How Sustainable is Your Oasis?: A Review of Water Resources in Middle East Cities

Karim Elgendy

Liwa Date Farm, UAE. Copyrights: Google

Liwa date farms benefit from some of the freshest ground water in the UAE. Copyrights: Google

Those who visit the Middle East and North Africa from more temperate climates are often struck with how hot and dry the region is, and how scarce its rainfall. Some wonder why cities became established here, and how they continue to exist despite the lack of renewable freshwater.

These concerns are not entirely groundless. Yet these cities’ existence is not in any way miraculous: it’s merely an example of what can happen if cities fail to strike a sustainable balance between growth and limited resources.

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Dubai Experiments with Sustainable Development

Karim Elgendy

Throughout the last three decades, the city of Dubai has not been known for its emphasis on sustainability as guiding principles for its development. Not only did it adopt an unnatural rate of growth by middle eastern and global standards, it has also long disregarded the environmental and social consequences of its rapid urbanization. Dubai’s growth relied on -and was economically fueled by- a development model which imported inappropriate and inefficient building forms and planted them in its extreme climate. The result was a 1,500 square miles city (3,885 square kilometers) with isolated island buildings that are not only divorced from their environments, but which also require a great amount of fossil fuel energy to remain habitable.

Image 1. Aerial View of Xeritown showing massing and landscaping. Copyrights: X-Architects and SMAQ

The city of Dubai also has one of the highest carbon footprints per capita in the world, and even though this footprint is partially a result of energy intensive water desalination processes on which the city relies for its potable water, Dubai’s carbon footprint remains higher than that of other gulf cities including Saudi cities which also rely greatly on desalination.

In many ways, it is fair to argue that the Dubai’s model of development has been, in essence, the antithesis of sustainable development over the last three decades. In other words, Dubai has come to represent the climax of an obsolete development model in which humans attempted to subjugate their environment rather than coexist with it.

In contrast to this un-sustainable development pattern, Dubai’s neighboring city of Abu Dhabi has long adopted a measured and less extravagant development model. Over the same three decades, Abu Dhabi’s development model was generally characterized with a more sustainable pace of development. In the last few years, Abu Dhabi has been attempting to champion sustainable development in the Middle East by establishing a sustainability oriented framework for its development over the next 20 years, and by establishing the Masdar initiative which includes the world’s most progressive sustainable city project at its outskirts with ambitious zero-energy and zero-waste targets.

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