Looking for Green in the Desert, an Irishman is Lured to Bahrain

In his new book, Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State, Gareth Doherty, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, captures the tension between staying green and being sustainable.

Photo of Bahrain

To Gareth Doherty, there's no such thing as a single color "green." There are just too many hues and variations to commit to one label. Doing fieldwork in Bahrain, a desert nation in the Persian Gulf, he found a palette of colors, each imbued with the history, social dynamics, and politics of the island nation. Even when they live in a desert, people need green. On his daily walks across this arid, thirty-mile-long island, he documented the persistent presence of green, from green-painted roofs and doorways to a flourishing of scrub in the desert after a brief rain shower.

Because people hunger for green space, states and individuals will go to great lengths to get it, taking steps that are at odds with sustainable development. Doherty investigated the resources required to keep Bahrain green, and explored the facts and myths of how a country lost its fresh water and its iconic date palm groves over the past century. His fascination with fieldwork also has led him and his students to the Bahamas to study the sustainable development of an island archipelago, and to Brazil, where states experience different amounts of rainfall and seasonal blankets of green.

The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs asked Doherty about his year in Bahrain, and what he’s discovered about how people use and respond to the various colors of green in their landscape.

Q: What drew you to Bahrain?

A: I was attracted to Bahrain because I was intrigued as to why there was so much green space in the desert. And I chose it because it's walkable—one state, one territory. And because it's an extreme example of a phenomenon that affects cities all over the world. We have an assumption that because something is green it's good or it's good for the environment, and we know this is not always the case.

Q: Your photographs reveal a desert. Was there ever a time when Bahrain was lush?

A: Yes, there is a myth that the Garden of Eden was in Bahrain. Date palms are a traditional icon of Bahrain, with groves covering the north and west parts of the island. Their familiar color is a grey-green or olive green.  

The word Bahrain literally means “two seas” in Arabic. The first sea is the Persian Gulf and the second sea is the freshwater springs which punctuate the north and west coasts and also the seabeds. These springs, mostly gone now, irrigated the towering date palm groves for a millennium. Unfortunately, Bahrain has changed so much in the past century in ways that could not have been predicted.

Map of Bahrain

Q: You write that the springs were vital to agriculture. How did irrigation take place?

A: The springs supported the environment by providing fresh water for irrigation. In the past, there existed a series of water channels and very detailed customary irrigation laws that would control when water was applied along the channel. So one farmer would receive water in the morning another farmer might not receive it until the evening, and so on. But there were customary laws that governed the route of the water.

Q: How did Bahrain lose its green?

A: The discovery of oil brought with it a whole urbanization and increase in population and wealth—and maybe less reliance on the date palm groves. And I think with that wealth came a change in values attached to green. In the past maybe the greens that were valued more were the olive greens and so on. And today it's something brighter. The state has its own values on green. There is an obsession with the creation of green space along highways and on roundabouts and so on, and it is designed to be seen from the car which is how most people experience the landscape today. So you get this landscape that looks green from a car but when you look at aerial images you just see this little green strip.

Green spaces were seen as spaces of prestige and were mostly owned by the elites. So if you owned a date palm garden you had a degree of social prestige and you could invite people over on a Friday afternoon. 

With the increase in urbanization in the 1970s people say it was the time where the city and the greenery became one—the city expanded out into these green areas that line the north and west coasts. No longer did you have one or the other but it was just this mix. It was a city-state.

Q: How did the natural springs dry up?

A: There are all sorts of narratives about why the water dried up. Some people tell me that it's because of the increase in population that the water is over-extracted. Other people say it's because of reclamation projects along the coastline and the development of artificial islands offshore which upset the whole ecology of the springs. 

Still other people blame Saudi Arabia for using the water for agriculture because the water actually originates in Saudi Arabia and flows underground, and then under the sea. But I think the bottom line is that the population has been increasing from 80,000 in the 1920s to 1.4 million today.

Q: How much water does it take to keep greenery growing in Bahrain?

A: Today Bahrain is one of the highest consumers of water in the world. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries have the highest per capita water consumption globally. And a huge amount of that water is used in Bahrain to irrigate green space. 

One figure I saw showed that in 2002 the city of Dubai spent $1 billion on desalination of water purely for green-space irrigation. Why would you pour a billion dollars into the ground? It must create more value than what you are throwing away, and it probably does, in terms of business development.

Q: You and your students have been collaborating with the University of the Bahamas to study sustainable development in an island archipelago. What parallels do you see between that country and Bahrain?

A: For one, they both begin with “Bah.” Both got independence from Britain around the same time. When you read descriptions of Bahrain in the early 1900s they're actually quite similar to what the Bahamas looks like today. 

That makes me wonder what unexpected events could happen in the Bahamas, what it will look like in 100 years’ time? I love Bahrain, but I'm not sure it has developed in the best way. One would hope that should unforeseen events happen in the Bahamas that development could take place in a better way.

Quotation from Gareth Doherty

Q: Can you describe your fieldwork in the Bahamas?

A: After a year of doing ethnographic work in Bahrain—which naturally took a long time—I started to think that the only way to speed up this type of work is to remove ethnography from the domain of the individual to the collective.  

So we asked, rather than one anthropologist spending a year in the field could you have fifty-two people spending a week each, and could that add up to something equivalent to one person spending a year? Of course the data will be different and the interpretation of that data will be different. But can you achieve something of a similar level of “thickness,” as ethnographers would say? That's what we did. In our fourth year of research, we had fifty-two people on our team and spent one week doing research on topics like death rituals, diving practices over coral reefs, local industries like straw plaiting, and boating.

We developed an online platform where selections from field notes were shared among the group. We found that images can be a fantastic way of recording your observations from the site.

Q: What was your most important finding from that project?

A: I think the greatest insight we gained was about the role and impact of fieldwork to effect change. It’s not just about getting a “thick description,” to use the oft-quoted phrase, but allows a focus on action too.

One of my students worked with an island-based couple who wanted to be advised on the garden for their new house. So she developed a plan and they looked at it and said, “No no, that's not what we want. We want a lot of green trees, lots of vegetation.” And the student said, “Well, you do realize that it'll all have to be imported.” And they said no problem, we also want a brick driveway, and she said, “You will have to import the bricks from the United States,” and they said fine. They also wanted a lawn. She said, “Well, you're on an island and there's no fresh water; it will take a lot of water.” And they said that's no problem. They showed her an image of a house in Miami with luscious vegetation. So, they didn't get along. 

But a year later I went back to that island and I met the owner of the house just as I was leaving, and she said I want you to come into my garden. I initially said no, because my boat was leaving. 

But she insisted the boat would wait for me, and I was astonished to find the garden was more or less as the student had recommended! It was quite beautiful and it was very simple. They had no grass and they had minimal greenery, but they used a lot of flowers that didn't need a lot of water to survive. It looked great.

So this small example shows that fieldwork is not just about observation, but it can be about changing; and it's that personal engagement that can bring about that change. So fieldwork is not just about looking, it's about doing and making an impact too.

Q: What are the cultural and political associations with the hues of green in Bahrain?

A: For millennia, the date palm groves in Bahrain were interspersed with farming villages. People farmed the groves, and the date palms would provide shelter for the agriculture underneath. Those spaces are often seen as Shia spaces because the villages were where the Shia population mostly lived. Today some people would see these villages as centers of resistance to the mostly Sunni-run state. (I am conscious of how clumsy these terms Shia and Sunni are in this context and fully acknowledge the inadequacy of the terms.) This is where the main opposition would be. And therefore the palm groves that surround them are sometimes also associated with resistance to the state. 

Q: How does the population respond to Bahrain’s loss of green? 

A: People constantly lament the passing of the date palm groves. To compensate, they seek green in other ways. 

What’s wonderful is what happens when it rains—and it will rain for a very short time, like thirty seconds—the desert gets covered in a film of greenery. Some Bahrainis get so excited they call it jangily, which is mangled from the word “jungle.” And then people will go and have picnics on this space. 

Another remarkable thing to see is what happens at night in the summer. Migrant workers in Bahrain make up around half the population. They tend to come out at night, when it’s cooler, and at weekends, to go to these green strips along highways—even roundabouts, spaces that are really hard or dangerous to get to—and they will sit and have picnics because it's green.
I've also been doing some fieldwork in Brazil. And what I'm trying to do in Brazil is to develop a comparison between different cities in different climatic zones.

I spent some time in Brasilia trying to contrast that with Bahrain, because for eight months of the year Brazil is very dry. But unlike Bahrain, they have a four-month rainy season and everything is transformed. It's this magical moment where people just suddenly notice. After eight months of droughts the first drops will come, and very quickly the city turns green and people get excited.

Q: You point out that Bahrainis find ways of bringing green into their lives by means of painting roofs or walls green or covering their fronts steps in green, to name a few examples. Do you think this is a fairly satisfactory replacement for greenery?

A: We know that if indigenous plants are planted along the highway people complain that it’s not green enough. They want green grass and brighter hues of green. Desert-loving plants tend not to be green enough. I'm saying that maybe there are other ways in which green can be introduced. All too often it's assumed that just because something is green that it's good. Let's ask what hue it is and how green it is over the longer term.

I'm a landscape architect; obviously I would like to have green spaces, but I think we need to be aware of the hues of green that we're working with and also think of maybe more efficient ways of introducing or keeping green in the city. 

Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Gareth Doherty is an assistant professor of landscape architecture and senior research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His new book, Paradoxes of Green: Landscapes of a City-State, considers the concept of green from multiple perspectives—aesthetic, architectural, environmental, political, and social—in the Kingdom of Bahrain. It is available through the University of California Press. 

Photo Caption:  

Villas in “the greenbelt” outside Manama, Bahrain. Credit: Gareth Doherty