QATAR: ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION IN QATAR; NO JOB FOR DILETTANTES
BY RICHARD H. CURTISS
Even the most casual visitor to Doha, the sparkling modern capital of Qatar, sees that both the government and its citizens care about appearances. Along main streets and in the traffic roundabouts banks of annual flowers gladden the eye. In the city's parks, lawns almost too thick, carefully mowed, green and weedless to be real provide the venue for family picnics and impromptu games of soccer. Around the edges of parks and playgrounds and at prominent locations throughout the city, flowering shrubs and artfully placed weathered limestone rocks and picturesque succulent and cactus plants, some of them imported from Arizona, provide more green accents to this oncebarren metropolis.
Throughout the parks and along the city's several miles of beautiful seaside corniche there are public restrooms, drinking fountains, and unobtrusive but regularly placed trash receptacles. What's more, Qataris use those receptacles. There is less litter than on typical downtown American streets, and watchful cleanup crews are much in evidence.
From the time a quarter-century ago when Doha's city walls were taken down so that the once tiny fishing port could expand into the present sprawling seaside capital of 400,000 residents, aesthetic and environmental concerns have been evident. Back from the curving corniche, streets are broad and straight, running between roundabouts placed at regular intervals. And as new housing blocks, shopping centers and office towers are completed, the construction rubble is promptly removed. Following that rubble to its final destination would lead the visitor from the initial aesthetic concerns to the next phase of environmental protection in Qatar.
The phase of educating the public concerning the need for environmental protection has been the job of the schools for a generation and it is largely completed. While Qataris still express dismay that not all the residents are sufficiently environmentally conscious, in fact Qatari nationals, who as children were inculcated with the idea that real patriotism is taking care of their native land, now are government officials and CEOs of major industrial concerns. They seem prepared to cooperate with any government initiatives for protection of the land, air and surrounding coastal waters. What they need now is guidance on how to do this and on the difference between acceptable and unacceptable standards.
That is exactly where Qatar's Department of Environmental Protection comes in. Its predecessor agency was the Environment Protection Committee, established in 1981 and directed by an inter-ministerial council chaired by the minister of health. Its recommendations were submitted to the Ministerial Council (Qatar's cabinet) for approval. Initially most of these recommendations concerned which international environmental organizations, treaties and protocols Qatar should join or sign.
In 1993 the EPC was absorbed into the newly created Department of Environment, which now reports directly to Minister of Municipalities and Agriculture Sheikh Ahmad bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, son of Qatar's ruler. While it still is concerned with the more glamorous work of identifying and protecting endangered species of plants and animals, increasingly the Environment Department's resources are focused on the Herculean task of setting and enforcing standards for clean air and water and for waste disposal.
This is because the directorship of the department, which remained vacant for the first two years after it was established, has been filled since April 1995 by an energetic and pragmatic scientist who has organized his department to take a firm lead in coordinating the environmental protection standards of Qatar's major industries.
"If we can control our industry, 75 percent of our environmental problems will be under control," explains Khalid Ghanem Al Ali, director of the Environmental Department of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture. To do this, he has added to his staff 20 scientists and technicians in his first year in office. Of these, half are Qataris and half are expatriates.
Khalid Al Ali himself is a 33-year-old meteorologist with both a B.A. and M.A. in atmospheric sciences from St. Louis University in Missouri. He explains that as the result of the work of his department and its predecessor agencies, an environmental law consisting of 90 articles has been drafted. The law has been submitted for evaluation to the West Asian office of the United Nations Environmental Program in Bahrain, which in turn has forwarded it to various specialized agencies. Meanwhile, Qatari government departments that will be affected by the law are examining it and making suggestions before it is enacted. When it is signed, it will apply internationally approved standards to every industry in the country.
At that point, the legislative phase of Qatari environmental activities will be largely completed, according to Al Ali. The department then will concentrate on enforcement. To simplify this, he explains, a computer data base has been compiled with data on every major industry in Qatar, along with generic facts and figures on the country's smaller businesses and manufacturers. "Qatar will be known for its strong data base," Al Ali declares. "Not only have we included all of the above, we also have created a data base for both the companies and for the chemicals that they work with or produce."
Another example of this approach is the matter of landfills. Much of the Qatari peninsula is only a meter or two above sea level. Thus disposition of construction rubble, industrial waste and even municipal refuse becomes important in terms of building up the level of areas upon which future construction is planned.
"Garbage is a resource for us," Al Ali explains. The Department of Environment decides where such refuse is deposited. Benign waste such as construction rubble is used where it is most needed. On the other hand, possibly toxic industrial waste is placed in landfills where it will not contaminate water supplies or endanger future occupants of those areas.
Al Ali notes, too, that Qatar is working very closely with other GCC member countries in matters concerning the environment. While each country is free to organize according to its own needs the environmental efforts which cut across many disciplines and departments, both Bahrain and Kuwait have departments of environmental affairs which operate very similarly to that of Qatar.
Al Ali's own preparation for the position he holds reflects the rapid development of scientific and technical expertise in the Gulf. Born in Qatar, he had his first six years of education in Saudi Arabia where his father worked for the Arabian American Petroleum Company, now Saudi Aramco, in Abkaik. Back in Qatar, Al Ali chose a science-oriented secondary school curriculum. Upon graduation he was offered a scholarship by the Ministry of Education if he chose a specialization that was needed by the government. There were two vacancies in meteorology and now Al Ali is one of two qualified meteorologists in the country.
He is eligible for another scholarship leading to a Ph.D. degree at a foreign university, and therefore had a choice between pursuing a Ph.D program in solar energy at a British university, or becoming the first director of environmental affairs. He chose the latter position partly because it was urgent that the position be filled, and partly because he sees starting such a department from scratch as a major opportunity that will not be available to future generations.
Under pressure from his petroleum engineer father to continue his Ph.D. studies, he has elected to build a Ph.D. proposal around an environmental strategy for the State of Qatar. He hopes to interest an American or other foreign university in allowing him to pursue a Ph.D. while completing much of the work on the job in Qatar.
"Qatar can be an example for everyone," Al Ali says. "I'm not a dreamer. I prefer a practical approach, but with high standards. For example, after we publish standards for air quality, we will make provisions for air monitoring for each industry, making sure also that the equipment industries purchase for this task meets our standards and is compatible with our own equipment for checking their work.
"First we must do this on a national level." Al Ali explains. "Then, since our industries are situated very close to similar industries in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other countries, we will work on coordinated specifications on the regional level. In the future we will be internationally recognized for these achievements, because we are shooting for very high standards."
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