The MENA’s Sahara region is increasingly being looked at for purposes stemming from power generation to food production. Here is how Danny Kane in this write up brings in to everyone’s attention the hot topic on Extreme Environments: farming in the Sahara Desert.
Every year, an area of fertile land roughly half the size of Britain becomes desert. This process, known as desertification, isn’t usually caused by one single factor, but the usual suspects make an appearance every time: climate change, deforestation, and poor agricultural practices. 1/5th of the world’s arable land is under threat from desertification.
With desertification likely to become an even greater issue in the future, it is time to start looking at possible ways to combat it. Reclaiming the desert is often a costly action few countries immediately affected by it can afford to pursue. The alternative, while also expensive, may be the best chance many of these countries, and in future the world, has to thrive. So, what if you could grow food in the desert?
Firstly, let’s dispel a myth — you can’t grow anything in sand. Numerous forms of plants will grow in sand, as long as they can source water and are able to tolerate the extreme heat, wind, sandstorms and occasional torrential rains found in deserts (particularly the Sahara), plants will grow. Unfortunately for us, a few wild plants cannot sustain a population, so for all intents and purposes, deserts appear to us to be barren.
Much of the problem comes from the sand itself. We’re not used to thinking about sand as a kind of soil, but it’s simply on the extreme end of the spectrum. The main issues come from two things. Sand isn’t very good at holding water, the particles are simply too big, so the water just runs off and isn’t absorbed as it is with soil, thus starving the plants of water. The second issue with sand is its lack of organic matter. Most sand is less than 1% organic matter, which is defined as organic material (plants and animal residues) in different stages of decomposition. This organic material feeds micro-organisms, which in turn create nutrients that are then utilised by the plants in their survival.
All this combined with the high temperatures, the weak structure of sand at holding roots and the high winds constantly trying to rip away the plants, make desert farming a huge challenge — but perhaps not an impossible one though.
Algeria is the largest country in Africa at 2,381,740 square kilometres (919,590 square miles). Unfortunately for Algeria, around 80% of that land is in the Sahara Desert and essentially uninhabited.
Instability in the region following the Western Saharan War from 1975–1976 led to the creation of the Sahrawi Refugee camps, which today house between 90,000 and 165,000 (the exact number remains disputed by all parties involved, but the UN today recognises 90,000 individuals).
For decades, the refugees were dependent on the United Nations World Food Programme for food aid and to a large part they still are, but steps are being taken to reduce that dependence in the camps.
Here, growing plants in sand is possible thanks to hydroponics — a type of farming that grows plants in ‘inert mediums’ like packing peanuts, gravel and sand. Put simply, it is plants being farmed using nothing but water and a mineral nutrient solution. It vastly reduces the amount of water required to farm, which often has to be brought in by the literal truck load and at a high price.
The refugee camps and UNWFE have been successful in growing a strain of local barley in greenhouses, which is used as fodder to feed to the animals in the camp, noticeably increasing their dairy output, as well as the quality of the meat, and thus supplementing the diets of the refugees.
Though steps are being taken to reduce the cost, this remains relatively expensive and is far from providing enough food to support the camps. It is certainly a step in the right direction, but it’s still in its infancy.
For a country that dared to try and tame the Sahara though, we need look no further than Egypt. At approximately 90% desert, Egyptians have always stayed close to the Nile, the life blood of the country. Evidence of agriculture in the Nile Delta has been dated to as far back as 8000 BC, so it would seem the Egyptians have already mastered the desert sands, but unfortunately the Egypt of today is very different than the Egypt of 10,000 years ago.
The population today has swelled to nearly 90 million, four times as many as in 1945. Egypt simply does not have the enough agricultural land to feed its people, and so the country that was once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire now imports 50% of its food from abroad.
The New Valley Project aimed to change that. It was one of the most ambitious construction projects ever created and has its roots in the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s. It aimed to add approximately 1.5 million acres of farmland to Egypt. Following his deposition in the 2011 Arab Spring, the project was frozen, but recently it has been revived.
The project aims to deal with arguably the most difficult part of growing plants in the desert — the lack of water. The New Valley Project and other desert reclamation projects undertaken by the Egyptian government solved this by either creating an elaborate system of canals and pumping systems to syphon water from the Nile River and Lake Nasser, or by pumping up ground water from below the surface.
So, did it work? Well, not really, no. Numerous factors plagued the projects. Firstly, a vast amount of work was needed to get the shoddily constructed canals up to standard, which increased the costs of the project exponentially. Next was the issue of pumping up ground water. The vast quantities required expected to have a drastic impact on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, the source of the water. Essentially, it was theorised that the farming would drain the aquifer, and thus the farmland would only be productive for a limited period of time.
This coupled with the fact that despite incentives, few people want to move to one of the hottest parts of the world to work on a potentially unsustainable farm has basically rendered the project a failure. A few companies have managed to stick it out at on the New Valley Project, but these companies are few and far between. It simply isn’t possible to make a profit or produce any notable amount of food in the area.
Details remain scare, but it appears the New Valley Project has been set back once more, and the term Toshka (the Egyptian name for the New Valley Project) has become a joke and a byword for failure to everyday Egyptians, seem as little more than another political stunt by the government.
Away from the Sahara in the UAE a more novel solution has been found — Liquid Clay. At 80% desert, the UAE faces the reality of ‘learn to grow food in the desert of rely on buying from abroad.’
However, an experimental farm working in conjunction with a Norwegian scientist has managed to half the water needed to farm by using the excitingly named Liquid Nano Clay. In essence, this clay and water solution is pumped a few metres below ground where it binds with the sand, creating fertile soil. It needs to be re-done every 5 years or so, depending on how the soil is being used, but it has been proven to reduce the water required to make the desert bloom.
Unfortunately, this seemingly miracle product comes at a very high cost, up to $9,500 (£6,900) per hectare. Desert Control, the company behind it, intends to sell their products to municipal governments and commercial growers but hopes to make it affordable to all growers in the future. The issue with this is that many of the countries within the Sahara Desert are incredibly poor, some of the poorest in the world. Even a low price may prove unattainable on the large scale needed to move these countries toward self-sustainability.
No easy answers
The problem of the Sahara Desert has stubbornly refused to give way for much of human history. It has acted as a natural barrier to numerous empires like the Romans and the Carthaginians.
While you can farm in the Sahara and, in isolated cases, peoples and companies are, it remains a colossal challenge. Bringing water to the desert seems to be the greatest limiting factor to growing in the Sahara. Pumping seawater and desalinating it has been done successful in Jordan on the small scale and could potentially be re-created in the Sahara, but the scale required is nothing short of daunting and de-salination technology remains prohibitively expensive for many countries today, especially those most affected by the Sahara.
In addition, in a future where food is grown in the Sahara, it will likely be the private sector, not the governments of these places that develops the scalable technology needed for the project. Naturally, those companies are going to want a payoff for their investment and so may turn to exclusively farming cash crops. This has been seen in the New Valley Project, where one of the few companies that remains appears to exclusively grow Medjool Dates, a notable cash crop.
While obviously investments in these countries should be encouraged, farming in the Sahara should ultimately make these countries less dependent on foreign investment. If companies paid for the use of the Sahara, the governments of these countries would still be forced to use that money to buy food from aboard. If the desert can be turned into an oasis, let oasis be used for the independence of those countries, not to further a cycle of dependence that leads to nothing but instability.
ZAWYA‘s INVESTMENT on 13 May, 2020 reports that Egypt presses on with new capital in the desert amid virus outbreak. Officials see mega-projects as key source of jobs .
By Aidan Lewis and Mahmoud Mourad, Reuters News
CAIRO- While Egypt’s economy has stumbled due to the coronavirus outbreak, construction at a new capital taking shape east of Cairo is continuing at full throttle after a short pause to adjust working practices, officials say.
The level of activity at the desert site – where trucks rumble down newly built roads and cranes swing over unfinished apartment blocks – reflects the new city’s political importance even as the government grapples with the pandemic.
Known as the New Administrative Capital, it is the biggest of a series of mega-projects championed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a source of growth and jobs.
Soon after coronavirus began to spread, Sisi postponed moving the first civil servants to the new city and moved back the opening of a national museum adjoining the pyramids to next year.
Productivity dipped as companies adapted to health guidelines and some labourers stayed home.
But officials have sought to keep the mega-projects going to protect jobs, and after 10 days of slowdown construction had fully resumed at the new capital with a shift system, said Amr Khattab, spokesman for the Housing Ministry, which along with the military owns the company building the city.
“The proportion of the labour force that is present on site doesn’t exceed 70%, so that the workers don’t get too close,” he said as he showed off the R5 neighbourhood, which includes about 24,000 housing units. “We work less intensively, but we do two shifts.”
Sisi, who publicly quizzes officials responsible for infrastructure projects about timetables and costs, launched the new capital in 2015.
Designed as a high-tech smart city that will house 6.5 million people and relieve congestion in Cairo, it includes government and business districts, a giant park, and a diplomatic quarter as yet unbuilt.
One senior official said last year the cost of the whole project was about $58 billion. While some Egyptians see the new capital as a source of pride, others see it as extravagant and built to benefit a cocooned elite.
‘RUNNING ON TIME’
“We have clear instructions from his excellency the president that the postponement of the opening is not a delay to the project,” said Khattab. “The project is running on time.”
Disinfection and other protective measures were visible at the construction site 45km (30 miles) east of the Nile, though some workers were only ordered to don masks when journalists started filming and others drove by crammed into a minibus. Egypt has confirmed more than 10,000 coronavirus cases, but none at the new capital.
Delays in payments to contractors and to imported supplies were additional risks, said Shams Eldin Youssef, a member of Egypt’s union for construction contractors. Khattab said the government had contractors’ payments in hand.
The Housing Ministry expects to deliver two residential districts by late 2021, while the business district should be finished by early 2022, said Ahmed al-Araby, deputy head of the new capital’s development authority. Private developers and the army are building six other neighbourhoods.
In the government district, which Khattab said was 90% complete, ministry buildings fronted with vertical strips of white stone and darkened glass lead to an open area being planted with palm trees and mini obelisks in front of a domed parliament building.
To one side a large, low-rise presidential palace is under construction.
Sisi has urged people seeking work to head to new cities being built around the country, including the new capital, which Khattab said employs some 250,000 workers.
Critics have questioned the diversion of resources away from existing cities, including Cairo, parts of which are in slow decay.
“The question about how rational this is – whether it makes sense economically, whether it is doable, whether it’s the best course of action – this question is not even asked,” Ezzedine Fishere, an Egyptian writer and senior lecturer at Dartmouth College in the United States, said by phone.
On the other side of Cairo at the new museum next to the Giza pyramids, work has also been continuing at a slower pace.
In mid-April staffing levels sank to about 40%, with plans to recover gradually to 100%, said General Atef Muftah, who oversees the project.
University of Southampton gives us an idea of the current situation through this article on Solar and wind energy sites mapped globally for the first time.
Researchers at the University of Southampton have mapped the global locations of major renewable energy sites, providing a valuable resource to help assess their potential environmental impact.
Their study, published in the Nature journal Scientific Data, shows where solar and wind farms are based around the world—demonstrating both their infrastructure density in different regions and approximate power output. It is the first ever global, open-access dataset of wind and solar power generating sites.
The estimated share of renewable energy in global electricity generation was more than 26 per cent by the end of 2018 and solar panels and wind turbines are by far the biggest drivers of a rapid increase in renewables. Despite this, until now, little has been known about the geographic spread of wind and solar farms and very little accessible data exists.
Lead researcher and Southampton Ph.D. student Sebastian Dunnett explains: “While global land planners are promising more of the planet’s limited space to wind and solar energy, governments are struggling to maintain geospatial information on the rapid expansion of renewables. Most existing studies use land suitability and socioeconomic data to estimate the geographical spread of such technologies, but we hope our study will provide more robust publicly available data.”
While bringing many environmental benefits, solar and wind energy can also have an adverse effect locally on ecology and wildlife. The researchers hope that by accurately mapping the development of farms they can provide an insight into the footprint of renewable energy on vulnerable ecosystems and help planners assess such effects.
The study authors used data from OpenStreetMap (OSM), an open-access, collaborative global mapping project. They extracted grouped data records tagged ‘solar’ or ‘wind’ and then cross-referenced these with select national datasets in order to get a best estimate of power capacity and create their own maps of solar and wind energy sites. The data show Europe, North America and East Asia’s dominance of the renewable energy sector, and results correlate extremely well with official independent statistics of the renewable energy capacity of countries.
Study supervisor, Professor Felix Eigenbrod of Geography and Environmental Science at the Southampton comments: “This study represents a real milestone in our understanding of where the global green energy revolution is occurring. It should be an invaluable resource for researchers for years to come, as we have designed it so it can be updated with the latest information at any point to allow for changes in what is a quickly expanding industry.”
From its origin in Wuhan, China, COVID-19 has spread to become a predominantly urban-focused pandemic. Although much data on the pandemic is still unavailable, it is clear that urban areas have been at the epicentre.
We can seize this opportunity to improve how we build, organise and use cities. To do this, though, we need to look more closely at the urban spread of coronavirus to understand its impact on existing inequalities. We can also learn lessons from the past impact of epidemics on the most vulnerable urban populations.
It is already becoming clear that certain groups are being affected unequally. The poor and ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable. Patterns of illness and death reflect urban social and economic geographies. Attention has focused on shielding the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions, defined as being most at risk, but the reality is more complex.
Inequalities caused by ethnicity, religion and income often overlap, so that the proportions of elderly and vulnerable people vary by community and neighbourhood. A potential genetic factor in immunity is being investigated. However, the combination of social, economic and demographic factors together with the urban environment probably accounts for many of the observed infection patterns.
Minority groups are often over-represented among the urban poor. This means they are more likely to have poor diets, get inadequate exercise and to be overweight. This exposes them disproportionately to diabetes and other chronic cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, putting them at high risk.
Poor people also inhabit the lowest quality housing and areas of a city. They live at the highest densities and in the most cramped accommodation. These areas have higher air pollution levels, and poor quality or inaccessible utilities and services. They often have the smallest areas of open public spaces.
Green spaces such as parks have been recognised as vital for human health. But the people who need such spaces most – those without private gardens – have the least access. Parks serving these people have also come under greatest pressure during the lockdowns. Closing them rather than ensuring that people using them follow social distancing guidelines exacerbates the problem.
Risks of overcrowding
COVID-19 and similar viruses are passed on through contaminated moisture droplets from sneezing, coughing or heavy breathing. This means that people living in the same household as someone with the virus have a high likelihood of contracting it.
Almost everywhere, including the UK, large families living in the same household, including members of different generations such as grandparents, are more common among the urban poor and certain minorities. Shielding, self-isolation and social distancing are almost impossible to do in these circumstances. This highlights both the elevated vulnerability of those most at risk and the futility of preventative guidance that ignores these realities.
Institutions housing large numbers of residents are also potential transmission hotspots. Retirement and care homes present particular challenges – and the news is filled with the grim toll there.
Many cities in low- and middle-income countries will face even greater risks should the virus gain a foothold in urban shantytowns and high density areas. Strict preemptive lockdowns have been implemented in India, Kenya, South Africa and elsewhere, before the virus could gain a foothold. If this were to happen in the likes of Dharavi (Mumbai), Kibera (Nairobi) or Khayelitsha (Cape Town), the consequences would be horrific.
Hasty, reactive measures, such as closing all wet markets before the actual source of the virus is known, may prove misguided. It is urgent to think critically and to engage with the underlying issues identified here rather than superficial symptoms. Experience from previous epidemics and pandemics, such as bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera or influenza, can also provide important lessons.
One classic example is the place of 19th-century European cholera epidemics in stimulating the construction of piped water and sewerage systems. This followed the discovery in London that one contaminated drinking water point was the source of the 1854 outbreak. By contrast, in Hamburg, inaction after the 1873 cholera outbreak due to inertia, short-term self-interest from the rich and divided medical opinion led the city to suffer an even worse epidemic in 1892.
Health-driven urban renovation and infrastructural improvement can, however, also be implemented for political or sectarian motives. For instance, an outbreak of bubonic plague in Cape Town at the turn of the 20th century was blamed on the poor African victims by the colonial government and settler community. The outbreak was used to impose forced segregation. In the name of sanitation, the first urban “native location” was constructed outside the main city, where its population was easy to control.
Similar concerns are already being heard about wider potential political surveillance and control. Some governments have quickly implemented the use of mobile phone apps for COVID-19 contact tracing.
We have a unique opportunity to work towards fairer, more sustainable cities in the wake of coronavirus. Emergency government economic support packages must be used proactively. Global plans such as the New Urban Agenda, endorsed by the United Nations in 2016, can steer a shift to green, circular economies. And we can build robust resilience against diverse disasters and climate change – the long-term crisis we already know is looming.
On the 3rd and 4th March of 2020, a workshop on Transboundary Water Cooperation in the MENA Region took place in Beirut, where the Nexus Regional Dialogue Programme (NDP)-MENA shared some of the experiences made with applying the WEF Nexus approach in the Niger Basin.
How can transboundary water cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa be strengthened to support the achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and particularly Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) in the region?
The workshop was jointly organized by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the Global Water Partnership – Mediterranean (GWP-Med).
Throughout the two days, lively discussions were held on good and bad practices as well as lessons learnt from cooperation on transboundary surface and groundwater in the MENA region.
The link between climate change and transboundary water management
The workshop stressed the need to strategically develop approaches for exchanging data and information through methodological frameworks and case studies, involving all the riparian countries. One goal would be a common database featuring indicators on various factors such as guidelines, strategies for M&E or the enabling of the environment, as of this day data on some of these factors is rather incompatible. Tools that could accomplish and aid in this include statistical data and remote sensing or the application of GIS modelling. The exchange between the attendees also shed light on the linkages between transboundary water cooperation and climate change adaptation, such as the role of groundwater used for irrigation, the sustainability of applied pumping levels as well as the salinization of soils. Resources and tools of the Water Convention and the regional climate financing initiative led by the Union for the Mediterranean were mentioned as important tools, together with a set of tools and approaches for improving transboundary water cooperation in the MENA region, including good practices for water allocation and the Water-Energy-Food-Ecosystem Nexus framework. In addition, the role of the international water law in supporting transboundary cooperation was stressed.
The WEF Nexus approach and transboundary water management
The role of the Nexus approach in offering multiple benefits through the inter-sectoral approach it adopts, however the need for stronger supporting evidence through case studies was highlighted. Participants stressed the importance of considering cross interlinkages when planning Nexus interventions, for example in the use of renewable energy for water abstraction from wells, that can lead to an overexploitation of groundwater due to the abundance of energy for pumping or the creation of employment opportunities that counteract migration through the preservation of water resources and land.
In a session entitled: “Tools and approaches for improving transboundary water cooperation in the MENA region, Experience sharing of Nexus approaches application in transboundary basins from the region and beyond”, Dr. Nisreen Lahham, the Coordinator of the NDP- MENA was sharing the experience of the NDP in the Niger Bain on transboundary cooperation through the Nexus approach together with lessons learnt. (Presentation).
The presentation highlighted the achievements of the NDP-Niger in mainstreaming the Nexus approach within the Niger Basin authority (NBA) which are above others the consideration of the WEF Nexus approach in multilateral planning processes of the NBA’s Operational Plan (2016-2024). The methodology of how the NBA is selecting the activities based on a WEF Nexus dimension was illustrated during the session, which includes a scoring system that highlights the achievement of multiple objectives though a single intervention in a project as well as the avoidance of undesired impacts that conflict with water, food or energy security. Furthermore, a tool for assessing multi- purpose dams in a collective manner to maximize the benefits among all interests and stakeholders in an international setting was presented. As an example, the construction of the Fomi Dam in Niger was used, as it offers a case where the Nexus approach was used in negotiations and multilateral planning processes, with an impact on decision-making, to avoid conflict of interests between different countries on transboundary water management and ecosystem protection.
By the end of the presentation, participants discussed potentials for the MENA region by applying the Nexus approach in transboundary contexts, as seen in the successful example of the Niger basin. The main question was how to enhance the role of regional organizations, such as the Nile Basin Authority, in bringing stakeholders together to work on beneficial transboundary solutions for all riparian countries. Regional knowledge and practice exchange with other regional organizations such as the Niger Basin authority was considered along with improving stakeholders’ capacities for handling resource conflicts.
For further information, please contact Dr. Nisreen Lahham, Regional Coordinator of the NRD programme for the MENA Region.› back
Payback between $3-$8 for every dollar spent on energy transition.
The third phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park will be operational in April, DEWA Official revealed. Upon completion, the Solar Park will be the largest single-site solar park in the world, based on an independent power producer, model. Dubai media office twitter account.By Staff Writer, ZAWYA
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will have to invest $148 billion per annum through 2050 to decarbonise the energy system in line with the Paris Agreement, according to the IRENA’s Global Renewables Outlook 2020 report.
The report, which was released on Monday, said the region would need to invest every year up to 2050 nearly $18 billion in renewables, $96 billion in energy efficiency, $5 billion in electrification of heat and transport, $23 billion in power grids and flexibility, and $6 billion in areas like electrolysers for hydrogen production, biofuel supply, and carbon capture and storage combined with improved materials for industry, to achieve the energy transformation needed to mitigate climate change.
“A climate-safe future calls for the scale-up, and redirection, of investment to clean energy technologies. Fossil-fuel investments need to be shifted to renewables and energy efficiency instead, while subsidies to fossil fuels must be phased out”, the report said.
Overall, globally, the total investment in the energy system in the renewable energy-driven Transforming Energy Scenario would need to reach $110 trillion by 2050, or around 2 percent of average annual GDP over the period. Of that total, over 80 percent needs to be invested in renewables, energy efficiency, end-use electrification, and power grids and flexibility.
In annual terms, $3.2 trillion needs to be invested in the global energy system every year to 2050, which compares to recent historical investment (2014-2018) in the energy system of around $1.8 trillion per year, and $2.9 trillion per year in the current (up to April 2019) Planned Energy Scenario, the report said.
The report underlined that “every dollar spent on energy transition would bring a payback of between $3 and $8 in reduced environmental and health externalities.” It said the energy transition will result in more jobs gained than lost with jobs in renewables quadrupling to 42 million globally by 2050.
The MENA region, the report said, would create 1.51 million jobs in the renewable sector compared to 78 million lost in the fossil fuel sector.
(Writing by Sowmya Sundar; Editing by Anoop Menon)
Sustainability Times on April 15, 2020, delivered some thoughts on how MENA is pondering its energy options. A good example is that after several years of hesitation, Algeria and Germany have finally reached an agreement to promote the gigantic Desertec project, aimed at making North Africa and the Middle East full of sunshine, vast reservoirs of energy. The aim is to provide Europe with no less than 17% of its energy needs from this inexhaustible source.
Until not that long ago, the energy needs of most countries in North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) were relatively modest. That’s no longer the case. Rapid economic development and robust population growth across this up-and-coming region have caused energy needs to increase greatly.
Growing demand for air conditioning and desalination, as well as industrial expansion, is especially driving local energy needs. The Arab Petroleum Investment Corporation has estimated that the MENA region will need to expand capacity at 7.4% on average annually, adding 138GW in total. Even as demand for electricity is growing, however, the region’s nations are seeking to wean themselves off fossil fuels in a bid to mitigate the effects of climate change, which is expected to have a marked impact on the environment in an already hot and arid region.
Per capita carbon emissions in Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have been among the highest in the world. Therefore, low-carbon energy sources will be vital and renewables, especially solar, could provide much of the region’s electricity thanks to the ready availability of sunshine all year round. Yet some energy experts stress that enhancing the supply and security of domestic electricity generation can’t be done with renewables alone owing to their inherently intermittent nature. Thus, the diversification of the energy sector will be key to economic stability and prosperity across the region.
Advanced nuclear technology is increasingly seen as a viable alternative to fossil fuels to complement solar and wind in the energy mix. In contrast to the low power density and unit power of renewable energy sources, nuclear offers a means to add significant capacity at speed while not compromising the dependability of supply. For nuclear to come into its own in MENA, however, local governments will need to create favorable market conditions to reap its benefits. The technology requires initial investments that are steep, yet over time nuclear power, if handled well, can be a viable investment. Studies have shown that the system costs of nuclear decrease with a higher market share whereas those of renewables tend to increase.
Still, “It would be too simplistic to pretend that you can compare all system costs and lifecycle costs for these two technologies, particularly as both renewables and nuclear have benefitted one way or another from massive government support in their early days, and both have different roles on the merit curve,” stresses Dr Leila Benali, who is a member of Morocco’s Royal Special Committee for the Development Model, as well as Chief Economist and Head of Strategy at APICORP.
“Over the next 10 years, the massive deployment of grid-scale storage solutions might totally change the current dynamic, particularly in a lower demand growth environment,” she adds.
As matters stand now, however, several nations in the MENA region are seeking to take advantage of the benefits of nuclear technology for electricity generation with hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of planned investment. Turkey is leading the way by developing the country’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu in collaboration with Russia’s state-owned Rosatom energy company. The construction of the plant’s first unit will be finished in 2023 and Ankara is planning to install several more reactors in coming years.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates, a regional economic powerhouse, expects to meet nearly a quarter of its electricity needs with a new nuclear power plant, which is currently under construction in Abu Dhabi and will consist of four APR-1400 nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 5,600 MW. Jordan, too, is working on a commercial nuclear power plant with several helium-cooled small modular reactors, which is expected to be completed by the mid-2020s. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, which is home to a fifth of global oil reserves, is looking to build a number of reactors for energy generation. Several other nations in the region have expressed a similar desire to launch nuclear energy programs of their own.
Yet the financing of such ambitious nuclear projects in MENA will need to be done judiciously. In November 2015, Russia and Egypt signed an intergovernmental agreement to finance the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant. According to the plan Russia would cover 85% of project costs to the tune of $25 billion via a state-backed loan while Egypt would provide the rest via private investments.
A larger role for private financing behind new nuclear has been described as a potential model for the region – and not just for power generation. “It is true that private financing has historically been missed in nuclear power,” Benali says. “One interesting trend in the region could be nuclear for desalination and that could be an area where private capital could be much more active if we see a few projects developing in the region,” she explains.
Ultimately, Benali says, nuclear technology will require not only economic but some societal changes as well. “Given the large share of youth in several countries in the region where they account for more than 70 per cent of the population, the most relevant angle should be R&D-related,” Benali says. “Equally important should be the inducing of a virtuous cycle of attendant technological research related to nuclear with applications extending beyond nuclear power,” she adds. “These should include medical use and desalination projects.”
However, it is clear that the region’s countries will have their work cut out for them if they are to exploit nuclear power technology in a safe and dependable manner. “The main requirements on nuclear cooperation and safeguards on enrichment and nuclear fuel recycling are key [if the region’s countries want] to introduce nuclear,” Benali stresses.
Put simply, Asia is the main source of solar technology and demand for it seems to be however tumbling everywhere as confined resistance to the pandemic is hampering its dynamics. It remains that all renewables account for something like 26 percent of all capacity expansion in the Middle East region. As an exception amongst the most engaged would be Egypt. This emerging economy bets big on Solar as elaborated on by Oxford Business Group could be indicative of all that is happening nowadays.
This Emerging Economy Bets Big On Solar
April 06, 2020
Egypt’s total of 1173 recorded Covid-19 cases and 78 deaths, as of April 5, places Africa’s third-most populous country significantly below the global per capita averages for both counts as the pandemic continues to disrupt the global economy.
However, as a result of the sharp growth in international cases and the gradual closing of national borders, in mid-March the government decided to implement travel restrictions.
Egyptian airports were closed to international flights on March 19 for an initial period of two weeks. This shutdown has since been extended to internal flights and will last until at least April 15.
Additionally, on March 25 the government announced a two-week curfew from 7pm to 6am, while pharmacies and food shops will be the only retail establishments allowed to open on weekends and past 5pm on weekdays. Restaurants may only open for deliveries.
Pre-emptive economic stimulus
As the potential economic fallout of the pandemic began to become clear, on March 22 President Abdel Fattah El Sisi announced a comprehensive LE100bn ($6.4bn) package of measures. This included a LE22bn ($1.4bn) stimulus to support the Egyptian Exchange, which should also benefit from a 50% reduction in taxes on the dividends of listed companies.
In addition, the Central Bank of Egypt announced a 3% interest rate cut in what it described as a “pre-emptive move” to support the wider economy.
In a further bid to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on key sectors, the government has committed to support exporters by allocating LE1bn ($63.5m) for export subsidies during March and April, and will furthermore postpone tax payments for three months on facilities and properties occupied by tourism companies.
Energy prices cut
Following the country’s IMF-backed reforms beginning in 2016, energy subsidies have been gradually removed, resulting in a projected price rise for both households and businesses into 2020.
However, in a bid to offset the impact of the pandemic on industrial output, on March 17 the government announced that the price of gas for industrial providers would be reduced from $5.50 to $4.50 per 1m British thermal units.
As part of the same package of measures, the government also announced that the price of electricity would be reduced for heavy industry consumption, from LE1.10 ($0.07) to LE0.10 ($0.006) per KWh. For other industries, the price is to be kept stable for between three and five years.
Boosting solar capacity
Against the current backdrop of challenging economic circumstances, on April 1 it was announced that the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) would provide funding for six new solar power plants at Benban Solar Park in the Aswan Governorate in Upper Egypt, one of the largest such installations in Africa.
The amount is guaranteed against the risk of currency inconvertibility and transfer restriction for up to 15 years. It is part of Egypt’s solar feed-in-tariff programme, which provides long-term contracts to private energy companies with a view to generating investment in renewable sources.
“In the face of uncertainty arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, MIGA remains committed to helping drive foreign direct investment (FDI) by supporting investors who are helping Egypt achieve its long-term goals of diversifying its energy mix,” Hiroshi Matano, executive vice-president of MIGA, said in a statement.
While the pandemic has caused a number of delays for the renewables segment, notably the postponement of the construction of four solar plants by domestic firm Inter Solar Egypt, the future bodes well for the expansion of the industry.
“In the current uncertain economic environment, solar energy has become popular, as it can be produced up to 80% more cheaply than other sources,” Yaseen Abdel-Ghaffar, Managing Director of SolarizEgypt and board member of The Solar Company, told OBG. “Although it was initially difficult to secure FDI for projects, banks are becoming increasingly receptive to renewables and a growth in financing is expected after regular economic conditions are re-established.”
Solar operations and maintenance company Alectris has completed a project to automate asset management activity at a photovoltaic plant in Jordan.
Alectris implemented the initiative at the 11.5MW facility with MASE, a solar O&M provider in the Middle East.
The partnership between Alectris and MASE aims to automate and standardise asset management activity across new solar projects in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
As solar development has increased in the MENA region, O&M and asset management has “struggled to keep pace”, limiting long-term productivity prospects, said Alectris.
The partnership began in 2016 with MASE responsible for field operations and maintenance services on location, while Alectris provided operations and “legacy expertise” in global asset care.
“Working together, both businesses successfully improved the bankability of the project, which was financed by key development finance institutions operating across the region,” said Alectris.
The initiative involved the integration of Alectris’ ACTIS software platform for solar PV plant asset management, with all data monitoring streams gathered under the single platform to “improve oversight” into project activity.
Alectris managing director Vassilis Papaeconomou said: “Solar development in the MENA region offers a significant opportunity to invest in clean energy projects.
“But if this market momentum is to be maintained, it is imperative that operating plants offer security and stability of financial returns. By partnering with MASE, we’ve been jointly able to combine the latest in asset management software with leading experience in services activity.
“This will ensure that project owners and investors benefit from enhanced and efficient performance reporting and operational management, saving time, reducing costs and ensuring the plant delivers at its optimum. As a result, the plant delivered above expectations with an excellent performance ratio and availability close to 100% over the last three years.”
MASE chief executive Tareq Khalifeh added: “Throughout this collaboration, Alectris have proved to be reliable, dedicated and experienced with a wealth of knowledge that has been indispensable when working in an exciting but challenging market.”
Space cooling and heating is a common need in most inhabited areas. In Europe, the energy consumed for air conditioning is rising, and the situation could get worse in the near future due to the temperature increase in different regions worldwide. The increasing cooling need in buildings especially during the summer season is satisfied by the popular air conditioners, which often make use of refrigerants with high environmental impact and also lead to high electricity consumption. So, how can we reduce the energy demand for building cooling?
A new study comes from a research group based at the Politecnico di Torino (SMaLL) and the National Institute of Metrological Research (INRiM), who has proposed a device capable of generating a cooling load without the use of electricity: the research has been published in Science Advances*. Like more traditional cooling devices, this new technology also exploits the evaporation of a liquid. However, the key idea proposed by the Turin researchers is to use simple water and common salt instead of chemicals that are potentially harmful for the environment. The environmental impact of the new device is also reduced because it is based on passive phenomena, i.e. spontaneous processes such as capillarity or evaporation, instead of on pumps and compressors that require energy and maintenance.
“Cooling by water evaporation has always been known. As an example, Nature makes use of sweat evaporation from the skin to cool down our body. However, this strategy is effective as long as air is not saturated with water vapour. Our idea was to come up with a low-cost technology capable to maximize the cooling effect regardless of the external water vapour conditions. Instead of being exposed to air, pure water is in contact with an impermeable membrane that keeps separated from a highly concentrated salty solution. The membrane can be imagined as a porous sieve with pore size in the order of one millionth of a meter. Owing to its water-repellent properties, our membrane liquid water does not pass through the membrane, whereas its vapour does. In this way, the fresh and salt water do not mix, while a constant water vapour flux occurs from one end of the membrane to the other. As a result, pure water gets cooled, with this effect being further amplified thanks to the presence of different evaporation stages. Clearly, the salty water concentration will constantly decrease and the cooling effect will diminish over time; however, the difference in salinity between the two solutions can be continuously – and sustainably – restored using solar energy, as also demonstrated in another recent study from our group**”, explains Matteo Alberghini, PhD student of the Energy Department of the Politecnico di Torino and first author of the research.
The interesting feature of the suggested device consists in its modular design made of cooling units, a few centimetres thick each, that can be stacked in series to increase the cooling effect in series, as happens with common batteries. In this way it is possible to finely tune the cooling power according to individual needs, possibly reaching cooling capacity comparable to those typically necessary for domestic use. Furthermore, water and salt do not need pumps or other auxiliaries to be transported within the device. On the contrary, it “moves” spontaneously thanks to capillary effects of some components which, like in kitchen paper, are capable of absorbing and transporting water also against gravity.
“Other technologies for passive cooling are also being tested in various labs and research centres worldwide, such as those based on infrared heat dissipation into the outer space – also known as radiative passive cooling. Those approaches, although promising and suitable for some applications, also present major limitations: the principle on which they are based may be ineffective in tropical climates and in general on very humid days, when, however, the need for conditioning would still be high; moreover, there is a theoretical limit for the maximum cooling power. Our passive prototype, based instead on evaporative cooling between two aqueous solutions with different salinities, could overcome this limit, creating a useful effect independent of external humidity. Moreover, we could obtain an even higher cooling capacity in the future by increasing the concentration of the saline solution or by resorting to a more sophisticated modular design of the device” commented the researchers.
Also due to the simplicity of the device assembly and the required materials, a rather low production cost can be envisioned, in the order of a few euros for each cooling stage. As such, the device could be ideal for installations in rural areas, where the possible lack of well-trained technicians can make operation and maintenance of traditional cooling systems difficult. Interesting applications can also be envisioned in regions with large availability in water with high saline concentration, such as coastal regions in the vicinity of large desalination plants or nearby salt marshes and salt mines.
As of now, the technology is not yet ready for an immediate commercial exploitation, and further developments (also subject to future funding or industrial partnerships) are necessary. In perspective, this technology could be used in combination with existing and more traditional cooling systems for effectively implementing energy saving strategies.
[*] Matteo Alberghini, Matteo Morciano, Matteo Fasano, Fabio Bertiglia, Vito Fernicola, Pietro Asinari, Eliodoro Chiavazzo. Multistage and passive cooling process driven by salinity difference, SCIENCE ADVANCES (2020), URL: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/11/eaax5015
[**] Eliodoro Chiavazzo, Matteo Morciano, Francesca Viglino, Matteo Fasano, Pietro Asinari, Passive solar high-yield seawater desalination by modular and low-cost distillation, NATURE SUSTAINABILITY (2018), URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0186-x
High unemployment rates, oppressive regimes and a desire for better education are some of the reasons cited by Arabs who express a desire to leave their countries.
The Arab world has seen a lot of its youth move in search of better opportunities for employment, freedom of expression, in addition to escaping from social and cultural norms they find oppressive.
According to an August 2019 poll by the Arab Barometer company, titled “Youth in the Middle East and North Africa,” the daily living situation in the region is far from ideal.
Noting that youth between the ages of 15 to 29 comprise about 30 percent of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, the Arab Barometer finds a significant number of them dissatisfied with their economic prospects.
They are also not happy with the education system. Moreover, “less than half say the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed”. Then there’s the high unemployment rates and widespread corruption.
This is why, Arab Barometer suggests, youth in the MENA region are more likely to consider emigrating from their country than older residents. The preferred destinations are varied, including Europe, North America, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Another survey by Arab Barometer, titled “Migration in the Middle East and North Africa,” published in June 2019, notes that across the region, “roughly one-in-three citizens are considering emigrating from their homeland.”
The surveys were conducted with more than 27,000 respondents in the MENA region between September 2018 and May 2019 in face-to-face interviews.
According to the Arab Barometer’s findings, there had been a decrease in people considering emigrating from 2006 to 2016. Yet since 2016, the trend is no longer in decline but has shown an increase “across the region as a whole.”
The Arab Barometer finds that citizens are “more likely to want to leave” if they are young, well educated and male. The survey has found more than half of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 in five of the 11 countries surveyed want to leave.
While older potential migrants are more likely to cite economic factors as the primary decision, the survey suggests, younger ones “are more likely to name corruption, for example.”
As for the desired destination countries, they vary according to the homeland of potential migrants. Among those living in the Maghreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, Europe is the favoured destination.
Whereas migrants from Egypt, Yemen and Sudan point towards Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The survey has also found that those from Jordan or Lebanon prefer North America, notably the US or Canada.
The survey also notes that while most would only depart if they had the proper paperwork, young males with lower levels of education who may not see a positive future in their homeland have said they would be willing to migrate illegally, “including roughly four-in-ten in six of the 11 countries surveyed.”
In a blog post for Unesco’s Youth Employment in the Mediterranean (YEM) published in January 2020, Sabrina Ferraz Guarino observes that “Migration is a coping mechanism based on the assumption that moving to another country is the best and most efficient investment for their own and one’s family future” and that improving people’s lives in their home countries will likely result in less desire to migrate.
Guarino says the unemployment rates in the Mediterranean region affect youth the most: “Unemployed youth are the highest in Palestine (45%), Libya (42%), Jordan (36.6%) and Tunisia (34.8%), while Morocco (21.9%) and Lebanon (17.6%) fare relatively better.”
She adds: “Viewing this together with the share of the youth that is not in education, employment or training (NEET), reveals how the challenges of youth employment remain self-compounding. The youth NEET rates tally around 14% in Lebanon and 21% for Algeria, but progressively increase across Tunisia (25%), Jordan (28%), Morocco (28%), and Palestine (33%).”
In its MENA report published in October 2019, the World Bank says growth rates across the region are rising but are still below “what is needed to create more jobs for the region’s fast-growing working-age population.”
The World Bank recommends reforms “to demonopolise domestic markets and open up regional trade to create more export-led growth.” Source: TRT World
Souha S. Kanj | Professor of medicine, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases, chair of the Infection Control and Prevention Program at the American University of Beirut Medical Center
The events related to the coronavirus outbreak are evolving quickly around the world. The situation in the Middle East is probably more complex than elsewhere. The countries of the region are a mix of rich and poor states, with variable GDPs and health infrastructures, and are frequently characterized by political instability and tension. War and violent conflicts have weakened health infrastructure in many countries. The influx of migrants through borders has contributed to healthcare related challenges. The region also has geopolitical and economic ties to both China and Iran, which recently appeared as the epicenters for the COVID-19 outbreak in the region.
There is a striking variation in the number of reported cases by country in the Middle East. Underreporting is thought to be prevalent, whether due to an unwillingness, and sometimes a lack of preparedness, to perform accurate testing. Syria, for example, has not reported any cases, despite its close ties to Iran. Its fragile health system is likely incapable of detecting and responding to the epidemic. The same applies to Yemen.
Some countries in the Middle East have raised the alert level during the past week by imposing school closures and other measures of social distancing. The Saudi authorities have cancelled the Umrah pilgrimage and access to Mecca to nonresidents until further notice. Some Gulf countries are requiring visa applicants to produce a negative test for COVID-19. Other countries are still reporting few cases. In Iran, the response was slow, suggesting an unwillingness to report cases before the country’s elections. Mortality among infected patients in Iran seems to be among the highest after China.
There is little to suggest that Middle Eastern countries have joined efforts to address this global viral threat. The Arab League has remained silent. No meetings have been announced to discuss the evolving situation. Arab countries in the Middle East have so far missed an opportunity to overcome political divisions and closely collaborate to contain the spread of the virus in the region. It might not be too late to engage in coordination, especially from the wealthier states, to provide technical, material, and financial assistance to their neighbors.
Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Nothing illustrates this more than the series of baffling policy decisions by Iran’s leadership that have resulted in the largest outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the region. Despite advances in the biomedical sciences and infectious disease control in the past century, the Iranian government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been hobbled by ideological, religious, and economic concerns.
Other countries in the Middle East have followed suit, often prioritizing their non-medical domestic and foreign policy interests in establishing travel bans, quarantines, and other forms of public health precautions. These religious, political, and economic determinants of infectious diseases hark back to the pre-World War I period in the region. Devotional visits to shrine cities and burials at holy sites played an important role in the dissemination of pandemic outbreaks in the Iranian and Ottoman Empires throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, political, economic, and religious interests often took precedence over public welfare in the way quarantines, travel bans, and disinfection policies were established within the empires and on their frontiers. This shows us that historic social and political forces continue to shape the impact of contagions on the peoples of the Middle East.
Basem al-Shabb | Former Lebanese parliamentarian, American Board in general and cardiothoracic surgery
The response to the COVID-19 epidemic in the Middle East has followed the usual script in the region for dealing with calamity. Whereas human suffering invites cooperation in other places, in the Middle East it seams to accentuate cultural and sectarian tensions. As reports of cases were trickling out of Iran, the authorities engaged in denial. Only recently did the Syrian Health Ministry confidently state that there were no known cases in Syria. In Lebanon, flights from Iran, the epicenter of the epidemic, continued unabated and screening at the airport was instituted rather late in the game. Throughout the region, there is an undercurrent of sectarianism. While Iran wrestles with a massive epidemic, Egypt has reported only a few cases and, interestingly, Turkey has reported none. There is hardly any cooperation or exchange of information on COVID-19 among the countries of the Levant.
The epidemic has also touched on religious sensitivities, with some churches in Lebanon insisting on pursuing communion using a single utensil. There is no doubt the coronavirus has brought out the usual regional reactions of denial, delayed responses, myth-mongering, sectarianism, as well as conspiracy theories.
Bader al-Saif | Nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his research focuses on the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula
The coronavirus outbreak is a potent reminder that the Middle East is no different than the rest of the world. The outbreak has reinforced preexisting tendencies in the region, where it is no secret that systems are largely broken. It has further exposed governmental weakness, evidenced in ambiguous, inconsistent policies. Crisis management and transparency are largely lacking, and so is the faith of citizens in governments’ ability to protect them. Political considerations have triumphed over necessary health directives in various states, putting citizens at further risk, whether by allowing the continuation of flights from high risk areas, such as Iranians traveling to Lebanon, or deferring necessary testing, as in Egyptians traveling to Kuwait. There are notable exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia, where the state has managed the outbreak of the coronavirus and peoples’ reactions to it.
Responses have ranged from denial to fear. Some assume the virus is a conspiracy theory, while others are misinformed about its nature. The virus has also justified racist slurs. With most of the Middle East contracting the virus via Iran, the anti-Iran camp has condemned Iran’s irresponsibility and poor services (ignoring the impact of U.S. sanctions), with some even suggesting that the virus is a Shi‘a phenomenon aimed at infecting the Sunni-majority Middle East.
There has been a third, more measured response among less ideological people. These include business owners, who are concerned about the economic impact of the outbreak; expatriates barred from returning to their homes due to travel bans; families who do not want their children’s education affected by prolonged breaks; and sensible policymakers who have sought to jointly coordinate responses. The outbreak has reminded Middle Easterners of their shortcomings. They patiently are awaiting a breakthrough that would end the coronavirus outbreak, so they can redirect their efforts to addressing other problems long plaguing the region.
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