Wasteful, damaging and outmoded: is it time to stop building skyscrapers?
11 & 12 Jul 2020
Tall buildings are still deemed desirable, even glamorous, but experts are drawing attention to the high environmental cost of building them.
If no one ever built a skyscraper ever again, anywhere, who would truly miss them? I ask, because the engineer Tim Snelson, of the design consultancy Arup, has just blown a hole in any claim they might have had to be environmentally sustainable. Writing in this month’s issue of the architecture magazine Domus, he points out that a typical skyscraper will have at least double the carbon footprint of a 10-storey building of the same floor area.
He is talking about the resources that go into building it, what is called its “embodied” energy. Tall buildings are more structurally demanding than lower ones – it takes a lot of effort, for example, to stop them swaying – and so require more steel and concrete. In London, which is mostly built on clay as opposed to Manhattan’s rock, they require ample foundations. Snelson also mentions “in-use” energy consumption and carbon emissions – what is needed to cool and heat and run lifts, which he says are typically 20% more for tall than medium-height buildings.
Skyscrapers often indicate corruption. What they are not are markers of progress
If all this might seem pretty obvious, it’s good to have calculations to attach to a hunch. And tall buildings are still sold on the basis that they are good for the environment. Mostly the argument is about density – if you pile a lot of homes or workplaces high on one spot, it is said, then you can use land and public transport more efficiently. There’s some truth in this, but you can also achieve high levels of density without going above 10 or 12 storeys.
Every now and again you get a one-off skyscraper design that makes play of its environmental features. The Gherkin, where cooling air was to flow through spiralling internal atria, was an early example. Strata SE1, the south London tower with three wind turbines at its top was another. Often these don’t perform as promised. Even when they do, they’re fighting to overcome the self-inflicted environmental handicap of being tall buildings in the first place.
They have got away with it in part because embodied energy hasn’t until recently been paid as much attention as energy in use. It has been deemed acceptable – by the building regulations, by architects, by the professional media – to rip untold tonnes of matter from the earth and to pump similar tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, in order to produce magical architectural devices that might, if all their wizardry were to function as promised, pay back some of their carbon debt some time in the next century. By when it might be too late.
There’s another meaning to “environment”, which describes personal rather than global surroundings. In this respect, it’s a bit of mystery why towers are thought desirable: you typically progress from a windy and inhospitable plaza to a soulless lobby, to a long lift ride, to another lobby, to a flat that has to be fortified and sealed against strong winds, to a balcony (if you’re lucky) with a similarly embattled relationship to nature. Good design can mitigate at least some of these deficiencies, but good design is weirdly hard to find in new tall buildings.
Skyscraper apartments are sold on the view, with prices rising the higher you go up a building, which can indeed be spectacular. But this visual buzz goes with a range of sub-optimal physical experiences, which have been made that much less attractive by the spread of a virus that seems to thrive in air-conditioned and enclosed spaces. Architecture is not just about things you can see.
Meanwhile, towers continue to be built. An annual survey by the independent organisation New London Architecture has found that in the capital 525 buildings of 20 storeys or more are in the pipeline – either under construction, approved or going through the processes of planning applications. Other British cities, including Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol, have succumbed to the belief that there is something glamorous about this well-worn and old-fashioned building type.
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a concrete stump stands in the desert that may or may not turn into the world’s first kilometre-high tower, its progress having been stalled by the arrest on corruption charges of its patron, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, in 2017. If it is ever completed, it will not be a sign of economic dynamism, as might have been said of the 20th century’s skyscrapers in New York and Chicago, but of the ability of a few members of an authoritarian society to accrue vast wealth for themselves.
In Britain, tall buildings are signs of failed planning, which finds it hard to discover the space for more sustainable and humane ways of building homes. In Gulf states (and indeed in Britain, to the extent that dirty money often goes into tower projects), skyscrapers often indicate corruption. What they are not are markers of progress. Advertisement
Tim Snelson puts it well: “While the collective progression of civilisations over centuries is still largely measured by the ability to build bigger, faster and taller, we have come to the point where we must put the limits on ourselves and apply our forces to the challenge of building sustainably, above all else, or risk destroying the very future that will hold our legacy.” Quite so. And why, really and truly, would you want to live in one of these things?
A Multi-million national green growth plan launched today is reported in this article of the Jordan News Agency.
Amman, July 6 (Petra) — Jordan on Monday launched a multi-million ambitious green growth plan as part of a broader national drive towards a green economy and sustainable development.
The six-pronged 2021-2025 National Green Growth Plan, which was announced by Minister of Environment and Agriculture Saleh Kharabsheh, comprises executive plans targeting the key sectors of water, waste management, energy, agriculture, tourism and transport.
In part, the blueprint is intended to help build sustainable sectors that are more resilient and adaptive to adverse phenomena, including climate change and the fallout of emergencies, such as the coronavirus pandemic. It was drawn up in collaboration with the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI).
Kharabsheh told a teleconference with government representatives and global stakeholders that the plan is designed to ensure alignment between green growth, climate change and sustainable development goals within the sectoral strategic framework.
Marshall Brown, Senior Officer/ Jordan Program at the GGGI, underlined the importance of multi-stakeholder cooperation to translate the plan on the ground, and said that the private sector and international partners have a key role to support this effort.
In the energy sector, the plan envisages the development of a smart electric grid, backing the Jordan Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Fund’s bid for the Green Climate Fund’s accreditation and a public-private partnership for the construction of EV charging stations at a total cost of $85 million.
The plan sets $965 million as the total cost of water projects, which include the rollout of a financial mechanism to support water harvesting projects, in addition to carrying out a technical project to rationalize industrial water use. Also in the water sector, the plan envisages the construction of an industrial wastewater treatment plant in Zarqa.
With regard to waste management, the plan includes the establishment of an excellence center for waste management, research and development, a feasibility study for the launch of projects aimed at separating organics from municipal solid waste, and finally a pilot project on the extended producer responsibility in the e-waste sector. The total cost of projects in the waste management sector is put at $248 million.
Turning to agriculture, the plan includes an information management and communication capacity-building project within the green growth framework. It also pursues a resource management project in the production of olive and olive oil. Other key projects in this area includes investing in hydroponics and a national afforestation project. The combined cost of these projects stands at $194 million.
Another key focus of the plan is the transport sector, where the total project cost is envisioned at $167 million. The projects in this domain include the rollout of smart transport systems, the establishment of a transport excellence center and the introduction of environmentally-friendly transport solutions in Irbid, Zarqa and Madaba.
As for tourism, the plan contains a set of ambitious projects, which include the establishment of an excellence center aimed at developing the tourism industry and maximizing ecotourism in protected areas, as well as a project for resource rationalization in the tourism and hospitality sectors for a total cost of $173 million.
MEP Middle East, June 28, 2020, covering the Second MENA Green Building Congress did highlight the fact that this Virtual two-day event underscores need to revive green economy in planning post-Covid-19 recovery.
Second MENA Green Building Congress organised under patronage of UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment
The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), in partnership with Majid Al Futtaim Holding, has hosted the second MENA Green Building Congress virtually.
Drawing the participation of WorldGBC board members and partners of the MENA Regional Network, the two-day Congress focused on three key topics: Better Places for People, Advancing Net Zero, and Sustainable Reconstruction.
In his keynote address on day one, His Excellency Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister of Climate Change and Environment, said: “The transition towards green buildings is a much-needed move, as the building and construction sector is the largest contributor to energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide at 39%, while accounting for 36 percent of global energy use.
“The UAE has a wealth of experience and knowledge in this field, as over the past decade, the construction industry in the country has made significant strides in incorporating sustainability into its concepts and practices.
“The escalating impacts of climate change and the dedication of our region to sustainable development make it imperative for all of us to join forces and fast-track the shift to a green economy across all sectors, including building and construction.
“The second MENA Green Building Congress aims to enhance regional collaboration in advancing the sustainability of the construction sector and offers a prime platform for stakeholders to network and exchange best practices and development plans.”
The Congress drives momentum among industry decision makers around green building issues, and promotes the adoption of green building practices and new technologies in the MENA region.
Cristina Gamboa, CEO of WorldGBC, said: “The MENA Green Building Congress is bringing together learnings and leadership that are invaluable to our global network, and in particular, to the region.
“In these unprecedented times, we must embrace a green economic recovery and prioritize improving the quality of green buildings as well as creating new jobs in the sustainable construction field. It’s time we deliver at scale net zero, healthy, equitable and sustainable built environments for everyone, everywhere.”
Ibrahim Al-Zu’bi, Chief Sustainability Officer at Majid Al Futtaim Holding, added: “This year’s MENA Green Building Congress is truly special as it gives us an opportunity to reflect and share insights around the current situation to a receptive online community.
“As the world recovers from the pandemic’s immediate implications, we need to focus on harmonizing the health and well-being of our communities, and achieving energy efficiency and resilience.
“Maintaining healthier communities without losing focus of climate change mitigation actions is crucial for the sustainability of our people and planet.”
Architecture is first and foremost, the combination of three interrelated elements: art, technology, and culture. An architect’s mission is to create and visualize an organized space, via a 2D-3D drawing, corresponding to the premises needs of a given activity, while respecting all the binding or favourable factors.
After the preliminary stage of the documentary research and the usual surveys, the architect will then analyze the physical, regulatory and financial data to draw the basic directions of the construction programme and this before the start of the design work. On the other hand, the ideological orientation of the designer remains decisive as to the optional choices of the project if the client master of the works does not relay them explicitly.
The type of education provided in our architecture schools was supposed to meet the quality and quantity exigences of the national market. This is far from the case at the EPAU (Ecole Polytechnique d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme) of the 1970s. The art of building largely European inspired the type of training offered, thus unsuited to the reality and needs of the country. Foreign teachers with foreign pedagogical support without the slightest anchor to the existence of the public building have made us, inevitably, international architects in our own country and in other words, formed by Europe, for Europe. As proof of this reality, during our various internships in German architectural agencies, we were well-integrated, and our level of competence was relatively satisfactory, (Neufert and Mittag oblige). In addition to national market-oriented training, the contemporary model should not be overlooked and will be integrated into the curriculum. This will give the architect a level of competence that is acceptable on a global scale and will allow him to master the various stages of the design process for an international-style project.
The legal vacuum in the construction sector has severely reduced the curricula of their regulatory content. To this end, a complementary module should have been provided at the end of the course of study in the form of courses documented and presented by specialists from the relevant ministries.
It was not until the Planning Act 90-29 of 1 December 1990 that this void was finally filled. This law was promulgated, for the first time, under the leadership of the very far-sighted political leader, Mouloud Hamrouche.
In the world of work, this inadequate training forced new graduates to endure the vagaries of the profession under the orders of authoritarian directors, “party activists”, state-backed architectural consultants of the time. This situation of weakness was mainly due to the fault in the architect designing technical and regulatory elements specific to the field of the public building for which the latter, freshly graduated, was not or unprepared.
With the passage of time and experience in the field of planning: permits, demolitions and plots, the weak point of the planning files relates to two elements of great importance: integration into the site and planning regulations.
The first element requires respect for the built environment at the architectural level (style, and material) (alignment and height, etc.).
The second element is to master the existing building and urban planning regulations to comply with them without diminishing the architectural quality of the project. For example, the work presented by a colleague shows, at first sight, a small building built on sloping ground. This highly coloured and glazed building shines with its lack of integration within the site, and as a result, it follows a very straight and visually disturbing urban image.
Chirac, then mayor of Paris, had to refuse to grant a building permit to the posterity project presented by Mitterrand because of its unsuited style and appearance for the built environment. Similarly, in Blida, a billionaire had a castle built in a former residential area of the 1950s. The result is shocking because of the incompatibility of styles, an unnatural marriage. He copied a villa in the upscale suburbs of Stockholm and glued it to his property. It’s like building a Moorish house in the middle of Manhattan !!!
In conclusion, I believe that the designer architect, through his project, will impact on the lifestyle of future users; thus, his gesture becomes a social act. Design work must begin with all elements of site integration and current regulation in mind. Respect for general alignments, the heights of the buildings do not exceed the width of the access roads with the H≤L formula due to the sunshine requirements of the facades. Avoid overly greedy ground rights.
The city of tomorrow must be somewhat airy and sunny (sanitary distancing) with large planted or not green spaces. These bouquets of greenery will be the lungs of the city and its places of relaxation and socialization. The dormitory cities are to be banned and replaced by living neighbourhood units, integrating daytime activity, and joining the periphery of urban centres, thus promoting constructive and soothing social relations. Provide quality accompanying equipment related to unit density. The latter should be limited to 150 dwellings max per hectare to allow structural integration (roads, networks and equipment) to the existing urban neighbourhood. Make the most of locally available materials, taking climate change into account. Prefer non-fossil fuels for urban transport. Great importance is to give to non-polluting traffic with a network of bike paths and numerous pedestrian walkways. The narrow alleyways of the former centres will be transformed into a pedestrian zone and decorated with decorative elements planted and removable in case of emergency. Leisure and tourism businesses will be privileged. This view is very sketchy and does not include all the problems related to architecture and urban planning. Besides, the establishment of collective social housing developments will have to be distributed over several external sites following the rules of density and height. Never schedule too much housing construction on the same location. Always split these locations to less than 500 dwellings maximum per site. This beneficial condition will allow the future neighbourhood unit to integrate quickly and easily within the existing urban fabric and will not overwhelm the capacity of the surrounding facilities. Finally, it should be noted that northern Algeria is located on a seismic zone of type 2, medium intensity, therefore subject of periodic and unpredictable seismic movement. This natural characteristic requires respect for a building height not to exceed ranging from R-5 to R-7 to the maximum. Moreover, recent studies on high-rise buildings have shown that the quality of life in a high-rise dwelling is inversely proportional to its distance to the ground. People living on the 15th floor tend to have more chronic diseases than those of the 7th and lower levels.
The typical habit of local authorities to happily substitute for town planning specialists has done a great deal of damage to the development of cities. Decisions involving the future of the city for at least a century should have been discussed with all the specialists in the field: architects, urban planners, and sociologists in order to find the best proposals and thus avoid the disastrous and irreversible effects of unplanned developments. A city council should be created, headed by local officials, and assisted by technicians with proven competence. This council should discuss, request changes, and possibly approve all development plans for the city under a program set out by the PDAU (Plan Directeur d’Aménagement et d’Urbanisme) containing the basic guidelines and itself in line with the regional development plan.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology asking Why the Mediterranean is a climate change hotspot came up with A new analysis uncovers the basis of the severe rainfall declines predicted by many models.
17 June 2020
Although global climate models vary in many ways, they agree on this: The Mediterranean region will be significantly drier in coming decades, potentially seeing 40 percent less precipitation during the winter rainy season.
An analysis by researchers at MIT has now found the underlying mechanisms that explain the anomalous effects in this region, especially in the Middle East and in northwest Africa. The analysis could help refine the models and add certainty to their projections, which have significant implications for the management of water resources and agriculture in the region.
The study, published last week in the Journal of Climate, was carried out by MIT graduate student Alexandre Tuel and professor of civil and environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir.
The different global circulation models of the Earth’s changing climate agree that temperatures virtually everywhere will increase, and in most places so will rainfall, in part because warmer air can carry more water vapor. However, “There is one major exception, and that is the Mediterranean area,” Eltahir says, which shows the greatest decline of projected rainfall of any landmass on Earth.
“With all their differences, the models all seem to agree that this is going to happen,” he says, although they differ on the amount of the decline, ranging from 10 percent to 60 percent. But nobody had previously been able to explain why.
Tuel and Eltahir found that this projected drying of the Mediterranean region is a result of the confluence of two different effects of a warming climate: a change in the dynamics of upper atmosphere circulation and a reduction in the temperature difference between land and sea. Neither factor by itself would be sufficient to account for the anomalous reduction in rainfall, but in combination the two phenomena can fully account for the unique drying trend seen in the models.
The first effect is a large-scale phenomenon, related to powerful high-altitude winds called the midlatitude jet stream, which drive a strong, steady west-to-east weather pattern across Europe, Asia, and North America. Tuel says the models show that “one of the robust things that happens with climate change is that as you increase the global temperature, you’re going to increase the strength of these midlatitude jets.”
But in the Northern Hemisphere, those winds run into obstacles, with mountain ranges including the Rockies, Alps, and Himalayas, and these collectively impart a kind of wave pattern onto this steady circulation, resulting in alternating zones of higher and lower air pressure. High pressure is associated with clear, dry air, and low pressure with wetter air and storm systems. But as the air gets warmer, this wave pattern gets altered.
“It just happened that the geography of where the Mediterranean is, and where the mountains are, impacts the pattern of air flow high in the atmosphere in a way that creates a high pressure area over the Mediterranean,” Tuel explains. That high-pressure area creates a dry zone with little precipitation.
However, that effect alone can’t account for the projected Mediterranean drying. That requires the addition of a second mechanism, the reduction of the temperature difference between land and sea. That difference, which helps to drive winds, will also be greatly reduced by climate change, because the land is warming up much faster than the seas.
“What’s really different about the Mediterranean compared to other regions is the geography,” Tuel says. “Basically, you have a big sea enclosed by continents, which doesn’t really occur anywhere else in the world.” While models show the surrounding landmasses warming by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius over the coming century, the sea itself will only warm by about 2 degrees or so. “Basically, the difference between the water and the land becomes a smaller with time,” he says.
That, in turn, amplifies the pressure differential, adding to the high-pressure area that drives a clockwise circulation pattern of winds surrounding the Mediterranean basin. And because of the specifics of local topography, projections show the two areas hardest hit by the drying trend will be the northwest Africa, including Morocco, and the eastern Mediterranean region, including Turkey and the Levant.
That trend is not just a projection, but has already become apparent in recent climate trends across the Middle East and western North Africa, the researchers say. “These are areas where we already detect declines in precipitation,” Eltahir says. It’s possible that these rainfall declines in an already parched region may even have contributed to the political unrest in the region, he says.
“We document from the observed record of precipitation that this eastern part has already experienced a significant decline of precipitation,” Eltahir says. The fact that the underlying physical processes are now understood will help to ensure that these projections should be taken seriously by planners in the region, he says. It will provide much greater confidence, he says, by enabling them “to understand the exact mechanisms by which that change is going to happen.”
Eltahir has been working with government agencies in Morocco to help them translate this information into concrete planning. “We are trying to take these projections and see what would be the impacts on availability of water,” he says. “That potentially will have a lot of impact on how Morocco plans its water resources, and also how they could develop technologies that could help them alleviate those impacts through better management of water at the field scale, or maybe through precision agriculture using higher technology.”
The work was supported by the collaborative research program between Université Mohamed VI Polytechnique in Morocco and MIT.
Imagine a clean alternative to fossil fuels, one that leaves no greenhouse gas residues and even, unlike solar and wind renewables, can be used at any moment of the day or night, whatever the weather conditions.
Imagine that using it instead of fossil fuels sharply reins in the harmful emissions raising global temperatures, helping the world to solve the climate crisis.
This is not a fairy story. This gas exists. It’s called green hydrogen, and is made by using clean electricity from renewable energy technologies to electrolyse water (H2O), separating the hydrogen atom within it from its molecular twin oxygen.
The catch has always been that the cost of making green hydrogen prices it out of competition with fossil fuels, because, even if it is carbon-free, it is energy-intensive. But that is changing, because, for the past two years, improvements in renewable energy technology have seen renewable electricity costs plummet.
Now, as the world plans economic recovery efforts after the coronavirus pandemic, and trillions of dollars and euro are readied to invest in build-back-better approaches, an increasing number of scientists and policymakers are saying green hydrogen’s time has come to be brought fully into the energy mix of the future.
They’re advocating investing in stimulating production, both to tackle the economic fallout of this year’s pandemic and to build a future without fear of climate cataclysm.
“Important emerging elements of clean energy progress – hydrogen electrolysers and lithium-ion batteries – are on the verge of becoming the decade’s breakout technologies. These technologies should play a key role in bolstering Europe’s transport and industry as the continent emerges from the crisis and looks to develop new advanced manufacturing for export,” the International Energy Agency’s executive director Fatih Birol and Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission, wrote in May.
“If the EU seizes this opportunity, it will give itself a cutting edge on global markets,” Birol and Timmerman concluded.
Their editorial – as well as reported comments by Birol that green hydrogen technology was “ready for the big time” and that governments should channel investments into the field – came as the European Union prepared to publish its own hydrogen strategy while implementing the European Green Deal plan to reduce net emissions to zero by 2050.
The pace of discussion on green hydrogen has picked up, especially since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Governments including those of Germany, Britain, Australia and Japan are working on or have announced hydrogen strategies. Australia has set aside A$300 million ($191 million) to jumpstart hydrogen projects. Portugal plans a new solar-powered hydrogen plant which will produce hydrogen by electrolysis by 2023. The Netherlands unveiled a hydrogen strategy in late March, outlining plans for 500 megawatts (MW) of green electrolyser capacity by 2025.
“We could use these circumstances, where loads of public money are going to be needed into the energy system, to jump forward towards a hydrogen economy,” said Diederik Samsom, who heads the European Commission’s climate cabinet. This could result in hydrogen use scaling up faster than was expected before the pandemic, he was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Most of the hydrogen produced today is not green. The gas is colour-coded according to the way it is produced, says the EBRD’s Christian Carraretto.
“The hydrogen that the world uses today is made from either coal or natural gas. This hydrogen is carbon-intensive, it’s not a green fuel. It’s called grey hydrogen if it comes from gas, while the hydrogen produced from coal is called black. Then there is blue hydrogen, an upgrade of the grey, where the CO2 emitted is captured upstream, so the system doesn’t emit CO2 in the atmosphere.”
The European Commission has earmarked clean hydrogen – a loose term which can include gas-based hydrogen, if fitted with technology to capture the resulting emissions, as well as green hydrogen – as a “priority area” for industry in its Green Deal.
If clean hydrogen does start to play a bigger part in the world’s energy mix, incorporating it will be technically relatively easy, Mr Carraretto said, as the infrastructure already built to carry natural gas can also carry hydrogen.
He said a recent study had shown 70 per cent of Italy’s gas network would be hydrogen-ready if there were enough hydrogen being produced to be carried down its pipes. It could be used in both homes and industry without radical change.
“Clean hydrogen is what the EU think is the solution to deliver on decarbonised fuels. And the reason why it’s important is that not all economic activities can move to renewables only. There are some sectors that are typically hard to decarbonise – sectors like steel, or chemical industries, or to some extent aviation – which will still use fuels in their systems.
“So either they are stuck with the cleanest of the fossil fuels or they switch to decarbonised fuels like hydrogen or biogas. Biogas is a mainstream technology and it hasn’t really picked up a lot because there is an issue with availability of organic wastes. So hydrogen is what we see as the most promising option at this moment.”
There remains the question of prices. Today, hydrogen made from fossil fuels costs between $1-$1.8/kg. Green hydrogen can cost around $3-$6/kg, making it significantly more expensive than the fossil fuel alternatives.
However, increased demand could reduce the cost of electrolysis. Coupled with falling renewable energy costs, green hydrogen could fall to $1.5/kg by 2050 and possibly sub-$1/kg, making it competitive with natural gas. Higher carbon prices would also encourage the shift.
Mr Carraretto said: “Here we are probably in the same situation as we were a decade or two ago with renewable energy, where this solution is still more expensive than the alternatives. But even today it’s only two or three times more expensive, it’s not 100 times more expensive, so if things keep going and if there is policy push going forward, our expectation that it will become really cost-competitive soon.
“And that’s why we see a lot of big players looking at it, pilot projects happening everywhere.”
“What is also exciting is that with the recent dramatic fall in renewable energy prices – particularly in the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries where we work, and potentially with offshore wind being developed in countries from Turkey to Poland and Greece, too – these countries could become sources of production of green hydrogen, with projects we could consider investing in, within a few years,” Mr Carraretto added. “This is really on the edge of becoming a game-changer”.
Arab News tells us How Middle East’s coronavirus crisis threatens the environment too. Let us see what all is this about. How different is it to North Africa, say to Libya?
The importance of hygiene has led to an exponential increase in use of disposable plastic products
COVID-19 may have set the world back on a slippery slope with regard to overuse of plastic products
DUBAI: The COVID-19 pandemic has set the world back on the slippery slope of plastic overuse, just when it seemed as if plastic reduction was becoming an achievable goal, experts fear.
The priority of hygiene to combat the spread of the virus has led to a sharp increase in the consumption of disposable plastic products — gloves, single-use water bottles, cutlery, packaging and medical supplies — across the world.
In some Gulf cities, many dine-in customers are being served up to three plastic plates, cups and sets of cutlery for a single three-course meal.
“It’s a disaster,” said Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder and managing director of the UAE-based green social enterprise Goumbook. “The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted every aspect of our lives, from work to school and our daily tasks.
“It is unfortunate that sustainable practices that have taken a lot of work to implement have now been replaced, due to sanitization (requirements), by the use of single-use plastic bottles, cutlery and crockery in restaurants and delivery services.”
Last year, some communities across the UAE banned plastic use in restaurants, while supermarkets planned to charge customers for their plastic bags. Almost overnight, the initiative has taken a back seat.
“It is a contentious matter, as many would argue against any evidence that using reusables, if sanitized correctly, could in any way be dangerous,” Abella told Arab News.
“Dish-washing machines, high temperatures and dish soap have always been 100 percent efficient (as sanitizers) and always will be. And most of the plastic used is also not fully recyclable.
“Unfortunately, if plastic is not properly washed and cleaned, it is considered contaminated and will end up as general waste in landfills.”
Other sustainability experts concur. “If restaurants clean their tableware and cutlery with hot water and detergent after every use, there is no need for single-use items,” said Amruta Kshemkalyani, a UAE-based sustainability adviser and founder of Sustainability Tribe.
“Restaurants just need to pay extra attention to their tableware cleaning process. COVID-19 shouldn’t be used as an excuse to create unnecessary waste and harm the environment.”
Peter Avram, director of the Dubai-based Avani Middle East, which produces disposable packaging solutions and compostable plastic alternatives, said there had been a surge in the use of disposables during the current pandemic.
“Regrettably, due to the current economic situation, plastic is being preferred to the eco-friendly options simply because of costs,” he said. “Eco-friendly disposables are 20 to 30 percent more expensive.”
The UAE consumes an average of 450 plastic bottles of water per person per year – or more than four billion bottles annually.
“It hurts to see so many years of hard work from environmental organizations going ‘to waste’,” Abella said. “The relaxation on the [consumption of] single-use plastics, even if temporary, could quite likely have long-term consequences on consumer behavior.”
When Kshemkalyani started a zero-waste lifestyle in 2015, almost no restaurants and cafes in Dubai were aware of the concept of serving food and drinks in reusable containers.
The environmental cause is expected to return to the foreground when the crisis passes.
Peter Avram, Director of Avani Middle East
Since then, the #zerowasteUAE social initiative and Sustainability Tribe have made tireless efforts to bring awareness to the community on waste issues.
“Now, in the name of hygiene and convenience, if the disposable culture gets popular again, it will be a big hurdle in society’s progress towards sustainable habits,” she said, especially when there is no evidence that a switch to single-use items is imperative during COVID-19.
Kshemkalyani questioned whether restaurants are recycling their plastic waste or just dumping it. “We do not want more waste in landfills that will further contaminate and pollute our land, water and air,” she said.
“Restaurants can start using their reusable serving sets and intensify the right cleaning and hygiene procedures. Instead of spending on single-use items, they have an opportunity to keep their manpower and use it wisely for intensified cleaning – this would also help employment.”
Kshemkalyani also recommended that restaurants allow customers to bring their own plates, cutlery and glasses. “Restaurants can also use environmentally friendly disposables, like palm leaf and wood [cutlery], as a temporary measure,” she said.
According to Abella, “It is important to keep the conversation going to use your consumer power to campaign for these changes.”
Although some outlets are seeking to offer alternatives, consumers should also vote with their wallets and ask restaurants to use sustainable alternatives, she said.
She said: “We should try to cook more at home and, if need be, choose restaurants that make an effort to serve their food in eco-friendly packaging.”
She pointed to the trend of people ordering more items than usual during the lockdown, with many of the items delivered in plastic containers, “wrapped in plastic and bagged in more plastic.”
Avram said that sustainability and recycling efforts must continue, pointing to the uptick in home composting procedures that many residents have begun to undertake to dispose of eco-friendly takeaway items.
“That has been very encouraging,” he said. “It is expected that the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the crisis has passed.”
Shams Hasan, air quality and corporate environmental responsibility expert at Envipro Consulting in the US, told Arab News: “The COVID-19 pandemic has created strange problems. Plastic items that were being phased out are at least temporarily back in use. The … fear is that during any crisis, society will start looking at an easy way out and apply ‘band-aid’ solutions instead of working on long-term strategies and solutions.”
Kristin Hughes, director of Global Plastic Action Partnership and a member of the executive committee, World Economic Forum, pointed to the challenge facing the world.
“We stand at the junction of two diverging paths,” she said. “One is a stop-gap solution that puts us solidly on track toward a not-so-distant future in which there is more plastic in the ocean than fish. The other is a sustainable model of living and working that will benefit us long into the future – one that will create a healthier, more equitable and more livable future for all.”
The image above is of the Mongu-Kalabo Road crossing the Barotse Floodplain in western Zambia. Charis Enns, Author provided
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta fumed at construction delays on the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor in 2019 – a US$22 billion (£18 billion) transport network that includes a 32-berth port, highways, railways and pipelines. But these delays, caused by financing gaps, afforded fishers, pastoral farmers and conservationists time to challenge the project in court, and push for amended plans that better protect local habitats and migratory routes used by people, livestock and wildlife.
While major road and rail projects often break up wilderness and grazing lands, a sudden pause in construction can offer a lifeline to people fighting to protect these areas.
Lockdown restrictions and the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 have made sourcing labour and materials more difficult, increasing construction costs. The result is that infrastructure building has slowed globally, creating a unique opportunity to redesign road and rail projects around the world so that they benefit the people and environments they share the landscape with.
Barriers to travel
Dozens of new roads, railways and pipelines are under construction in sub-Saharan Africa due to a surge in investment in recent years. Although they are promised to bolster economic growth, our research shows that many of these new mega-highways and high-speed rail lines were approved without meaningful consultation between planners and local people. As a result, they tend to become new barriers that are difficult and dangerous to traverse, forcing people to travel long distances to reach safe crossing points.
In dry regions, this can make it difficult to reach vital water sources. Amid farmland and forests, construction can push people from their land or force them to travel further to reach it. Deforestation usually comes before construction too, which encourages people to migrate further into woodland, building new settlements that drive more forest clearing.
Poorly designed roads and rail lines can take a heavy toll on human and animal life. During our research between 2017 and 2019, we found too few safe crossing points, inadequate signage and lax speed enforcement along new highways and railways in Kenya and Tanzania, resulting in numerous road accidents.
Conservationists are particularly worried by growing roadkill sightings along a new highway in northern Kenya. Endemic and endangered species like the Grevy’s zebra are often killed in collisions with cars and lorries after wandering onto roads that now criss-cross their range. As one pastoral farmer living alongside the new highway exclaimed
How many animals have died? Uncountable.
Fortunately, there are lots of proven strategies for preventing transport projects from fragmenting habitats, such as building passages across new highways and railways that migratory species can use. Repairing environmental damage caused by construction, by filling in quarries that produce construction materials, for example, can also help restore grazing land for livestock and wildlife.
The Mongu-Kalabo road constructed over the Barotse floodplain in western Zambia shows these ideas in action. Completed in 2016, the road was built with 26 bridges over the floodplains and regular culverts between bridges, allowing water and wildlife to move across the floodplain without impeding road traffic and trade, even during seasonal floods.
The road was also planned with local cultures in mind. Wetland livelihoods, such as fishing and floodplain farming, aren’t affected by the road since the regular movement of fish and water remains largely undisturbed. By maintaining these flows across the floodplain, cultural traditions have been protected. The annual Kuomboka ceremony that takes place at the end of the rainy season can continue, when the Litunda (king of the Lozi people) moves from his compound in the Barotse floodplain to higher ground.
There is no single blueprint for building roads and railways that allow humans and nature to thrive. Wherever construction is planned, public participation is vital. Gathering the knowledge local people have of their environment can improve the design of these projects, but this insight cannot come from rushed consultations or impact assessments conducted from a distance. Only meaningful and ongoing engagement with local communities and environmental authorities will do.
Major infrastructure investment will likely be key to pulling the global economy out of recession. The opportunity to mould upcoming projects won’t last forever, so let’s ensure any new road and rail project is designed with respect to the rights of people and nature.
Authors Olivia Macharis is a researcher at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and Nadim Farajalla is Program Director of the Climate Change and Environment Program at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. They came up with this realistic picture of the Middle East’s Threat Multiplier. It is published on Project Syndicate of 12 June 2020.
The picture above is that of An Egyptian boy holding bread and flashing the victory sign shouts slogans at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 1, 2011 as he joins tens of thousands of Egyptians who gathered, issuing calls to “save the revolution” that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and to rid of the country of the old regime. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
Although many factors contributed to the mass protest movements in Iraq in recent years, and in Egypt a decade ago, climate change was the common denominator. By exacerbating endemic problems such as water scarcity and food insecurity, global warming threatens to plunge an already unstable region into the abyss.n Egyptian boy holding bread and flashing the victory sign shouts slogans at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 1, 2011 as he joins tens of thousands of Egyptians who gathered, issuing calls to “save the revolution” that ousted president Hosni Mubarak and to rid of the country of the old regime. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages) Survey the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and you will find no shortage of crises, from escalating tensions between the United States and Iran to the cycles of violence in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Countless young people across the region feel a sense of despair as they confront the daily realities of poor governance, economic immobility, and sectarian violence. Now, the COVID-19 crisis is putting increasing and unprecedented pressure on the global economy, state institutions, and livelihoods. It has also highlighted the dire consequences of health, social, and economic inequality. And as bad as these problems are on their own, all will be exacerbated and magnified by an even larger crisis: the devastating impacts of climate change. With its largely arid conditions, the MENA region is particularly vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change. It is one of the world’s most water-scarce regions, with a high dependency on climate-sensitive agriculture. Along with rising temperatures, the region is already experiencing a wide range of deteriorating environmental conditions, including decreased rainfall in Iraq, longer droughts in Syria, more severe flash flooding in Jordan and Lebanon, increasingly intense cyclones in Yemen and Oman, and rising sea levels. There is also evidence of rapid desertification regionwide, as well as unprecedented heat waves and increasingly frequent and intense dust storms. Looking ahead, researchers warn that summer temperatures in the region will increase twice as fast as average global temperatures. This will lead to increased evaporation rates and accelerated loss of surface water, which will reduce the productive capacity of soils and agricultural output. Projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also warn of rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. In large parts of the region, the combination of worsening heat waves and increasing air pollution owing to sand and dust storms will likely compromise human habitability and force people to migrate. Climate change not only has serious implications for the environment and public health, but also for economic growth, livelihoods, and peace. Climate-induced impacts have the potential to reinforce factors that lead to or exacerbate conflict and instability. For one, resource scarcity may undermine the livelihoods of vulnerable households and communities, potentially leading to increasing competition, which may turn violent in the absence of conflict resolution institutions. Most vulnerable are fragile states and communities with a history of violence. In Iraq and Syria, the occurrence of devastating droughts between 2007 and 2012, combined with governments’ inability to provide relief to vulnerable populations, favored radicalization and recruitment efforts by jihadist militias, including the Islamic State. Other risks of conflict arise when growing resource scarcity is met with inadequate government action, which may cause grievances among the population and increase tensions along ethnic, sectarian, political, and socioeconomic lines. Water scarcity and contamination have already triggered recurrent protests in Iraq, and rising food prices have fueled protest movements in Egypt and other countries. The region desperately needs to start developing and implementing more robust adaptation strategies before it is too late. UNPREPARED FOR THE WORST Most countries in the region are woefully behind when it comes to preparing for the physical effects of climate change on the environment and for the socioeconomic effects on much of the population. Many governments are unable or unwilling to tackle issues related to poverty, slow and unequal economic growth, high unemployment, lack of basic services, and widespread corruption. Instead, the region’s governments have long relied on what political scientists call the “authoritarian bargain,” an implicit contract in which the state provides jobs, security, and services in exchange for political loyalty (or at least obeisance). This contract assumes that the population will remain politically inactive. But protest movements over the last decade, from the Arab Spring to more recent demonstrations in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries, have shown that people across the region want to renegotiate. In many countries, the protests are the result of worsening economic and political conditions, many of which stem from strained government resources that have led to a decline in the provision of public services. With climate change projected to put additional pressure on water and food security, livelihoods, health, and overall living standards, public discontent is likely to keep growing in the coming years, resulting in a heightened risk of political instability and conflict. The linkages between climate change, resource scarcity, and social unrest are of course complex. Examining two cases – one dealing with water scarcity and contamination, the other with rising food prices – can help shed urgently needed light on these dangerous dynamics. WATER POLITICS IN IRAQ A good place to start is by considering Iraq’s water resources, which have been under increasing stress for more than three decades. As a result of both natural and anthropogenic causes, water quantities have decreased and water quality has deteriorated. The natural phenomena include increasing climate variability and lower annual precipitation, resulting in a lack of snowfall in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. The anthropogenic causes center around increasing water demand, inadequate government policies, and dam-building by upstream neighbors Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The Tigris and Euphrates are Iraq’s most important sources of freshwater. These twin rivers converge in al-Qurna, in the southern Basra governorate, to form the Shatt al-Arab River and drain toward the Gulf (see map). Both rivers originate in Turkey, with the Euphrates cutting through Syria before reaching Iraq. Several of the rivers’ tributaries originate in Iran, with the Greater Zab, the Lesser Zab, and the Diyala flowing into the Tigris. In total, more than 50% of the country’s renewable water resources originate outside of its borders.
Of particular concern to Iraq is Turkey’s controversial Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which is located at the Euphrates-Tigris Basin in the upper-Mesopotamian plains. At an estimated cost of $32 billion, the GAP is one of the world’s largest river-basin development projects. Other serious concerns include Iranian dam-building activity and an expected increase in Syrian water usage. Regional cooperation to improve water management is limited, and political negotiations have so far fallen short of concluding a legally binding, comprehensive, and long-term agreement. On the domestic front, while rapid population growth, urbanization, and increasing industrial production have driven up water demand, decades of conflict and sanctions, along with inadequate government policies and the lack of a regulatory framework for sustainable water management, have undermined investment in supply. The main challenges include chronic deterioration of infrastructure, inefficient irrigation and drainage, lack of water treatment facilities, and weak regulation of agricultural runoff and discharges of sewage, industrial waste, and oil byproducts. In addition, the continuous decline in the water levels of the Shatt al-Arab has led to severe saltwater encroachment from the Gulf into the river. DISASTER AREA Basra, a port city with direct access to the Persian Gulf, was once glorified as the “Venice of the East” for its myriad of freshwater canals lined with palm trees. The surrounding governorate accounts for most of Iraq’s oil production, with nearby West Qurna considered to be one of the world’s most lucrative oilfields. But these strategic assets have not benefited the public, because government mismanagement and negligence have turned Basra into a decrepit and dysfunctional city, plagued by strained utilities and broken infrastructure. Its waterways have become open sewers that are poisoning the population. In the summer of 2018, Basra became the epicenter of an environmental and socioeconomic disaster that threatened the stability of the entire region. In July, Iraqis took to the streets to demand basic services such as clean drinking water, electricity, jobs, and an end to pervasive corruption. Then, in August, an outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses, most likely caused by water contamination, sent tens of thousands of people seeking medical assistance in increasingly overwhelmed hospitals. Later that month, the UN-affiliated Independent High Commission for Human Rights called on the Iraqi government to declare Basra a “disaster area.” The water supply problems fueled further public outrage. Street protests resumed and gradually intensified. By September 2018, the protests had turned violent, with deadly clashes between protesters and security forces. Demonstrators burned government and political party offices and attacked the headquarters of the popular mobilization forces and the Iranian consulate, voicing anger over the growing influence of Iran-backed militias in the city. By early October, 18 civilians had been killed, and another 155 had been injured. While a wide range of long-neglected issues fueled the protests, water scarcity was cited as the most immediate cause or trigger. According to one civil servant quoted in The Independent, “The water shortages have made all the other problems gather and explode. It’s so extreme because it’s water, it’s essential for life.” Concerns remained that the health of the Iraqi people would continue to be affected unless the water situation improved drastically and quickly. Despite efforts to contain the outbreak of waterborne diseases and despite promises by the government to improve water infrastructure, it did not. In October 2019, the unrest spread to Baghdad, where protesters demanded economic reform, an end to corruption, and the provision of basic services, including clean water and electricity. A brutal crackdown by security forces resulted in more than 100 deaths in the first five days. Still, the demonstrations gained momentum, with protesters going so far as to call for an overhaul of the entire sectarian political system. According to the UN’s special envoy to Iraq, more than 400 people were killed, and another 19,000 were injured, just between October 1 and December 3 last year. EGYPT’S TROUBLED WATERS Likewise, climate change and politics have become inextricably intertwined in Egypt, where agricultural production and food security are threatened by acute water scarcity and other climate-related challenges. Egypt is also heavily reliant on food imports, which makes it all the more vulnerable to the impact of adverse weather events on global output and prices. Similar to the situation in Iraq, increasing water stress in Egypt reflects not only climate change, but also rapid population growth and resource mismanagement. The government bears a significant part of the responsibility, as a lack of treatment facilities, poor infrastructure maintenance, and weak regulations against dumping domestic, agricultural, and industrial effluent have all created water scarcities. Egypt’s water dependency ratio is one of the world’s highest, with the Nile River providing more than 95% of its total supply. Approximately 86% of the Nile’s total volume comes from the Ethiopian Highlands, flowing through Sudan before reaching Egypt (see map). As a result, water allocation has long been a source of political tension among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The biggest challenge to Egypt’s water supply currently comes from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. At an estimated cost of $4.8 billion, the dam’s construction is a crucial step toward energy security for Ethiopia. For Egypt, however, the project poses a significant threat to its water supply, especially with Ethiopia becoming the dominant power in the Nile River Basin.
Egypt’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture, which itself is almost entirely dependent on irrigation, accounting for over 85% of the country’s total water usage. Egypt’s food production is thus severely restricted by rising temperatures and more frequent droughts, which translate into higher water demand and lower agricultural yields. Worse, climate models show that Egypt’s national food production could decline by anywhere from 11% to 50% by 2050, depending on the level of warming. Moreover, the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket, is subsiding and extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise. Higher sea levels are expected to affect around 30% of fertile land in the Nile Delta within this century. With tightening resource constraints and a growing population, Egypt’s dependence on imported food is growing, as is its vulnerability to supply and price risks on the global market. The Egyptian population was hit particularly hard by the global food crisis of 2006-08, which came at a time when the country’s domestic production was weakened by severe water scarcity and debilitating agricultural reforms. BREAD, FREEDOM, AND SOCIAL JUSTICE As world commodity prices rose in 2007, Egypt’s government was unable to contain domestic food price inflation, owing to increasing resource scarcity, a corrupt and unsustainable food-subsidy system, and other structural problems. The annual rate of growth in food prices soared from 6.9% in December 2007 to a peak of 31% in August 2008, compared to an average of only 4% in the early 2000s. Rising food prices eroded the purchasing power of the population, causing poverty and food insecurity to rise. Between 2005 and 2008, the incidence of extreme poverty – defined as the inability to meet basic food needs – increased by about 20%, and a growing share of the population became dependent on government-subsidized bread. When the government struggled to meet demand, bread shortages became the focus of a wave of anger at perceived official incompetence, indifference, and corruption. On April 6, 2008, in response to low wages and rising food prices, Egyptian textile workers in the northern town of Mahalla al-Kubra organized a strike. Residents took to the streets, participating in the biggest demonstration that Egypt had seen in years. Police responded with live ammunition to disperse the crowds and arrested more than 300 people. The strike spread to other cities, including Cairo, albeit not with the same intensity. According to news reports, the demonstrators’ complaints were mainly economic: higher food prices, stagnant wages, and “unprecedented” inequality. Many view the Mahalla protests as a precursor to the Arab Spring less than three years later. Then, in 2010, fires in Russia and floods in Pakistan disrupted global wheat and rice markets, and the prices of basic foods in Egypt rose again (see graph). By the end of the year, Egyptians had been pushed to the brink by the sharp increases in food prices, escalating unemployment, chronic government corruption, rigged parliamentary elections, lack of political freedoms, growing concern about police brutality, and crackdowns on the media and universities. Resentment toward Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime was growing. Social media had raised awareness of state repression and the fall of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, gave Egyptians hope that political change was possible.
Two weeks later, thousands of protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding dignity, democracy, and better livelihoods for all. One of the popular chants called for “bread, freedom, and social justice” (“aīsh, huriyya, adala igtima‘iyya”). As the call for “aīsh” indicates, the accessibility and affordability of food was part of the population’s key grievances against the government. And although rising food prices were not the main factor behind the uprising, they likely played an important role in the sequence of events that led to nation-wide demonstrations and deadly unrest. Protest movements were met with extreme police violence and the excessive use of force by the military. Reported deaths in January and February amounted to 846 persons, in addition to mass arbitrary arrests and many cases of abuse and torture. THREATS, MULTIPLIED Resource scarcity and the lack of basic services are feeding public frustration, social unrest, and broader instability throughout the MENA region. In Iraq, water scarcity and contamination have given rise to recurrent demonstrations in Basra, and also contributed to the protest movement that started in Baghdad in October 2019. In Egypt, steep increases in domestic food prices led to riots and sporadic protests in 2008 and contributed to the uprising in 2011. Basic services such as running water, sanitation, stormwater drainage, solid-waste management, electricity, and access to staple foods, but also – as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic – basic health care, social protection, and emergency response mechanisms, are the pillars on which governments build relationships with their citizens. The collapse of one or more severely erodes public trust and can lead to social upheavals, as demonstrated again by the recent uprisings in Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, and other countries. At the heart of the water and food scarcities in Egypt, Iraq, and other countries lie poor governance, weak regulation, and a lack of cross-border cooperation. But looming large in the background is a changing climate, which has exacerbated these problems. As the ultimate threat multiplier in a region that is extremely vulnerable to its effects, it must not be overlooked. Given the risks, it is crucial that governments in the MENA region make adaptation efforts a top priority. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored this need. Countries with preset plans have contained the spread of the coronavirus and managed its consequences much better than those with no plans. Likewise, confronting climate change requires developing comprehensive national and regional strategies that take into account the projected effects on water resources, agriculture, and human health. It is up to MENA governments to start building more resilience. The climate will not wait for them.
We are already beginning to rethink the city and housing to respond as best as possible to future health crises and other natural disasters (earthquakes, flooding, Tsunami) or accidental (fire, carbonization, nuclear threats, etc.). Transportation will evolve by adapting to the new rules of distancing. Walkers and cyclists will be encouraged through adequate infrastructure per sustainable regulations. The famous concept of urban intensification will be forgotten because of unforeseen anachronism. In short, cities will have to evolve considering the new climate and health situation requirements. Sustainability would be a must in All Regions as it is clear that all future development will surely come at the expense of the planet because of the need for urban areas will double in view of the sine-qua-none condition of social distancing. In the hope that the urban will cease to overflow into the rural, questioning the fragile balance between the city and the countryside, life carries on. Other times, other manners and despite that, touring towns, villages and countryside will have to go on so as to sustain parts if not all economies of all nations. The word is therefore the time has come to restart tourism! The World Tourism Organization, a United Nations Specialised Agency produced the following press release for this purpose. Marking the World Environment Day, the One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme has announced its new vision for global tourism: growing better, stronger, and balancing the needs of people, planet, and prosperity.The quasi unanimous agreement of many
At both the local and the global level, the crisis we have faced up to together has shown the importance of making the right decisions at the right time.
We do so on the back of many weeks of hard work and commitment. This crisis has affected us all. Many, at every level of the sector, have made sacrifices, personally or professionally. But in the spirit of solidarity that defines tourism, we united under UNWTO’s leadership to share our expertise and abilities. Together, we are stronger, and this cooperation will be essential as we move onto the next stage.
Our research shows that several countries around the world are starting to ease restrictions on travel. At the same time, governments and the private sector are working together to restore confidence build and trust – essential foundations for recovery.
In the first stage of this crisis, UNWTO united tourism to assess the likely impact of COVID-19, mitigate the damage to economies, and safeguard jobs and businesses.
Now, as we change gears together, UNWTO is taking the lead again.
At the same time, we continue to promote innovation and sustainability. These must no longer be small parts of our sector, but instead must be at the heart of everything we do. This way, as we restart tourism, we can build a sector that works for people and planet.
Governments and businesses are increasingly on our side as we work to build this new tourism.
UNWTO is also working to make sure that tourists too share in this vision. Our partnership with CNN International will take our positive message to millions of people around the world. The #TravelTomorrow message, embraced by so many, is one of responsibility, hope and determination.
And now, as we do get ready to travel again, we remind tourists of the positive difference their choices can make.
Our actions can be meaningful and highlight the road ahead, travelling again to restart tourism.
In Carnegie Middle East Diwan write up by Armenak Tokmajyan and Walid al-Nofal in Beyond the Line in the Sand seems to have encapsulated a situation of contentious borders of the modern states. This article highlights the human down to earth life aspects that continue unabated for millennia.
Syria’s conflict has transformed the conditions of tribal clan notables who have sought refuge in Jordan.
The social fabric on both sides of the Syrian-Jordanian border has remained similar, notwithstanding the fact that a century has passed since the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the region between Britain and France. Communities on either side of the separation line remain similar, with extended families and clans (sub-tribes or ‘ashireh) dominating the social landscape. They remain linked by family and kinship ties, as well as shared customs and traditions.
But this so-called “line in the sand”—the boundary dividing British and French areas of control drawn during World War I—has also left its mark. Relations between tribal clans and their respective states differ markedly between Jordan and Syria, both in terms of their roles in the state-building process and the space that clan notables have been given to exercise traditional authority within their societies.
With the increasing levels of violence in Syria after 2011, many Syrians, especially from the border governorate of Dar‘a, sought refuge in Jordan. Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that the largest concentration of refugees is located in Amman Governorate, Jordan’s economic heartland. The second-largest is present in the northwestern border areas of the kingdom, which resemble nearby parts of Syria in their climate, geography, and even architecture. Not only is the environment similar, but many Jordanian and Syrian families have family ties and relationships from before the conflict. This helped Syrians integrate into Jordanian society after they had fled Syria.
After settling in Jordan, many refugees found that the state’s relationship with clans were different than what they had encountered in Syria. Throughout the decades of Ba‘th Party rule, the Syrian state sought to weaken tribal clan authority. Half a century of such policies prior to the uprising, along with changing ways of life, gradually reduced the role of clan notables. Still, the state used what remained of these notables’ influence for its own ends. For example, it took advantage of their authority to contain and resolve major disputes between large families and keep the peace in rural peripheries of the country.
Jordan’s tribal clans, in turn, face few of the restraints and pressures experienced by their Syrian counterparts. Instead, they remain a major power center with considerable authority and influence in the kingdom. Tribal tradition plays a crucial role in Jordanian society despite growing opposition to it. Even today, the king derives some of his legitimacy from his status as the leader of the kingdom’s tribal leaders, a historical legacy dating back to Jordan’s foundation. Despite rare bumps in ties between the state and tribal clans, especially for economic reasons, these relationships have remained essential for the stability of Hashemite rule.
The new reality in Jordan makes some Syrian notables claim that there is more respect for the clan in Jordan than in Syria. Indeed, in Jordan tribal traditions and customs similar to those in Syria are more widely practiced. This continues to strengthen the clans’ traditional authority, which gives them positions of leadership with judicial, customary, and even political roles as intermediaries between their communities and the state—far more than in Syria.
The situation in Syria has brought about deep changes in the relationship between state and society, including with clan notables. Early on in 2011, notables in Dar‘a broke with their traditional roles and were at the forefront of anti-regime protests when Brigadier General ‘Atif Najib, the head of the Political Security Directorate in Dar‘a, humiliated notables who had gone to seek the release of children arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime slogans. This is widely seen as the incident that sparked the uprising.
Tribal customs remained, and perhaps were strengthened, amid the absence of state institutions in Syria. As a result, some known personalities lost their social status as notables, while others turned the crisis into an opportunity. They gained authority and prominence within their extended families and clans and became new intermediaries with the state. These transformations are ongoing and the political role of clan notables in Syrian society today has yet to become clear. For now, many seem to have lost the roles they played before the uprising, becoming rivals and targets of the state.
The lives of Syrian clan notables in Jordan differ greatly from their lives before the uprising and from the situation of Syrians who are living in Dar‘a today. Many certainly face the hardships of being refugees and do not enjoy the same privileges as their Jordanian counterparts. Yet they live in a sociopolitical environment in which they are able to exercise their traditional authority more widely over their communities and without the fear of being targeted by the state. In that sense, despite living in exile, they are in a more favorable social and political setting than where they had been.
‘The immediate issue for all businesses, in whichever industry they’re in, is survival’ – Shehab Gargash by Bernd Debusmann Jr who on 30 May 2020 reports that Gargash Group managing director and CEO Shehab Gargash has a grim short-term forecast for the coronavirus-era economy. But out of the ashes, opportunity will arise. 10 Scenarios for the MENA region in the year 2050 elaborated by @Eubulletin amongst many others predicted similar outcome, even though the world was not going through the same exceptional circumstances.
Like most globetrotting travellers and businessmen, Shehab Gargash’s office has souvenirs of his trips. But these souvenirs aren’t postcards, fridge magnets or cheap trinkets. Gargash collects boarding passes – hundreds of which are kept in a massive glass display case in his office, atop of which sits a silver and red aircraft wing.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,” reads a sonnet on the case, written by American poet and pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr, killed flying a Spitfire over England during the Second World War. “And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”
This, I think to myself when I see it, is a man who really loves his travel. His Instagram account proves it.
From India and China to Barcelona, Monaco and the Maldives, Gargash gets around – and that’s just in the last year alone.
But like the rest of us, Covid-19 has put a damper on Gargash’s travel plans.
“When will I travel again? That’s a good question,” he tells me, chuckling through the grainy screen of our video teleconference meeting.
“If I’m going on holiday, I want to enjoy it. So I’m not itching to get back on a plane. I don’t think we’ll be there anytime soon.”
In the current climate, an Instagram-worthy trip is the least of Gargash’s concerns. At the moment, he’s preoccupied with facing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, both on Gargash Group – of which he is managing director and CEO – and on the wider economies of the UAE and GCC.
Some estimates – such as that of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – forecast that the GCC economies will collectively record negative real GDP growth in 2020, with the UAE slipping to -3.5 percent from 1.3 percent growth last year.
When it comes to the crisis, Gargash’s warm smile and friendly banter come to a stop. This isn’t a situation he minces words about.
“The immediate issue for all businesses, in whichever industry they’re in, is survival,” he tells me. “I think we are facing worldwide, industry-wide, existential issues that a lot of us have never even dreamed of. It’s all-encompassing and covers all sorts of areas of the economy.”
Hard times ahead
When it comes to the pandemic-related issues that the UAE’s economy faces, few are in a better position to comment than Gargash. A scion of one of the country’s most prominent Emirati families, Gargash leads the Gargash Group, which has diverse interests including automotive, real estate, hospitality and financial services. He’s also the founding chairman of Daman Investments – not to mention a long-time banking industry and prolific socio-economic commentator.
Gargash Enterprises is the authorised distributor for Mercedes-Benz in Dubai, Sharjah and the Northern Emirates
In the short-term, he says with startling matter-of-factness, the forecast is grim. He predicts that many businesses will not last.
“People aren’t looking at their strategies, or their plans. They’re looking at the daily details of expenses, revenue, cash in the bag. The immediate oxygen for the business to live through this,” he says. “Many businesses will not appreciate the impact of what they thought were very small elements, like levels of leverage and borrowing that seemed manageable a few weeks ago. These will deal a fatal blow to a lot of businesses.”
Perhaps more alarmingly, Gargash believes that most businesses are “nowhere near” a stage in which they can even think of what the future holds. What businesses will look like, and how they can adapt to new realities, are still unknowns.
“We haven’t even considered that future yet. A lot of businesses, through no fault of their own in many cases, will not survive simply because they have underappreciated the need to have that safety cushion,” he adds.
According to Gargash, the businesses that do survive the immediate impact of the pandemic over the coming weeks and months will soon have to start thinking of their next moves.
“You can’t afford to be firefighting too long. Over the weeks and months, [companies will] regain their balance. Subsequent to that, strategy kicks back in,” he explains. “Where am I going as a business? What are my priorities? What are new opportunities, and what’s a dying, sunset industry?
“It’s time we ask ourselves these questions as businesses, as they’ll define how we act, post the shock-therapy. Once we do that, our priorities are better defined, and actions put together accordingly,” Gargash adds. “That’s the kind of soul searching that will occupy our minds this year, and possibly into next year.”
The company has diverse operations in financial investment and real estate
Gargash Group is far larger than most businesses that operate in the country. For the average resident, the company is most readily associated with the automotive sector, being the authorised distributor for Mercedes-Benz in Dubai, Sharjah and the Northern Emirates. It is, however, much more than that, offering a wide range of financial, investment and real estate services in various sectors.
But the company’s size and status did not spare it from the impact of the coronavirus. “We went through shock and panic, and saw revenues tumble to extremely low levels, and like everyone had to grapple with a 24-hour lockdown,” Gargash recalls. “Those were the issues that we dealt with as a group in the early days of the pandemic. Nobody knew how to deal with Covid-19.”
And although Gargash says it is “far too early” for decisions to be made on the company’s future, it has already begun a soul-searching process he advises for companies across the wider economy.
“That’s where we are at right now. Let’s say I have 10 lines of business. Which ones are still valid propositions? The ones that aren’t, do I adjust them? Do I integrate them into something else? Or do I just cut the rope and let them sink?,” he says. “Those kinds of questions are still being tackled.”
While it may be too early to determine what the group’s focus will be going forward and what it may need to be cut loose, Gargash says he isn’t particularly worried. The group’s core businesses – automotive, real estate, and financial services – will form a key part of the post-Covid economy in some form.
In fact, he adds, the shock of the pandemic may end up being a blessing in disguise that forced the company to become “more daring in its implementation.”
Businesses that will survive the impact of the pandemic over the coming months will soon have to start thinking of their next moves, Gargash believes
“We’ll try new ideas, new thoughts, concepts and industries that in the past I dismissed,” he explains. “Let’s imagine, for a second, potato farming. Potato farming has been proven to be a strategic source of nourishment. That’s a silly example, but understand, I’m obliged to become a more entrepreneurial business, and regardless of how ‘classic’ I’ve been in the past. I must investigate new avenues. I have the same eagerness to survive as a brand new start-up.”
A new GCC?
Gargash is undoubtedly an optimist. Even while speaking about the challenges of the economy, he peppers his comments with reminders that, sooner or later, things will return to something resembling normality. As he puts it, the masks will fall off, and the glove won’t be a necessity – even if the “trauma” of the event stays with us.
Even widespread job losses, he says, will eventually lead to something better. “In the longer term, jobs will be replaced, rather than lost. We still [in the UAE] have an economy serving 10 million people, and a broader GCC economy with 50 million or so. Jobs will be created, possibly in new industries and in new roles.”
These new roles – which Gargash admits he isn’t sure what will be, exactly – will require many employees, from blue-collar workers to managers, re-skill themselves, or learn entire new professions. Although challenging, he is confident the region’s youth in particular will manage.
“This [trend] will disproportionally [benefit] young people,” he says. “They’re more adept and more able to align themselves with industry trends.”
These ‘new roles’ don’t just apply to employees. The pandemic, he believes, may ultimately change the UAE’s economy as a whole by encouraging more home-grown entrepreneurs to step up with fresh new ideas.
“Most of the businesses that are set up in the UAE are in the ‘last-mile’ economy: the delivery of a product or service that has evolved somewhere else, or was manufactured somewhere else. Your control over what your supplier gives you is fairly limited. I can’t invent a better wheel, so to say. I’m just distributing the wheel that was manufactured somewhere else.”
Young people could align themselves with industry trends, says Gargash
What we’ll see instead, Gargash hopes, is an opportunity for motivated entrepreneurs to try and forecast where the future is headed and where they can step in with an idea.
“In a post Covid-reality, we’ll be asking what is going to drive businesses, and what those businesses will look like,” he says. “There needs to be a proper reading of what demands will need to be fulfilled. Businesses will need to alter their offerings to suit the new realities.”
He adds, “It’s by no means an easy task. There’s still a lot of projection and reading into the future that is required.”
Once that’s done, he says, the UAE’s economy will be able to take off – as will he, on his next trip abroad. For Gargash, that day will be welcome news.
“I have a fear of losing my frequent flyer miles,” he laughs. “But that’s another story.”
Advice for investors
When asked what advice he’s given to would-be UAE investors in the pandemic, Gargash responds without hesitation: “hold on to it and watch what happens.”
“Do not rush into investments today. I do not think there will be an imminent, overnight bounce back of growth and activity,” he says. “It’s going to come back, but it will be more deliberate.
“It’ll take more time. If I was an investor with AED1m, I’d hold back and watch and observe. I’d make a convinced decision before I take that plunge and go into one asset class.”
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