Leading Qatar’s energy quest

by  — 25 November 2012

The Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) was launched January 2011 and is a member of Qatar Foundation. Leading QEERI’s quest is its executive director, Dr. Rabi Mohtar who spoke to TheEDGE about Qatar’s leadership in promoting a more sustainable future, and what inroads QEERI is making to this effect, including a sustainability research portfolio that will be highlighted during COP18 in Doha in late November.


Before coming to Qatar, Dr. Mohtar, who originally hails from Lebanon, spent 16 years as an Environmental and Natural Resources Engineering professor at Purdue University in Indiana in the United States. Here much of his main focus was on water resources and modelling, which is essentially studying and recommending ways and means to more effectively utilise natural fresh water for public and private distribution and consumption. In 2009, at Purdue, Dr. Mohtar was the inaugural director of the Global Engineering Program, which he calls “an integrated programme that will help with education research and community engagement as a model for global engineering”
Armed with these impressive credentials, the soft-spoken, grey-bearded Dr. Mohtar then became involved with Qatar Foundation and the organisation’s chairperson, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned in 2005, ultimately becoming instrumental in the formation of QEERI last year, as executive director.

Based in Education City in Doha, QEERI – whose motto is “From Carbon to Creativity” – was created to launch research programmes in energy and environment, including solar energy and environmental assessment research programmes. QEERI also seeks to ensure clean air and water and to, among other goals, promote human resources in the country in terms of research and development (R&D) solutions in making Qatar’s hydrocarbon resources more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Part of its mandate is also to investigate alternative energy options, and to study what is known as the ‘water-food-energy nexus’.

With his experience at Purdue and a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Agenda Council on Water Security and Climate change, author of more than 200 peer reviewed papers, and member of several international advisory boards on water security, Dr. Mohtar is well positioned to steer QEERI toward its aims.

“I was very pleased and honoured to be a member of the Water Security Council since 2009, and this year I will be joining the Climate Change Security Council in the World Economic Forum,” says Dr. Mohtar. “One of the things that I was able to contribute to this water-energy-food Nexus as part of the World Economic Forum Water Agenda Council, and that was published by a group of us in the council. It was presented in January 2011. The beauty about this is that I think the core of it is inter-connectedness between water security, energy security and food security. We knew that conceptually, but to promote it at that stage has been very effective; where policy makers are now considering water footprint when they are designing their energy security plans and energy footprint when looking into water security, simply because these resources are very much interconnected.”


It is of course no secret that the Middle East suffers from chronic water shortages, affecting agricultural and industrial output, and the output and usage of energy, all of which undermine regional stability.
“My projection is,” concurs Dr. Mohtar, “especially with the Arab world, is that we are heading for a head on crash, and it is not only about water security. It is about economic meltdown…most of our water, over 75 percent goes into food production and yet we don’t have enough water to meet our own needs and on top of that, our water use is not efficient.” Regional water usage for crop production says Dr. Mohtar is double that of Western countries. “If you go to automated hi-tech farms in the West, their water use efficiency is very high. It reaches into the 90s.”

Dr. Mohtar feels that stakeholders in the region need to take measures urgently, whether through desalination or by improving efficiencies. “We have 40 percent water gap in the next 20 years, we have to meet that gap…this needs creative and innovative ideas, but also with need for the policy makers to listen and to make it effective and actionable. If you don’t have that, then we are heading for a crash which I think is going to be much more significant than what we are seeing in terms of the uprisings and instability today.”


So where does Qatar and, more specifically, QEERI fit into all of the above? What directives from the authorities in the country are there for the trifecta of water conservation, sustainable energy and food security that affect the research mandate and activities of QEERI itself?
“We have two guiding principles,” says Dr Mohtar. “The first and over arching one is the Qatar National Vision 2030 in which there are very clear directions that the country should take in terms of a green economy and improving the quality of life for Qataris in terms of conservation of the natural resources. The other guiding principle is more recent which the president of research and development at Qatar Foundation has launched, the Qatar National Research Strategy (QNRS), which goes into the role of research in meeting QNV 2030 targets.”

The formation of QEERI could perhaps not have come at a better time. With upto 55 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per capita, Qatar has come under criticism and developed a reputation – deserved or not – as a major polluter, as well as per capita one of the highest consumers of water and energy in the world.
“The Ministry of Environment and all of the public sector is aware of these challenges,” says Dr. Mohtar. “I do acknowledge that Qatar has higher than average emission rates, I do acknowledge that the usage and efficiency of energy and water use are not where they should be, and we are aware of that and we are working very closely with all stakeholders through QNRS to create a research programme that will help improve these processes.”

Though, says Dr. Mohtar, the Ministry of the Environment is the keystone to aligning the country’s environmental policies, regulation and enforcement of these and every facet of society must be involved. “We are working on creating a network of sustainability,” Dr. Mohtar explains. “It is the responsibility of all of us to work towards better public awareness about conservation of energy, food and resources. So the issue is very complex and it is the responsibility of all to be part of it.”

On the subject of emissions, Dr. Mohtar is equally frank, agreeing that the oil and gas processes in the country are a major source of emissions. However he is also keen to stress that this is also a major part of the raison d’être of QEERI and Qatar Petroleum, the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Environment are being proactive in becoming involved in finding solutions to the environmental challenges Qatar faces.

“I am not justifying but stating facts,” he then defends the country’s reputation for high emissions, at least in part being skewed by the statistics. “But Qatar is penalised with these figures because it is a small country. If you look at the denominator, which is the number of population, which is very small, and because it is an oil and gas producing nation, the denominator is very high. So that is why the numbers do not reflect the reality.”


With such a vast set of challenges ahead, prioritising in the QNRS, says Dr. Mohtar is, well, a priority. And the challenges in meeting these challenges include not only infrastructure, but also human resources, which is one of the reasons QEERI as part of its broader mandate is also focused on building the capacity of young Qatari scientists. “One of our signature programmes,” adds Dr. Mohtar. “Will be alternative energy. There are other areas, such as environmental assessment, but our biggest thrust with the research programme will be with solar energy research and its application to solar desalination, for example.”

With research and development, and indeed potential commercialisation of solar energy resources seeming increasingly likely in Qatar through the efforts of companies such as Gasal/QSTec (who are developing a local solar energy plant) and Chevron/Green Gulf (developing a solar test site), it is natural to wonder where QEERI fits into the framework.

“Because we have different mandates, we have different roles, explains Dr. Mohtar. “While our role is to build local capacity, in research… in R&D for the solar energy programme it complements the effort by the solar industry, so I am hoping that in the next five to 10 years, some of the technology that we will develop in Qatar for Qatar will be promoted by the industry.”

Desalination does seem like a panacea to the region’s water shortage woes, especially if it is powered by the sun. However, the process itself has its own ecological challenges, from the location of processing plants, and its impact on fresh groundwater – which is already under threat from seepage from industrial locations and rubbish dumps in Qatar – if the saline pipes used for the process leak into it, to potential marine disturbance through discharge of briny water and even noise pollution.


“At the technical level,” explains Dr. Mohtar, “we are working with national stakeholders and partners on pilot programmes that will reduce the energy footprint for some of the desalination. We are also working on more energy-friendly desalination to produce and maintain the production of water to meet the increasing demands.”

To this effect, reveals Dr. Mohtar, QEERI, as the representative for Qatar in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Alternative Energy Network, will be launching the Alternative energy preparedness report during COP18 meeting in Doha at the end of November. QEERI, he says has participated in a regional survey to look at the forecast for energy use and how Qatar and the region could embark on its own targets for alternative energy over the next decade. “The report is very significant, as it will highlight commonalities and challenges that we all face in the region and how we can work together in meeting those alternative energy targets,” adds Mohtar.

On the significance, or indeed as some critics have opined, the irony of Qatar hosting an event such as COP 18, Dr. Mohtar is equally candid. “Qatar I believe is the first country that is a major oil and gas producer and the first country in the region to hold such an important event. I think that we have an opportunity to showcase with proper management, research and planning, proper coaching, countries and to at least set a target…for how we could move to the near future and in the coming few years with more sustainable development. I think that is a commendable statement by the State of Qatar that despite all of the challenges, there is a will and dedication from the leadership to say that we acknowledge the environmental challenges and we are working towards sustainable economies, and I think that is the significance of Qatar hosting COP 18.”
Another important aspect of COP 18, adds Dr. Mohtar is fostering existing partnerships, and creating new ones. “I believe very strongly in partnerships,” he says. “We have significant partnerships, which we rely on, in the solar energy area in particular.”

These, as Dr. Mohtar indicates, mostly involve academia. As far as involvement in the private sector is concerned, while there is some involvement on a local level, he accedes that there is not enough. “From my experience back in the US the private sector is more engaged in research,” Dr. Mohtar says. “I think that we are still at the early stages of engaging the private sector in Qatar, and it should play a bigger role in funding research in helping out the public and the research sector in meeting the goals, and I look forward to seeing some joint funded projects with industry. I would like to see more funding, more resources that the private sectors invest in promoting R&D.”


As far as the future of QEERI, and the success this young entity hopes to achieve, not only for the future of Qatar but also the world as a whole, Dr. Mohtar is optimistic but realistic. “QEERI is working on collecting base line environmental data including air, water, and soil quality as well as biodiversity,” he adds.
“We are also looking at ways to integrate all of this into an a common framework to help policy makers make more informed decisions. We have been involved in integrated environmental research for many years and across several continents, and notice that dry areas of the world are less studied as compared to other eco-zones. QEERI’s long-term goal is to develop the data and system knowledge to fill this gap for Qatar and other dry regions around the globe.”

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