UAE Struggles With Environment Issues Despite Strong Economic Growth

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The environment is in us, not outside of us.

                                                                                …..Ian Somerhalder

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Sumera B. Reshi

 “We recognize that preserving our resources will be one of the greatest challenges in our drive towards sustainable development. This, however, will not materialize unless different facets of our society adopt energy conservation principles in their core values”, Muhammaed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Premier of the UAE, ruler of Dubai said.

Shaikh Al Maktoum was right. Nothing can be achieved without the collective efforts of the society. Like other nations in the world, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also transmuted from a traditional economy based on fisheries, oasis agriculture and livestock to a modern, highly urbanized industrial country.

Unabated industrialization and urbanization caused the exploitation of natural resources, rapid population growth and high energy demands.

Soon after the UAE joined the race for development three decades ago, it started facing major environmental issues.  Given the UAE’s geography as a desert country, modernization posed lot more challenges for the bio-diversity. Due to rapid urbanization and industrial boom (oil & gas), over fishing and over grazing, the region lost habitat for wildlife and that was the first environmental causality in the UAE.

Today, the region is witnessing issues related to waste management, water scarcity, and pollution concerns, especially in the proximity of new industrial complexes. Often times, the UAE is wrapped in dense fog rather smog (suspended aerosols) which hampers smooth traffic activities and leads to rampant road accidents.

In the recent past, the UAE has seen tremendous economic growth, which has put pressure on its existing natural resources. Hence, the government of the UAE is working extensively on developing a strategic framework for sustainable water management, water scarcity, excessive air and noise pollutions, yet the region is not safe from environmental hazards.

In order to take a big leap and be considered among the developed nations, most of the countries in the Middle East jumped the development bandwagon blindly, not even realizing the after effects. To catch pace with the development, natural resources are being consumed at a rate far faster on average than their availability. In the UAE, this marathon towards overshoot (using more natural resources than our planet can actually sustain) began in the early 1980’s. According to Global Footprint Network estimates, the ecological budget or bio capacity of the planet Earth is approximately 2.1 global hectare per person, however, 2.7 global hectares are used annually to support the life style. As of 2009, overshoot has been estimated to be at 40%. (http://uae.panda.org/ews_wwf/ecosystems_uae/threats/#sthash.9om04Ey1.dpuf).

In one or the other way, we all collectively or individually are responsible for increasing this trend and the UAE is no exception. As per the 2008 World Wide Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report, the per capita Ecological Footprint of an average UAE resident in 2005 was the highest in the world at 9.5 global hectares although according to government sources it has come down substantially.

Given that UAE is a world famous tourist destination, recreational outdoor activities are an intrinsic part of its economy, nonetheless, it has had repercussions on the environment, especially in fragile ecosystems such as the Hajjar Mountains (The Hajar Mountains are a range in Northern Oman stretching along the northern coast of Oman, from southwest of Muscat to the United Arab Emirates) where a growing number of occasional tourists camp around and mess around with the environment.

In spite of rapid development, UAE is facing profound challenges. For the survival, one doesn’t need only skyscrapers. Today Dubai looks like a concrete jungle. It might look like Manhattan but the precipitous urbanization has posed severe environmental threats. Out of the 9.2 million, the expatriates contributed to around 7.8 million with the Emirati Nationals holding a population share of 1.4 million. With a vast demographic variation, there are a varied number of nationalities who form a part of the majority of the expats in UAE especially Dubai and Abu Dhabi.  UAE has become a favourite and inexpensive migrant destination for South Asia and Philippines. This huge influx of migrants has put a great pressure on its biodiversity. Currently, the country is facing water scarcity issues. Water seems to exist everywhere but is undrinkable without desalination.

The UAE has the highest per capita water consumption in the world. An average UAE resident consumes about 550 litres of water a day as compared to a global national average of 250 liters per person each day. This consumption is three times more than average per capita consumption.  Since UAE is an arid land, sources of water are desalinated water and groundwater. However, researchers believe that groundwater in the UAE might fall significantly in near future. They predict by 2030, there could be less supply from groundwater resources (http://www.khaleejtimes.com/region/uae-among-top-10-states-to-face-acute-water-crisis).

According to the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, 72 per cent of water used in the UAE comes from groundwater, 21 per cent comes from desalination and only 7 per cent is treated water. Further, treatment of water by desalination has certain flaws.  While desalinating the water, these plants emit great amounts of carbon dioxide which has given the UAE world’s largest carbon footprint.  Due to these desalination plants, the gulf’s salinity levels have risen to 47, 000 parts per million. According to a senior researcher at the World Wide Fund for Nature in Dubai this upsurge is enough to threaten local fauna and marine life. According to experts treated water is often left unused and dumped which makes local environment vulnerable to dangers. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/28/business/energy-environment/28dubai.html).

Besides, rapid growth has given rise to other allied problems which include sewage treatment operations.  The UAE’s per capita waste generation is among the world’s highest. The majority of this waste ends in landfills. In addition, desertification is one of the most imperative problems in the Arabian Peninsula. Research reveals that drought and over – exploitation of the natural resources are the cardinal factors for desertification. Human factors like over population, change in social order pattern and consumption systems play a vital role in increasing incidents of land degradation and desertification. Further, the extreme use of pesticides and fertilizers, logging and overgrazing deteriorate the soil quality.

On the contrary, a prevailing climatic condition in the UAE like high temperatures leads to evaporation, relative humidity and low average rainfall which contribute to the emergence of fragile ecosystems which makes the region vulnerable to the erodible soil. Such a condition adversely affects the groundwater reserves. All these factors have a deeper impact in areas with deteriorating vegetation and perhaps erosion caused by the wind. Sand encroachment and formation of sand dunes is considered the most influential aspect causing land degradation in the UAE.

Today desertification is a global phenomenon. Dry lands occupy about one third of the earth’s surface and the UAE is also one among the arid land countries which face problems in agriculture due to the scarcity of water resources. And the dire need of water for irrigation and daily consumption in the UAE is expected to increase over the years. With this, the realization of the importance of water management has also increased and awareness campaigns have been launched throughout the UAE.  Other than awareness campaigns, need is to adopt initiatives aimed towards preserving and developing water resources – reducing the impact of water footprint across all sectors and to take geographical conditions in view before jumping into the developmental bandwagon.

(Sumera B. Reshi is an Assistant editor of  The Legitimate).

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