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Editor: This article has been submitted for the Masdar blogging contest “Engage: The Water Energy Nexus.” The winner will be invited to Abu Dhabi January 13-17 as VIP media to cover the week’s high-profile events. Please vote!

Government, business and civil society leaders along with citizens who seek a robust sustainable development policy at home should examine how Qatar is approaching its energy and water future--and learn from the country’s successes and setbacks.

Viewing Qatar as a model of sustainable thinking would seem odd and counterintuitive at a first glance. Qatar ranks as having one of the highest carbon footprints per capita on Earth, and its envious per capita income--approaching $100,000--is because of the nation’s booming oil and natural gas sector.

But a transformation has started in this tiny country of 1.8 million people. Central to Qatar’s agenda is the Qatar National Vision 2030 plan, which pledges to balance economic growth and environmental stewardship. Among the Vision 2030 goals are pledges to use more “environmentally sound technologies” and, of course, ensuring a safe water supply for its people.

Part of Qatar’s aggressive strategy is to fund a generous clean energy research and development infrastructure. Local firms have partnered with large global energy companies, such as Chevron, to explore advances in solar energy. Among these initiatives are projects that would allow for new methods of desalination to scale with next-generation solar technologies. True, part of Qatar’s push for increased clean energy sources is out of pragmatism--it makes sense to generate more clean energy domestically so Qatar’s energy firms can export more fossil fuels abroad. In the long run, Qatar’s leadership understands that oil and gas are finite resources--and without energy, there is no water.

While Qatar’s government sets new policies, the nation’s philanthropic arm, the Qatar Foundation, implements the country’s future. This organization leads education, research and science programs that will help the next generation of citizens flourish as Qatar weans itself away from a hydrocarbon-dependent economy. Students not only learn about sustainability; they live it as more university buildings become festooned with solar panels and environmental awareness becomes rooted in school curricula.

Critics who sniff at the changes unfolding in Qatar miss an important point--if new approaches to tackling both water and energy issues can succeed in Qatar and its extreme climate, they could scale elsewhere. Qatar must accelerate research in solar because as it stands now, just the dust alone from the country’s deserts has slowed down the effectiveness of new local solar installations. Next-generation desalination plants must help quench the nation’s thirst for clean water if Qatar is to have have its own farming sector; currently the country invests in farmland abroad, but that will change as the outcry against the “global land grab” echoes louder in the future. And for a country that has bet its prestige on hosting the 2022 World Cup, green building projects like a huge multi-use complex in downtown Doha, along with stadiums that can be comfortable yet sustainable in extreme heat, must work if this tiny nation is to avoid ending up as a giant laughingstock.

Businesses and politicians cannot change a country’s course alone, however, and Qatar’s residents, local and expat, are critical to this shift in sustainable thinking. Religious leaders are doing their part; many imams delivered sermons touting a focus on environmental awareness in the weeks leading to Doha’s hosting of the UN COP18 climate conference. And while Qatar lacks a strong civil society, organizations such as Sustainable Qatar bring together expatriates and citizens to highlight issues concerning water, waste and energy. The time to tackle the water-energy nexus was yesterday; Qatar has started and can teach the rest of the world a lot about how to approach the future.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

Image credit: Leon Kaye

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