Policies to Buildings: The UAE’s Emergence as the GCC’s Sustainability Leader

UAE Map

Karim Elgendy

Settling along the shores of the gulf

In the barren deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, people have always settled in locations that provided freshwater and enough natural resources to enable trade and economic development. Human settlements in the southern shores of the Gulf, in what we now know as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are no exceptions to this.

For the last four centuries, the Bedouins of the Banu Yas tribes have settled a strip of land along the northern edge of the dune fields of the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter. Drawn to its plentiful ground water resources they established what is now known as the Liwa Oasis and developed date plantations which provided subsistence. But when fresh water was discovered on the Abu Dhabi Island in the late 18th century, Al Bu Falah branch of Banu Yas moved to the coastal location which – in addition to providing fresh water- also allowed them to develop pearling industry and trade.

In the early 19th century, another branch of the Banu Yas, known as Al Bu Falasa, moved from the Abu Dhabi Island to settle near a natural creek 90 miles east of the Abu Dhabi Island. In addition to ground water and pearling, the creek – now known as the Dubai  Creek- allowed the establishment of a port which facilitated trade with neighbors across the gulf and beyond. They quickly established a settlement on the western shore the creek – known later as Bur Dubai – but had to abandon it two decades later and move to the eastern shore after a smallpox outbreak. By the end of the 19th century, the combined advantages of fresh water availability, the natural port, the pearling industry, and the good geographic location, were sufficient for the new settlement to endure a sweeping fire that burnt through most of it dwellings. The Bedouins that have settled in Dubai sought no other location and simply rebuilt their settlement.

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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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Stories of Water Scarcity in Jordan

Hiba Abu Al Rob, Majd Jayyousi, Khaled Abu Ajwa, and Rashed Al Nasa’a

The water situation in Jordan is in need of dramatic changes to ensure positive outcomes in national water resource management. Already nearing crisis levels, it is estimated that any slight change in current levels or quality of water will have a significant effect on agriculture, industry, nutrition, health and ultimately the security of the Kingdom.

This is a story that everyone has heard before. It is a story at the heart of Jordan’s neighborhoods and villages where ramifications are felt every day, affecting the lives of thousands of individuals. Men and women, both young and old, have learned the meaning of water scarcity the hard way, as places and communities they call home have transformed into daily battlegrounds of uncertainty and disappointment. To tell the story of water in Jordan, one would travel far and wide, yet this is an attempt to tell the story through  three tales of struggle, determination, and success in facing one of the biggest challenges this century.

The fields surrounding the village of Al Mughayyir, in northen Jordan, bear witness to the effect of water scarcity which has created a shift in the social pattern of local villages, with many abandoning agriculture and farming and moving to neighboring cities. Photo Copyrights Mohammad Asfour

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Averting Crisis: Managing Energy Use in Abu Dhabi

Lara El Saad

Recognised as one of the world’s largest oil producers, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, holds 94% of the country’s proven oil reserves and 90% of its natural gas, making it the wealthiest of the seven emirates in the federation. In recent years, and despite the recent economic downturn, Abu Dhabi maintained a steady pace of development that was accompanied with steady increases in energy demand and consumption.

This growth of energy demand and consumption has been as result of a number factors. Prime amongst which is economic growth and the demographic pressures of a growing population. But equally important to these factors are the heavy subsidies on the domestic energy market, which encourages overconsumption, and the heavy subsidies on domestic water use, which play a major factor in the growth of energy use in Abu Dhabi.

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Water Availability and Use in the Middle East

Karim Elgendy

An infographic representing a comparison between residents of different countries around the Arab World in terms of their available renewable water resources and their total water use ( including desalination of sea water and non-renewable ground water).  Total water used in each country is also presented as a percentage of available renewable water resources. The infographic was researched and designed by Karim Elgendy and was based on raw data provided by the World Resources Institute. Copyrights for all infographics are reserved for Carboun. No reproduction or republishing of any infographic or part thereof without prior written consent from Carboun.

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Sustainable Development and the Built Environment in the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities

Karim Elgendy

In the western context, notions of sustainable development often refer to the need to adjust existing economic models in order to maintain better balances between economic growth and social needs, while protecting local ecologies and reducing the negative impact of growth on the global environment.

In the developing world, however, sustainable development takes on a rather different meaning. With the agendas of developing nations focused on addressing basic developmental challenges such as economic growth, water scarcity, food security, and health, other environmental and social aspects are considered secondary at best and for the most part a luxury that a developing nation cannot afford.

The Environment and the Middle East – Pathways to Sustainability – Volume 1.

In the absence of functioning economic models in the developing world, sustainable development here is not about adjustments to maintain balances. Instead, it is about using this economical tabula rasa to build the foundations of a new economic model in which sustainability and the environment are integral. One of these economical foundations is the built environment.

The built environment of our cities plays a major role in shaping the way we live and work, and given its relatively long lifespan its impact is long lasting. Our buildings determine how much energy we use to maintain thermal comfort while our infrastructures determine how much energy we need for transportation. It is estimated that 40% of carbon emissions worldwide is produced from the occupation of buildings with at least a portion of transportation’s 20% share being a consequence of the way our cities are planned.

Our built environment also influences our impact on the local environment as well as our collective health and wellbeing. Thus, as the cities of the developing world continue to grow, they continue to make decisions about the direction their development takes.

In the Middle East, the role of the built environment is becoming more pronounced as the region continues to experience rapid population increases and urbanization. Increased urban densities together with the rise of consumerism, have not only led to an increase in environmental degradation locally, but they have also meant that the region’s traditionally low energy use — and consequently carbon emissions– are set to rise and to play a larger role in global climate change.

But embracing sustainable development in the Middle East faces many challenges which prevent it from becoming part of the region’s development framework and its building industry practices.

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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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