Dr. Sohair Wastawy, Executive Director of Qatar National Library

Dr. Sohair Wastawy, Executive Director of Qatar National Library

Dr. Sohair Wastawy, Executive Director of Qatar National Library, has more than 40 years of international library and university management experience in the Middle East and the US, and has practiced and taught librarianship in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the US.

Meet Dr. Sohair Wastawy, Executive Director of Qatar National Library

By: Dina Al-Mahdy on April 13, 2019

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Prior to her new role, Dr. Wastawy worked as Dean of Libraries at Florida Institute of Technology. She held the position of Dean of University Libraries at Illinois State University, and was the first Chief Librarian for the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. Dr. Wastawy also served as Dean at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

As well as her work in library management, Dr. Wastawy has worked as a consultant to many not-for-profit organizations, corporations, and accreditation commissions, and has been the recipient of international awards, including a Peace Fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship.

Dr. Wastawy began her library career at Cairo University Library, Egypt, and taught librarianship in the first women’s library program in Saudi Arabia. She holds a Doctor of Arts in Library and Information Management from Simmons College, Boston, MA; and a Masters in Library and Information Science from The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.

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  1. Having an extensive international library experience in the US and the Middle East, we would like to know more about you, since the beginning of your distinguished career till now?And how did you come to leave Egypt and become an American citizen?

I hadn’t originally planned to study library science, and I later discovered that many who joined the profession had stumbled on it from different backgrounds.

Earlier, I majored in comparative linguistics, and I began with a BA degree in Semitic languages (Hebrew and Aramaic) from Cairo University then pursued an MA degree in African languages followed by a PhD in comparative linguistics at Cairo University. Before I could complete my PhD, however, my advisor Dr. Mourad Kamel, unfortunately, passed away. Because I was dealing with 6 languages as part of my thesis, it was difficult to work with any other advisor. At that time, I was working at the university library as a temporary job until I finished my PhD. Once I knew I wasn’t going to finish, I decided to stay on as a librarian and take up librarianship as a profession. However, I didn’t want to go into a profession without formally studying it.

After the Camp David Accords in 1978, the US was offering peace fellowships to a few Israeli and Egyptian students to pursue postgraduate studies in the US. I learned about this by walking past the AMIDEAST building in Cairo where I spot a big sign that read “Scholarships in the US”, so, I applied. Then, I didn’t know that in the US, unlike in Egypt, you could pursue a post graduate degree in a field other than your major. Knowing that I could choose any field of study, I shifted my career to library and information sciences.

After I completed my master degree, I was accepted in the second top program in the US: a private women school called Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, where I completed my PhD studies in 1987. After my PhD, I came back to Egypt and stayed for eight months, during which I met my then-husband. I eventually moved back to the US with him I started my career in the US as a part-time research librarian at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and I have been practicing librarianship since then.

  1. As a woman pursing her career and a working mother, what are/were the major obstacles and challenges that you had to face in your life and career?

Since 1988, my job has always been about building and managing libraries. I managed the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) main library with its 5 branches for 14 years, before I was appointed as chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, which also required building the library sector services and collections. After my tenure in Alexandria, I held the position of dean of university libraries at Illinois State University followed by similar position at Florida Institute of Technology.

Being a working mother is a difficult task; juggling between family and work is often relentless. It is also a delicate balancing act, especially when you are away from family and friends. I didn’t have the kind of support system that comes with living in your home country. You have to be extremely organized and very judicious with your time. In general, the responsibility of being a manager is challenging as you often don’t operate with fixed hours. It is all about getting the job done. If the job takes 10 hours or 15 hours, you owe that much time. Creating a balance between family and work requires super organizational skills. You have to organize activities for the kids and you have to share tasks with your partner.

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  1. Did you find any cultural gaps between women’s role in society in the Middle East and the US?

Gender discrimination exists in most societies. The US has given me opportunities and leadership skills, and I was for the most part, treated equally and was selected on the basis of merit. When I got my first position as a dean, I was 37 years old. I was also the first female dean IIT since it was established in 1890. I was a woman with an accent; different in completion and background which made some people regard me with suspicion. When I attended a meeting with a number of male deans, my proposed ideas fell on deaf ears. When the other male deans reiterated what I said, their ideas were met with “Oh, wow! That is quite wonderful”. I took issue with this and long before equal pay became a big thing in the US, I told my president that I was no less intelligent than these men, and I demanded to be paid as much as the other deans.

I must say that in Egypt, women have assumed leadership positions in governmental and national institutions, but we still have not seen many women judges or some other high-ranking professions. We still have quite a journey ahead of us.

  1. Being an effective manager who has a broad repertoire of management styles, can you tell us more about the styles you used throughout your career with your employees all over the world? And how did you develop them?

There is no single management style that fits all. It is situational. You maintain certain values for equality, fairness, objectivity, and professionalism. You honor these core values, but remain flexible in how you execute them. In general, management techniques are not magic mantras but simply tools to be reached for at the right times.Some situations require the leader to hover closely; others require long, loose lines.

To be a manager does not merely entail giving orders. Being a leader is about understanding that strategy equals execution and that all the great ideas and visions in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented in an efficient manner at the right time. As a leader, you delegate and empower others, but you also pay attention to details, every day, never above operational details. In a service profession like librarianship, loyalty to the ethos of the profession of equality and democracy are crucial. On the personal level, you must have a high-energy drive, a balanced ego, and the drive to get things done.

5- As a working mother, how did you raise your son? Has he understood the role you played in the cultural arena? How has that affected his perspective on life?

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The year my son was born, I was made dean for the first time. Meaning that my son has always seen me throughout his life in leadership roles. He has always been very proud of what I have achieved. He used to brag about me when he was little, telling his friends that I was the president of the university.

Because Kariem has always seen me in leadership positions, this has had both a positive and some unhelpful effect on him. As proud as he was, my son often thought that he has to do everything perfectly in order to get my approval.

Being an immigrant in the US, you are always judged. I didn’t want my son to acquire this trait: judging people or situations prematurely. I tried to instill in him empathy toward people, and I taught him to treat people equally and with respect. Kariem grew up in a post-9/11 America, which was a very hard time for all Arabs. He was bullied by kids at school who told him that all Arabs were terrorists. This was alienating to a child who cannot defend himself, had neither the vocabulary nor the understanding to be able to say that this wasn’t our fault or that these terrorists were different people.

The atmosphere was very difficult and Arab children, like my son, had to struggle through all that because of the name-calling. Some kids told him to go back home, and Kariem used to tell them that this was his home. I tried to help him understand that these children knew little, and to teach him empathy during this time of ignorance. I also taught him not to be defensive and help educate others. Those were some of the values I tried to instill in my son. I am proud to say that he has an amazing sense of empathy, kind, open and have friends of all backgrounds and religions.

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  1. Reflecting on how your parents raised you, what ideologies do you wish to instill in girls in Egypt to become future leaders in society?

Though my father was born in 1917, he was such a liberal man in his way of thinking. He supported me all the way, and I was the first girl in the family to study abroad. That was not very common then. For a man from a different era, I think it was all a matter of trust, which he tried to foster between him and his 5 children. He always wanted us to believe in what we did. He had such work ethics and was a real patriot. He wanted us to succeed not only for our own sake but also because we owed it to our country.

We were 4 girls and 1 boy, and he urged us to choose whatever we wanted to do with our lives. Two of my sisters are doctors, one is a pharmacist, and my brother is an engineer. His advice was to always be the best at whatever you choose.

Both my parents were teachers who believed in girls’ education and independence. They were like any good parents who give their children wings to fly. That’s why each and every one of us led the life they wanted without being hindered by any limitations. Those are values that I wish all parents instill in girls in Egypt. If they do not acquire them at a young age, they will become more difficult to acquire as adults.

  1. Having contributed to promoting an excellent image of inspiring remarkable Egyptian women and change makers, what advices do you wish to pass on to women of Egypt all over the world?
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To believe in what they do, have a purpose in life, and to try to make a difference. It doesn’t matter if it is going to be gardening, teaching, a factory worker, a doctor, or engineer. Just try to make a difference. Being a stay home mom, in my opinion, is a tough job. Raising future leaders and good citizens is not for the faint of hearts. Women, who have the ability to give, can volunteer at any institution and receive a sense of accomplishment for being able to give something back to their community—either their time or energy.

Your self-worth and self-esteem rise when you contribute to the welfare of others. It is not about making money or attaining a high position; it is about what you want to be remembered with. No matter what profession you belong to, what is really important is to ask yourself these questions: how can I make any difference in my brief time on earth? If you find answer to such a question, then you will be able to find your path.

  1. What are your future plans on both the professional and personal levels?

On the personal level, I am very much looking forward to retirement. I want to pursue hobbies that didn’t have time for when younger. I like to write, and I have been writing a collection of short stories for over 25 years now that I would like to finish. I would also like to take digital photography, gardening, creative writing and ballroom dancing classes. I also plan to volunteer with Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian organizations that help in the relief of human suffering.

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Global Award for Sustainable Architecture

Global Award for Sustainable Architecture

Rima Alsammarae report on Middle East Architect of 9 April 2019 that “Jordanian architect and artist Ammar Khammash is a 2019 laureate of the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, along with four other architects including Dr Werner Sobek, Ersen Gursel, Rozana Montiel and Jorge Lobos.” 

Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash wins Global Award for Sustainable Architecture

Jordanian architects, Ammar Khammash, Sustainable architecture, Architecture awards, Architects from the Middle East, Architects from Jordan

Created by architect and scholar Jana Revedin in 2006, the international award recognises five architects each year who have contributed to sustainable development and created innovative and participatory approaches to meet societal needs. 

Royal Academy for Nature Conservation in Jabal Ajloun, Jordan by Khammash Architects

According to the award’s website, Khammash was recognised for his dedication to interdisciplinary scientific research, as well as his artisanal and artistic approaches to architecture.

Khammash’s projects include the Wild Jordan Center, the Royal Academy for Nature Conservation, the Darat Al Funun workspace and the Columbia University Middle East Research Center in Amman, as well as the Church of the Apostles in Madaba. His approach involves the use of locally-sourced, natural materials to achieve context-relevant designs. 

The Middle East Modern Art Space in New Badr, Amman by Khammash Architects

“It appears that there is a growing international trend to put architecture back on the track of social and environmental responsibilities, and away from being a hostage of powerful visual output that publishes well in the media,” he said. “Our philosophy and methodology of approach is entirely based on the role of architecture in solving problems, finding creative ways to co-exist with the larger context, which includes society and nature.”

Currently finalising two ecolodges in Jordan (one in Yarmouk Reserve and the other on the hot spring of Al Himmeh in Mukhaibeh), Khammash and his team are also working on a number of competitions in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He noted that the award will help him further his approach and convince clients who see things differently.

Heedan Visitors Center by Khammash Architects

“The recognition from this prestigious award will help me change the mentality of clients, politicians and students,” he said, “ensuring that architecture retains some degree of modesty and symbiotic relationship to people and nature, instead of overwhelming, overpowering and outsmarting the very reason we need to build for.”

Khammash will be speaking at the award’s symposium, to be held in Paris in May.

Ammar Khammash talks on CNN’s program “Inside the Middle East” about Feynan Eco-Lodge, designed by Khammash Architects, and which is one of the first Eco-Lodges in Jordan and the Middle East.
Watch the interview: Inside the Middle East
Tackling corruption in government could save $1 trillion

Tackling corruption in government could save $1 trillion

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), keeps on pressing on all economic and policy issues of the day in every country. Doing so for all these years, it has, in the end, amassed such knowledge and experience that enabled it to have a worldwide view of the latest trends. Tackling corruption in government could save $1 trillion in taxes, but not only that as we were recently told, it could also resolve many of the plethora of all related issues throughout all regions in the developing and developed world alike. A point in case is elaborated on this particular article that is republished here for its obvious importance, especially for those developing countries of the MENA region. 

Tackling Corruption in Government

By Vitor Gaspar, Paolo Mauro and Paulo Medas

No country is immune to corruption. The abuse of public office for private gain erodes people’s trust in government and institutions, makes public policies less effective and fair, and siphons taxpayers’ money away from schools, roads, and hospitals.

While the wasted money is important, the cost is about much more. Corruption corrodes the government’s ability to help grow the economy in a way that benefits all citizens.

But the political will to build strong and transparent institutions can turn the tide against corruption. In our new Fiscal Monitor, we shine a light on fiscal institutions and policies, like tax administration or procurement practices, and show how they can fight corruption.

Political will can turn the tide against corruption.

Corruption helps evade taxes

We analyze more than 180 countries and find that more corrupt countries collect fewer taxes, as people pay bribes to avoid them, including through tax loopholes designed in exchange for kickbacks. Also, when taxpayers believe their governments are corrupt, they are more likely to evade paying taxes.

We show that overall, the least corrupt governments collect 4 percent of GDP more in tax revenues than countries at the same level of economic development with the highest levels of corruption.

A few countries’ reforms generated even higher revenues. Georgia, for example, reduced corruption significantly and tax revenues more than doubled, rising by 13 percentage points of GDP between 2003 and 2008. Rwanda’s reforms to fight corruption since the mid-1990s bore fruit, and tax revenues increased by 6 percentage points of GDP.


Corruption also prevents people from benefiting fully from the wealth created by their country’s natural resources. Because the exploration of oil or mining generates huge profits, it creates strong incentives for corruption. Our research shows that resource-rich countries, on average, have weaker institutions and higher corruption.

Corruption wastes taxpayers’ money

The Fiscal Monitor shows that countries with lower levels of perceived corruption have significantly less waste in public investment projects. We estimate that the most corrupt emerging market economies waste twice as much money as the least corrupt ones.

Governments waste taxpayers’ money when they spend it on cost overruns due to kickbacks or bid rigging in public procurement. So, when a country is less corrupt, it invests money more efficiently and fairly.

Corruption also distorts government priorities. For example, among low-income countries, the share of the budget dedicated to education and health is one-third lower in more corrupt countries. It also impacts the effectiveness of social spending. In more corrupt countries school-age students have lower test scores.

Corruption is also a problem in state-owned enterprises, such as some countries’ oil companies, and public utilities like electric and water companies. Our analysis suggests that these enterprises are less efficient in countries with high levels of corruption.

Where there is political will, there is a way

Fighting corruption requires political will to create strong fiscal institutions that promote integrity and accountability throughout the public sector.

Based on the research, here are some lessons for countries to help them build effective institutions that curb vulnerabilities to corruption:

Invest in high levels of transparency and independent external scrutiny. This allows audit agencies and the public at large to provide effective oversight. For example, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Paraguay are using an online platform that allows citizens to monitor the physical and financial progress of investment projects. Norway has developed a high standard of transparency to manage its natural resources. Our analysis also shows that a free press enhances the benefits of fiscal transparency. In Brazil, the results of audits impacted the reelection prospects of officials suspected of misuse of public money, but the impact was greater in areas with local radio stations.

Reform institutions. The chances for success are greater when countries design reforms to tackle corruption from all angles. For example, reforms to tax administration will have a greater payoff if tax laws are simpler and they reduce officials’ scope for discretion. To help countries, the IMF has built comprehensive diagnostics on the quality of fiscal institutions, including public investment management, revenue administration, and fiscal transparency.

Build a professional civil service. Transparent, merit-based hiring and pay reduce the opportunities for corruption. The heads of agencies, ministries, and public enterprises must promote ethical behavior by setting a clear tone at the top.

Keep pace with new challenges as technology and opportunities for wrongdoing evolve. Focus on areas of higher risk—such as procurement, revenue administration, and management of natural resources—as well as effective internal controls. In Chile and Korea, for example, electronic procurement systems have been powerful tools to curtail corruption by promoting transparency and improving competition.

More cooperation to fight corruption. Countries can also join efforts to make it harder for corruption to cross borders. For example, more than 40 countries have already made it a crime for their companies to pay bribes to gain business abroad under the OECD anti-corruption convention. Countries can also aggressively pursue anti–money laundering activities and reduce transnational opportunities to hide corrupt money in opaque financial centers.

Curbing corruption is a challenge that requires persevering on many fronts, but one that pays huge dividends. It starts with political will, continuously strengthening institutions to promote integrity and accountability, and global cooperation.

Watch a conversation with the authors:

Related links:
Shining a Bright Light into the Dark Corners of Weak Governance and Corruption
Corruption Disruption
Corruption in Latin America: Taking Stock
World Trade facing headwinds in 2019/2020

World Trade facing headwinds in 2019/2020

World trade will continue to face strong headwinds in 2019 and 2020 after growing more slowly than expected in 2018 due to rising trade tensions and increased economic uncertainty, said the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Global trade growth to lose momentum in 2019: WTO

WTO economists expect merchandise trade volume growth to fall to 2.6 per cent in 2019 — down from 3.0 per cent in 2018. Trade growth could then rebound to 3.0 per cent in 2020; however, this is dependent on an easing of trade tensions.

WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo said: “With trade tensions running high, no one should be surprised by this outlook. Trade cannot play its full role in driving growth when we see such high levels of uncertainty.”

“It is increasingly urgent that we resolve tensions and focus on charting a positive path forward for global trade which responds to the real challenges in today’s economy – such as the technological revolution and the imperative of creating jobs and boosting development.

“WTO members are working to do this and are discussing ways to strengthen and safeguard the trading system. This is vital. If we forget the fundamental importance of the rules-based trading system we would risk weakening it, which would be an historic mistake with repercussions for jobs, growth and stability around the world,” he added.

Trade growth in 2018 was weighed down by several factors, including new tariffs and retaliatory measures affecting widely-traded goods, weaker global economic growth, volatility in financial markets and tighter monetary conditions in developed countries, among others. Consensus estimates have world GDP growth slowing from 2.9 per cent in 2018 to 2.6 per cent in both 2019 and 2020.

The preliminary estimate of 3.0 per cent for world trade growth in 2018 is below the WTO’s most recent forecast of 3.9 per cent issued last September. The shortfall is mostly explained by a worse-than-expected result in the fourth quarter, when world trade as measured by the average of exports and imports declined by 0.3 per cent. Until then, third quarter trade had been up 3.8 per cent, in line with WTO projections.

Trade expansion in the current year is most likely to fall within a range from 1.3 per cent to 4.0 per cent. It should be noted that trade growth could be below this range if trade tensions continue to build, or above it if they start to ease.

Nominal trade values also rose in 2018 due to a combination of volume and price changes. World merchandise exports totalled $19.48 trillion, up 10 per cent from the previous year. The rise was driven partly by higher oil prices, which increased by roughly 20 per cent between 2017 and 2018. – TradeArabia News Service

How Middle Eastern retailers can keep up with E-commerce

How Middle Eastern retailers can keep up with E-commerce

This article is part of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa and is co-authored by Abdellah Iftahy, Partner, McKinsey & Company, Franck Laizet, Partner, McKinsey & Company and Zaid Ghazaleh, Associate Partner, McKinsey & Company.

A saleswoman attends to a customer at the cash counter inside a shop at Dragon Mart in Dubai, March 2, 2011. Built in the shape of a dragon, the 1.2 km long and 150,000 sqm large mall is a trading centre with almost 3,950 shops selling mainly Chinese products ranging from office appliances to garments and daily products.  Picture taken March 2, 2011.    REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - Tags: BUSINESS) - GM1E73318X601

01 Apr 2019

Traditional bricks and mortar retail is under attack globally. Retailers have struggled to compete with the growing popularity of large-scale competitors such as Amazon and Alibaba. The industry is also in the grip of a revolution powered by digital technology, as people shop online rather than in stores. Millennials comprise the largest internet audience, and will have more buying power than any generation before. But they still want to touch, feel and explore products. Shopping is becoming more of an experiential activity, during which stores compete for consumers’ “share of wallet”.

Middle Eastern retailers and consumer goods companies are even more vulnerable, as the pressure from e-commerce and changes in consumer buying behaviour are compounded by rising costs associated with economic reforms, such as workforce localization, taxes, and increasing fuel and electricity prices. As prices rise, consumer buying power and confidence is becoming subdued.

In fact, our latest survey, conducted in September 2018, reveals that consumers in the Middle East are spending even more cautiously than they have in previous years. They are also more anxious: 80% of survey respondents in Saudi Arabia and 72% in the United Arab Emirates are worried about losing their jobs. In both countries, more than 40% of respondents said they’re cutting down on spending and paying closer attention to prices.

Consequently, traditional retailers have limited levers to operate in response. They have a large fixed base of assets, which they need to rethink as shoppers favour the convenience of purchasing online rather than visiting stores. It is absolutely critical that retailers think about how to operate at maximum efficiency, with a hard focus on cash and working capital, in order to survive to the next stage. They are in a paradoxical moment where their revenues and returns are declining, yet they must invest in technology. It is not always easy to justify this spend with investors. And in thinking beyond the present to the different value propositions and approaches needed to recapture the customer, they must re-skill their employees and recruit new talent.

Customers are now more interested in experiences than products. In considering how to stay with them throughout their buying journey and not just at the end of it, retailers need to make many changes in the way they reach their customer, how they interact with them, what they learn about them, and how they ultimately sell them a product, service or experience. Convenience is also becoming important to consumers as they move their retail activity online. In fact, 50-60% of consumers state that saving time is one of the main reasons why they shop online.


Digital technologies and changing shopping habits are a clear threat to traditional retail business models. But there are positive ways to respond to these trends. To embrace these opportunities, real-estate developers must get closer to consumers and figure out how to meet their evolving wants and needs.

The good news is that by leveraging their assets – physical proximity to consumers, logistics, brand, in-store experience – traditional players still have the right to win. The Middle East has a young population with aspiring lifestyle choices, and with the various macroeconomic transformations taking place, buying power will recover and grow. But retailers must be willing to undertake rapid, radical and lasting transformation when it comes to efficiency, and the ways they embrace technology and offer products.

A transformation can be designed around the following five fundamentals or key success factors.

First of all, the full leadership team – not just the Board and CEO – has to be behind the change required to turn the business around.

Second, this motivation needs to move beyond the boardroom fast and engage the front line, going deep and wide across the organization.

In the Middle East, those two elements are typically in place. It’s the following three that need more focus.

The right structures need to be put in place to ensure that any response is effectively executed and delivered – for example how the business is organized, how governance is implemented, and how objectives and deliverables are executed.

Culture is also important. This is not about how to respond from a technical point of view, but the changes necessary in the mindsets and behaviours of everyone in the organization to make the transformation a success.

The last element is identifying, developing and elevating the best people in your organization, because they are the resource who will take you from point A to point B.

There is no doubt that physical retail is here to stay, and will keep its place alongside the online marketplace. Even e-commerce giants are entering into physical retail, as digital natives invest offline – see Amazon acquiring Wholefoods, and Alibaba’s Hema concept. These new stores have decoupled the notions of “shopping” and ‘“buying”, showing the face of retail is changing. Traditional retailers’ main challenge is to accelerate the pace of transformation, while ensuring they address, in a holistic way, the growth side, cost side, cash side and re-skilling of employees, in order to deliver results.

Read more here.

Have you read?


What is the most destructive material known to humans?

What is the most destructive material known to humans?

What is the most destructive material known to humans? Plutonium? Cyanide? Whatever the hell they put in Marmite? No, it would have to be concrete. The Guardian recently ran a series on the environmental impact of concrete which is worth a read.

The environmental impact of concrete

Posted on March 31, 2019 by daryan12

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A concrete cement mill in operation

Much of the focus on climate change mitigation, or pollution in general, tends to focus on energy production. However, in truth this is merely one of several sources of carbon emissions. Agriculture and land use changes tends to be the next biggest headline at about a quarter of emissions (which is actually arguably larger than it looks given the amounts of fossil fuels used in agriculture both by farm machinery and the production of fertilisers).

After that its the acquisition of raw materials (mining, refining and processing of base metals and minerals). And concrete, as one of the mostly widely used materials in the world, tends to figure quite highly in this category. And at almost every step in its life cycle concrete has an environmental impact.

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As I discussed in a prior post, the world is running out of sand for concrete production. Hence, there’s now a whole series of “sand Mafia’s” emerging in the developing world to steal sand, so the issues with concrete goes way beyond just climate change. Then you have to transport all these ingredients long distances, which consumes a lot of energy (cos they are kind of heavy!).

System-boundary-of-CW-life-cycle-assessment

Then there’s the process of making concrete, which consumes rather a lot of energy. Making just the cement component consumes 1,700 KJ/kg and, due to chemical reactions, releases releases 750 kg’s of carbon dioxide for every tonne of concrete produced. And given its weight, simply pouring concrete entails yet more energy consumption and carbon emissions. Furthermore, poured concrete undergoes an exothermic reaction, which may require external cooling as it hardens.

And, at the end of the building’s life, when its demolished, you’ve got numerous environmental problems. Notably the disposal of masses of concrete rubble (at one point back during the boom in Ireland they did a survey and found that 4/5’s of all the material entering Irish landfills was builders rubble).

Of course, as an engineer I’d have to point out that there are good reasons why we use concrete. Its cheap, it can be moulded into complex shapes, its durable, easy to maintain and fire proof. Basically you can do your worst to a concrete building and it will still stay standing. Hell, there was even a concrete building close to ground zero at Hiroshima that took the full force of a nuclear blast and survived. And keep in mind, we’ve been using concrete since ancient times. So we need to move beyond the simple “concrete bad” narrative, same way plastics is a bit more of a complex issue than it seems at first glance.

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The glory of the Roman Pantheon, concrete at its best

While concrete can be recycled, its more a form of downcycling. That is too say, you’ll get a lower quality of concrete afterwards, so you can use it for say roads or backfill, but not build a new skyscraper from the stuff. Another alternative is to change the composition of the concrete, using other materials such as fly ash, shredded rubber, waste glass, etc. into the mix. The downside is that this is again downcycling, not recycling and its generally not going to have the same structural properties.

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The concrete recycling process, which isn’t 100% effective

Hence why other more radial measures are being proposed, for example a concrete tax. I’d point out that perhaps the problem here is the short life cycle of many modern buildings. I’ve seen concrete buildings that are maybe only 20 years old getting demolished. Sticking a carbon tax on, with the condition that some significant portion is refunded if the building stays in use for some extended period (e.g. at least a hundred years), or that its design life allows it to last that long, would create an incentive to only use concrete where necessary and make sure those buildings are built to last (as well as a financial incentive to refurbish rather than demolish).

There’s also alternatives to concrete. Wood as a construction material is something I’ve previously discussed. And while there are structural limits and issues with fire safety that need to be addressed (as well as where you source the wood from of course), these aren’t insurmountable. And there’s also the option of steel framed buildings. Now while yes steel, like most metals, is very energy intensive to manufacture, it has one unique advantage over concrete (or wood for that matter) – it can be recycled with 100% material efficiency (i.e. virtually no waste). So encouraging steel framed construction would offer several advantages.

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Wooden skyscrapers have recently been proposed

But as so often is the case with climate change we are confronted with a problem whose dimensions aren’t immediately apparent. And where there is no nice and neat one size fits all solution, just lots of hard choices.