Parched for Peace: A Slight Digression, Just for Kicks

by |December 3, 2010

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

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… Read more »

Katie Horner
Katie Horner

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… Read more »