EXPLAINER: World Cup host Qatar relies on desalination

Nov 9, 2022, 3:11 PM | Updated: Nov 10, 2022, 5:51 am

FILE - A water sprinkler on the corniche, overlooking the skyline of Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, Oct. 1...

FILE - A water sprinkler on the corniche, overlooking the skyline of Doha, Qatar, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. World Cup host Qatar is among the world's most water-stressed countries. But it's a problem the tiny, wealthy Persian Gulf emirate has largely paid its way out of, thanks to expensive technology known as desalination that makes seawater drinkable. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

(AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Arid and surrounded by the salt waters of the Persian Gulf, World Cup host Qatar is among the world’s most water-stressed countries. The nation of 2.9 million people has no rivers, and receives less than four inches (10 centimeters) of rain per year on average.

It’s a condition the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate has largely paid its way out of, thanks to expensive technology known as desalination that makes seawater drinkable.

In doing so, Qatar isn’t alone. Fellow Gulf Arab monarchies Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates also lack freshwater and depend on desalination. Israel does too. But the solution comes at a cost: Removing salt from seawater is energy-intensive, burning lots of fossil fuel. It also creates a byproduct that, when discharged into the ocean, can affect marine ecosystems.

Here’s a look at the country’s water supply and the role of desalination.


A process that makes freshwater, which humans can consume, from seawater.

Desalination plants draw water from the ocean through large pipes and blast it through fine membranes that allow water molecules to pass, but keep the salt out. That process is known as reverse osmosis.

There are other types of desalination but reverse osmosis is the most common. Inland brackish waters can also be desalinated.


Desalination plants are scattered along coastlines across the world, but the highest-capacity plants are located in high-income, water-starved Middle Eastern countries with ample coastline, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Saudi Arabia is home to the world’s largest plant.

Reverse osmosis technology has been around since the 1950s. Gulf Arab nations were among the first to embrace it. After soaring oil revenues in the 1970s and ’80s transformed them into some of the world’s wealthiest countries, they began investing heavily in the infrastructure. Israel got serious about desalination in the late 1990s following a severe drought.

There are nearly 16,000 desal plants worldwide, according to a 2019 estimate by researchers at the United Nations’ Water and Human Development Program. About half the water they produce is in the Middle East and North Africa.

Qatar is highly reliant on desalinated water from the Persian Gulf. The desalted water makes up about 60% of its total supply and nearly all of its household water, according to 2019 data from the country’s planning and statistics authority. The government heavily subsidizes water for its residents. Groundwater makes up an additional quarter of the country’s supply and is mostly used by farms. It is over-pumped and rapidly depleting.


Desalting ocean water at scale uses a good amount of energy. Often, the electricity comes from burning fossil fuel.

“It simply takes a lot of energy to pull salt out of water,” said Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the California-based Pacific Institute, who has studied water resources for decades.

The process has become more efficient in recent decades. But it still takes between 3.5 and 4.5 kilowatt hours of electricity to desalinate 264 gallons (1,000 liters) of water, according to an 2019 analysis by Korea University researchers of more than 70 large-scale facilities. A U.S. refrigerator uses about 4 kilowatt hours of electricity per day.

Then there’s the brine, or highly salty sludge left behind by the filtration. Some facilities dispose of it on land or inject it underground. But most desalination plants send it back into the ocean. Some dilute it before doing so.

Brine also often contains heavy metals and chemicals used to treat seawater on the front-end. Its high salinity and temperature can hurt seaweed, coral reefs and seagrass habitats. Worldwide, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar account for 55% of desalination brine, according to researchers at the U.N. Water and Human Development Program.


Qatar expects to increase its water supply by 10% during the World Cup, a spokesperson from Kahramaa, the country’s water and electricity utility said. That means it will draw from its large desalinated reserves and could even increase how much ocean water it filters each day, said Amin Shaban, a hydrologist at Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research and expert on Middle East water systems.

That water will be used to accommodate an expected 1.2 million fans and maintain thousands of acres of grass grown for soccer fields and training sites.

The energy cost of desalination and Qatar’s heavy reliance on it add to questions about Qatar and FIFA’s promise that the World Cup will have almost no effect on the climate.

Officials respond that toilets and dust control in the eight World Cup stadiums are using recycled water. But the actual soccer fields that groundsworkers have been watering for months — including through the country’s blistering hot summer — are using desalinated water.

“The water footprint will increase,” for the World Cup, said Mohammed Mahmoud, director of the climate and water program at the Middle East Institute think tank. He said the increase would still not rival the water used by Qatar’s farm sector, however. “They’re nowhere near the same scale.”


Follow Suman Naishadham on Twitter: @SumanNaishadham


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Ex-Packer Guion gets 1 year for domestic violence assault

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion was sentenced to one year in jail after pleading no contest in a domestic violence assault at his home last fall. Brown County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Walsh also ordered Guion on Tuesday to serve three years’ probation and complete a domestic […]

1 year ago

Joe Jarzynka...

Associated Press

Durant eager for Suns debut vs. Hornets after knee injury

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kevin Durant has been through quite a bit during his 15-year NBA career — but joining a new team midway through the season is a new one for the 13-time All-Star. The 34-year-old Durant doesn’t seem all that worried. Durant makes his highly anticipated Phoenix Suns debut on Wednesday night against […]

1 year ago

FILE - Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores stands on the sideline during the second half of an N...

Associated Press

Judge: NFL coach can press discrimination claims in court

NEW YORK (AP) — NFL Coach Brian Flores can pursue some of his discrimination claims against the league and its teams in court rather than through arbitration, a judge ruled Wednesday. The written decision by Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan was issued months after lawyers for the league tried to get the lawsuit moved to […]

1 year ago

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Alex Stalock cools off in the first period during an NHL hockey game ...

Associated Press

Kane trade reinforces hard reality of Blackhawks rebuild

CHICAGO (AP) — After days of speculation, the harsh reality of the Chicago Blackhawks’ situation was reinforced by one move in a flurry of transactions ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Showtime is over, at least in Chicago, and a seemingly bright future is, well, way off in the distance. The reverberations of Chicago’s decision […]

1 year ago

FILE -  Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haitian Football Federation, wearing a protective face mas...

Associated Press

Disgraced ex-Haitian soccer president announces he’s back

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti’s former soccer federation president whose lifetime ban from sport over sexual abuse allegations was overturned last month announced Wednesday that he is reclaiming his position. Yves Jean-Bart’s defiant announcement could lead to a standoff with FIFA, which already has appointed an emergency management committee to lead the Haitian Football Association […]

1 year ago

FILE - Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers walks off the field after an NFL football game against the ...

Associated Press

Rodgers says decision on future will come ‘soon enough’

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Aaron Rodgers says he will make a decision on his future “soon enough” as the four-time MVP quarterback ponders whether to play next season and if his future remains with the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers, 39, discussed his future while speaking on an episode of the “Aubrey Marcus Podcast” that […]

1 year ago

EXPLAINER: World Cup host Qatar relies on desalination