile, Qatar’s agriculture and fisheries sector contributed only QR125m ($34.2m) to GDP in the second quarter of 2013, or 0.14% of the total. The sector has been badly impacted by freshwater supply issues, with local food production declining 30% since 2008.

This is largely due to the depletion of natural aquifers that serve as the only supply of freshwater to farms in Qatar. According to the Qatar National Development Strategy (NDS) 2011-16, some 250m cu metres of groundwater are extracted every year, while rainfall and flows from Saudi Arabia are able to replace only 56m cu metres of water. At the same time, the use of groundwater is almost free for Qatar’s farmers, who pay only a small pumping charge and often use highly inefficient flood irrigation methods for open fields. As freshwater volumes decline, salinity rates are increasing and water aquifer quality is declining, threatening farmers’ livelihoods and the nation’s water security.

New Approach

Faced with these issues, the Qatar National Food Security Programme (QNFSP) was launched in 2008 under the guidance of the current Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. A key part of the programme is a framework that sets domestic production targets based on the best and most sustainable use of water and land resources.

Under this framework, the government will work with private sector farmers to target a better blend of crops, adopt technologies to boost efficiency and improve agricultural practices with the goal of producing five times more food with the same amount of land and one-third less water than is used today. Recharging the aquifer is also key, with the QNFSP advocating the construction of dedicated, agricultural desalination plants to supply water to farms.

In a January 2014 interview with US broadcaster NPR, Fahad bin Mohammed Al Attiya, QNFSP’s executive chairman, said while Qatar currently produced around 1m cu metres of desalinated water per day, the plan calls for a further 700,000-800,000 cu metres of capacity to be built, with most of this intended for food production. The programme also calls for further research on using treated sewage effluent for irrigation.

In all of this, the private sector is expected to be key, with the QNFSP seeking financial and wider business sector investment in these projects. One major outfit likely to play an increasing role in the international trade and investment side of things is the Hassad Food Company (HFC), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority. HFC has been investing overseas in agriculture. The company has a $500m foreign investment programme under way, with the aim of developing agricultural production overseas for export to Qatar.

Boosting domestic production of key goods in a sustainable way is one part of the systemic approach QNFSP is taking to reform the nation’s food system.

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