The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted ongoing collective efforts on climate action. These efforts underscore the need for equal access to resources, judicious use and planning, strengthening critical infrastructure, and enabling vulnerable communities in the face of adversity. The multidimensional crises facing the international community, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, make it more urgent for countries to adopt forward-looking policies to act faster on sustainable transitions, adaptation and resilience, and provide impetus to recalibrating health systems for greater efficiency and quality. To this end, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow, provides an opportunity for nations to address post-pandemic recovery through the lens of sustainable development.
The Grave Impacts of Climate Change
Research has shown that Asia is the continent most affected by weather-related disasters—some 2,843 of such events were recorded between 1990 and 2016, affecting 4.8 billion people and taking 505,013 lives. Deaths from natural hazard-related disasters are largely concentrated in poor countries. Higher temperatures brought about by climate change, pose profound threats to occupational health and labour productivity, particularly for people engaged in manual, outdoor labour in hot areas. Also, labour capacity decrease due to climate change is among the highest in the Southeast Asia region. Climate information services for health—i.e., targeted or tailored climate information, products, and services that will aid the health sector—were found to be the lowest in Southeast Asia.
Higher temperatures brought about by climate change, pose profound threats to occupational health and labour productivity, particularly for people engaged in manual, outdoor labour in hot areas.
It is expected that climate change will increase health risks associated with extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent, intense, of longer duration, and have greater spatial extent. Increased UV radiation; increased air pollution; increased food-borne and water-borne contamination; the introduction, expansion or re-emergence of rodent and vector-borne infectious diseases; and the exacerbation of health challenges faced by vulnerable populations are some of the additional risks from climate change. Additionally, extreme weather associated with climate change can damage hospital buildings, cause power and water outages, and disrupt the delivery of healthcare at the frontlines as roadblocks may limit access to supplies and essential services (such as energy and water supply), and obstruct patients’ access to health facilities.
According to WHO, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress. The direct damage cost to health is estimated to be between US$2 billion and US$4 billion per year by 2030. Communities across the globe are confronting health risks from excessive heat, altering disease patterns, disaster events, and the potentially catastrophic impact of global warming on food and water security. The impact of climate change on human health, however, will not be uniformly spread due to the various degrees of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptation ability of different regions.
Extreme weather associated with climate change can damage hospital buildings, cause power and water outages, and disrupt the delivery of healthcare at the frontlines as roadblocks may limit access to supplies and essential services (such as energy and water supply), and obstruct patients’ access to health facilities.
Determinants of health are impacted by multiple social and environmental effects of climate change that are manifested as degradation in air quality, extreme fluctuations in temperatures, lack of adequate and safe drinking water, food insecurity and insufficiency, and the impedance of diseases. Natural disasters and variable rainfall patterns also affect essential services and medical facilities, and destroy property and food sources.
Equity in COP26 deliberations is even more crucial now given that many components of the landmark Paris Agreement had a 2020 deadline. COP26 is an opportunity to discuss progress on curbing climate change, focus on ‘building back better’ amidst the pandemic, and ensure that the interconnected inequities that mar the two-pronged agenda of resilience and recovery, are also taken into account. However, marginalised communities and civil society organisations will likely have a greater burden of adhering to visa and travel requirements imposed during the pandemic since many countries from the Global South are on the UK’s travel red-list, and many may not be vaccinated in time to attend the in-person climate deliberations. Furthermore, the pandemic’s worldwide economic crisis has threatened access to climate financing that developing, vulnerable nations require.
Extreme weather events and health crises will be compounded by the cascading health, economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond commitments to curb GHG emissions, advanced economies should also mobilise financial resources to assist vulnerable countries in meeting their climate objectives, especially during the pandemic. COP26 provides an opportunity to rebuild trust and coordination amongst nations and usher in the political attention and economic commitment required to pursue greater climate action.
Towards a Sustainable Future
The COP26 summit will take stock of nations’ promises to decrease emissions under the Paris Agreement. The pandemic has illustrated the importance of quick, targeted and concerted efforts in battling life-threatening crises. The lessons from this experience can be leveraged to fuel climate action, more so since both climate change and the aftermath of the global pandemic bear a common strand of interconnectedness owing to widening global inequalities and greater disparities. The imperative is for the adoption and implementation of a worldwide Green New Deal, along with other systemic alternatives in tandem with a new economic paradigm to rectify unsustainable development policies that threaten ecology, erode environmental protection laws, and undermine labour rights and social security systems. Solving the climate issue requires an overhaul of production, consumption and commerce systems, and human-nature ties.
Beyond commitments to curb GHG emissions, advanced economies should also mobilise financial resources to assist vulnerable countries in meeting their climate objectives, especially during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 experience has perhaps permanently impacted the ‘global solidarity’ narrative. A cursory look at the global vaccine distribution will illustrate the inherent inequities in the system and how little is being done about it. The fallout of the COVID-19 crisis has also laid blows on the building blocks of human development, including income, health, and access to resources. The magnitude of the crisis response should inspire all to address existing and new inequities to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The sustainable development, climate action and COVID-19 recovery strands of the common agenda need to be better aligned to target the most vulnerable and enable the transition towards a healthier, safer, and sustainable world.
The Big Heart Foundation (TBHF), a UAE-based global humanitarian charity dedicated to helping refugees and people in need worldwide, has made an impassioned call to citizens around the world to generously support its 2021 Zakat and general donations drive during Ramadan.
These fundraising activities under the“Let’s Lessen the Gap” campaign are part of a comprehensive long-term programme that TBHF has launched. In partnership with four leading UN agencies, namely, UNHCR, UNDP, WHO and UNICEF, the foundation is addressing humanitarian development challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic amongst vulnerable populations in the MENA region.
Furthering TBHF’s ongoing response efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 worldwide, the programme will set the blueprint for TBHF’s COVID-response strategies in the long term. Evidence and research-based findings from the programme will enable TBHF and partnering UN agencies to identify the most pressing needs of the region, and subsequently aid the designing of sustainable and long-term interventions. The programme will also encompass advocacy campaigns aimed at bridging the gaps in vital sectors of Protection, Livelihoods, Healthcare and Education, which have been heavily impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Announcing the launch of “Let’s Lessen the Gap”, TBHF revealed the programme would address both the critical health and non-healthcare needs of marginalized populations to allow for a return to normalcy in the MENA region. As COVID-19 continues to shape the lives of individuals and societies around the world, TBHF is appealing to people worldwide to act on their humanitarian instincts and support in lessening, and eventually closing the gap between vulnerable communities and their access to the tools and resources they need to become enablers for building a prosperous MENA region of tomorrow.
To know more about how you can get involved and make your contribution, visit www.lessenthegap.org. Contributions can also be made via SMS by sending the word ‘sadaqa’ to the Etisalat numbers: 7857 to donate AED 10; 7859 to donate AED 50, 7788 to donate AED 100, or 7708 to donate AED 500. For Du: 9965 to donate AED 10; 9967 to donate AED 50, 9968 to donate AED 100.
Zakat contributions can also be deposited directly into Zakat Fund account no: 0011-430430-020 at the Sharjah Islamic Bank (International Bank Account Number ‘IBAN’: AE040410000011430430020).
COVID-19 hastens diverse humanitarian challenges in MENA
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified many decades-long developments and humanitarian challenges in the MENA region such as high youth unemployment, inequitable development pathways, resource scarcity, gender discrimination, restricted access to services, and the devastating effects of ongoing conflict in some countries.
According to reports by UNESCWA, unemployment surged in the region with rates reaching up to 26.6% for youth compared to 13.6% globally. An estimated 25 million Arab youth are not in formal education, employment or training.
Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the learning crisis, disrupting education at an unparalleled rate across the region. A 2020 UNICEF report states that approximately 40% of students, accounting for 37 million children and young people across the region, were not reached by digital and broadcast remote learning.
The pandemic has also posed severe challenges in fragile and conflict-affected nations in MENA, overwhelming weak and overcrowded existing healthcare systems. A UNICEF study titled ‘The Potential Impact of Health Care Disruption on Child Mortality in MENA Due to COVID-19’ draws up a scenario highlighting a particularly bleak reality for children aged 0 – 5. It predicts that a protracted reduction in the supply and demand of primary health care services for children could potentially increase their mortality by nearly 40 percent, compared with a baseline scenario without the COVID-19 virus.
Additionally, refugees and displaced populations in the MENA region and across the world have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Exclusion, discrimination, and inadequate access to health services have heightened protection risks and tested international standards of refugee protection.
UN partners in four sector-specific areas
The “Let’s Lessen the Gap” campaign and post-COVID programme will see TBHF collaborating with multiple UN agencies working on the ground in MENA to implement long-term strategies and initiatives in the fields of Protection, Livelihoods, Healthcare, and Education to assist those who are least likely to have access to these essential services.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. UNHCR will partner with TBHF to empower, protect, and improve the lives of refugees and internally displaced people affected by COVID-19 in the MENA region.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which works in 170 countries and territories to bridge gaps in inequalities and exclusion, will join hands with TBHF to support youth livelihoods, develop capacity and skills, and accelerate structural transformations to advance the sustainable development agenda in the targeted nations.
To build a better, healthier future in a post-COVID world, TBHF will partner with the World Health Organization (WHO) along with other global organizations coordinating vaccine efforts to roll out vaccination programmes that give highest priority to vulnerable populations.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which works in some of the world’s toughest places to build a better world for the most disadvantaged children, is TBHF’s partner in improving access to learning and education opportunities for children of marginalized communities across the region.
Fundraising for “Let’s Lessen the Gap” commences in April 2021
Appealing to the public, high net worth donors, and the private sector to honour the spirit of giving embodied in the obligation of Zakat, Mariam Al Hammadi, Director of The Big Heart Foundation, said: “At TBHF, we believe in our collective ability to support the most vulnerable communities in the region through these difficult times and beyond by steering efforts towards inclusive programmes that address the economic and social consequences of the crisis.”
Al Hammadi added that although 2020 was an extremely challenging year, it also demonstrated collective resilience as schools, offices, and essential services continued to operate without fail. “Unfortunately, this only represents the reality of the world some of us live in. In many communities and countries that The Big Heart Foundation supports, solutions are still being sought to aid the response and recovery process. It is this gap that we aim to address and bridge through your support this Ramadan, and in the coming months.”
Fundraising activities of the programme have commenced with TBHF’s Zakat 2021 campaign. To know more and make your contributions, visit lessenthegap.org.
How countries are raising debt to fight COVID and . . . why developing nations face tougher choices by Shamel Azmeh, Lecturer in International Development, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester is about the pandemic that is affecting all countries as described by the World Bank’s article as a heat-seeking missile speeding toward the most vulnerable in society. That metaphor applies not just to the vulnerable in the rich world; the vulnerable in the rest of the world is not more immune.
How countries are raising debt to fight COVID and why developing nations face tougher choices
COVID continues to ravage societies around the world, and a key issue is how governments can afford to fight it. As economies are disrupted, governments are stepping in to increase their spending to bail out companies, pay the cost of health measures, and subsidise workers’ wages.
Before COVID, when people argued that the state should be able to offer free healthcare and free education, among other services, and welfare measures, a standard political response was that state resources were limited. Asked by a nurse in 2017 why her wages hadn’t increased from 2009 levels, then British prime minister, Theresa May, said: “There is no magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.”
Except, a few years later, the government has not only been able to pay the wages of millions, it has also created rescue packages for thousands of firms and offered people vouchers to eat out in restaurants. A number of European countries have also taken the unprecedented step of underwriting the wages of millions of workers in response to the pandemic.
How is the British state and others capable of this radical increase in spending at a time when revenues from taxes are collapsing?
‘Magic money tree’
The answer to this lies in the debt market. Over the past few months, world governments have drastically increased their borrowing to cover the costs of the pandemic. It might appear logical that the cost of credit will go up during uncertain economic times. The reality, however, is that capital often goes to safer sovereign debt during economic downturns, particularly as the equity markets become unstable and volatile.
Over recent months, rather than struggling to find lenders or having to pay more for debt, the governments of the major economies have been awash with credit at historically low rates. In October, the EU, until now a small player in the debt market (as borrowing mostly is by national governments of member states), began a major borrowing campaign as part of the efforts to fight COVID through the SURE programme (Support to mitigate Unemployment Risks in an Emergency) which was created in May.
The first sale of bonds worth €17 billion was met with what some described as “outrageous demand”, with investors bidding a total of €233 billion to buy them. This intense competition was for bonds that offered a return of -0.26% over ten years, meaning that an investor who holds the bond to maturity will receive less than they paid today.
The EU is not the only borrower that is effectively being paid to borrow money. Many of the advanced economies have been in recent years and months selling debt at negative rates. For some countries, the shift has been dramatic. Even countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece that were previously seen as relatively risky borrowers, with Greece going through a major debt crisis, are now enjoying borrowing money at very low rates.
The reason for this phenomenon is that while these bonds are initially bought by “traditional” market actors, central banks are buying huge quantities of these bonds once they are circulated in the market. For a few years now, the European Central Bank (ECB) has been an active buyer of European government bonds – not directly from governments but from the secondary market (from investors who bought these bonds earlier). This ECB asset purchase programme was expanded to help weather the COVID crisis, with the ECB spending €676 billion on government bonds from the start of 2020 until September.
Other central banks in the major advanced economies are following the same strategy. Through these programmes, those central banks encourage investors to keep buying government bonds with the knowledge that the demand for those bonds in the secondary market will remain strong.
Not everybody, however, enjoys a similar position in the debt market. While the rich economies are being chased by investors to take their money, the situation is radically different for poorer countries. Many poor countries have limited access to the credit market and rely instead on public lenders, such as the World Bank.
In recent years, this pattern began to change with a growing number of developing countries increasing their foreign borrowing from private lenders. Developing countries, however, are in a structurally weaker position than richer peers. The smaller scale of their capital markets mean that they are more reliant on external financing. This reliance means that developing countries rely on raising money in foreign currency, which increases the risk to their economies.
As many developing countries have less diversified exports with a higher percentage of commodities, the price decline in commodities in recent months has increased those risks. As a result, developing countries face a significantly higher cost of borrowing compared to the richer economies.
A few large developing countries, such as Indonesia, Colombia, India and the Philippines, have begun to follow the policy adopted by the advanced economies of buying government bonds to fund an expanding deficit. The risks of doing this, however, are higher than the richer economies, including a decline in capital inflows, capital flight and currency crises. A report by the rating agency S&P Global Ratings illustrated the differences between those two economies:
Advanced countries typically have deep domestic capital markets, strong public institutions (including independent central banks), low and stable inflation, and transparency and predictability in economic policies. These attributes allow their central banks to maintain large government bond holdings without losing investor confidence, creating fear of higher inflation, or triggering capital outflow. Conversely, sovereigns with less credible public institutions and less monetary, exchange rate and fiscal flexibility have less capacity to monetise fiscal deficits without running the risk of higher inflation. This may trigger large capital outflows, devaluing the currency and prompting domestic interest rates to rise, as seen in Argentina over parts of the past decade.
While the reaction of the market to this approach by developing countries has been muted so far, the report argued, this situation might change. Developing countries who do this could “weaken monetary flexibility and economic stability, which could increase the likelihood of sovereign rating downgrades”.
In July, following the participation of Ethiopia, Pakistan, Cameroon, Senegal and the Ivory Coast in a World Bank-endorsed G20 debt suspension initiative, the rating agency Moody’s took action against those countries arguing that participation in this scheme increased the risk for investors in bonds issued by these countries, leading to some developing economies avoiding the initiative in order not to send a “negative signal to the market”. Zambia is on the verge of being the first “COVID default” and other developing countries could face a similar situation in coming months.
As a result of these dynamics, many developing countries are facing the tough choice of giving up any economically costly health measures or facing serious fiscal and economic crises. Access to credit has become a defining factor in the ability of governments to respond to the pandemic. As a result of access to cheap credit, developed economies are so far able to take such health measures while limiting the social and economic impact of the pandemic. Many developing countries do not have this luxury. Not everyone gets to shake the branches of the magical money tree.
Dubai economy to contract by 11% this year: S&P as the international lockdown impacted international travel to and stay in the previously popular spots of the world. Dubai, for its particular regional specifics and as the most popular venue in the Gulf region, seems to endure the most critically the pandemic or all the safeguards against it.
As per S&P estimate, Dubai’s gross general government debt will reach about 77% of GDP in 2020.
Low oil prices have had broad effects on GCC economies, of which Dubai is one, but hydrocarbons directly contribute only about 1% to Dubai’s total GDP.
The indirect effect of weaker demand from Dubai’s neighbours will dampen Dubai’s trade, tourism, and real estate markets, it stated.
Although Dubai’s economy is somewhat more diversified than that of most its regional peers, the report anticipates an economic contraction of around 11% of GDP in 2020, recovering to 2019 levels by 2023.
STR Global, a data intelligence and benchmarking firm, reported Dubai’s hotel occupancy rate at 26% in June as inbound tourism sharply declined following global lockdowns and much-reduced air travel designed to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The fact that fewer residents left Dubai during the hot summer months and instead spent more domestically to some extent has supported the economy. Local support for the economy cannot, however, offset the almost complete shutdown of inbound international tourism for most of 2020, and the likely slow recovery of the long-haul aviation that Dubai specializes in.
The Dubai government now expects to post a deficit of AED12 billion (3.2% of GDP) this year, largely owing to the reduction in economic activity and the consequent expected 28% decline in revenue, stated S&P Global Ratings.
It also expects significant off-balance-sheet expenditure, resulting in the government’s net debt position worsening by more than what the headline deficit would imply, as has occurred in previous years.
S&P Global Ratings pointed out that the below-the-line expenditure which causes the variance between headline deficits and the change in net debt mostly involves support for Dubai’s government-related entities (GREs), an example of which is the recently disclosed AED7.3 billion (1.9% of GDP) already provided to national carrier Emirates in 2020.
Support for GREs will likely be appreciably larger in 2020 than in the past, due to the broad cross-sector shock to Dubai’s economy, it added.
The ratings major said that in total, it expected new government bond issuance and loans to total around 7% of GDP in 2020. The government has issued AED8.4 billion (2.2% of GDP) of public debt so far in 2020, marking the biggest year for Dubai’s debt issuance since 2009.
“This, in combination with recently disclosed new bilateral and syndicated facilities through June 2020 (facilities that have increased by AED15 billion (4% of GDP) since Dubai’s previous end-2018 disclosures) supports our estimation that 2020 will be another year where debt accumulation far exceeds the headline deficit,” it stated in the review.
Is enough being done to shape the public realm in Saudi Giga urban projects? asks Hadi Khatib. His findings are as published in AMEinfo of September 25, 2020.
When it comes to building cities, developers need to understand target customers to uncover their needs and priorities and allow them to share feedback and make sure that what’s being built actually works for them
– Technology like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) help achieve placemaking – Three Saudi Kingdom Cities will be part of the world’s top 100 Global Cities – Cities are facing difficulties where there is surging demand on infrastructure, services, mobility and housing
There are key experience considerations when planning master developments, giga projects, and cities.
Kristine Pitts, Director of ExperienceLab Middle East says “In a country that is rapidly changing and developing like Saudi Arabia, and with increasing competition for people’s attention, in-depth understanding of target audiences and actively designing with and for them will be key to attracting them to live, work and play. Build it and they will come is a risky strategy.”
Cities from scratch
KSA’s giga projects such as NEOM are cities from scratch where new residents, office workers, and visitors need to collectively create new communities within the newly built structure.
In Qiddiya, Saudi is creating spaces for Saudis seeking a different kind of lifestyle, and for expats seeking something that feels familiar compared to what they are used to. But what draws them? What are the deciding factors that make them choose to live, set up their workplace, or spend their Friday afternoons?
ExperienceLab encourages bringing the residents, visitors, and office workers into the design process to collaboratively define and shape patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.
Physical spaces are defined by their physical edges, but places are defined by the people, activities, and engagements within them.
‘Placemaking’ refers to a collaborative process by which to shape the public realm in order to maximize shared value. The concept facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being.
Technology, like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), helps achieve this when showcasing designs before plans are finalized.
The best places are those that have adapted to change, and not being constrained or limited by short-sighted planning, architecture, or engineering.
Obvious factors to look at are green spaces, experiences, and what drives authentic community relationships.
Office workers need more than office space; they need the urban realm, a place to take time out, eat, and socialize.
People also need a way to get there! Where they live is a factor of their proximity to work, schools, and healthcare needs.
Also, technology underpins great cities, whether that’s accommodating autonomous transport, smart buildings, or adapting our spaces for the use of mobile technology.
The Global Future Cities Index measures a total of 21 metrics against 24 participating Global Cities – a total of 504 data points.
Three Saudi Kingdom Cities will be part of the world’s top 100 Global Cities: The Red Sea, NEOM, and Qiddiya.
Aecom and NEOM
America’s largest design engineering firm, Aecom, has been appointed to handle the design and support of the “backbone infrastructure” for NEOM, a futuristic, intelligent, and sustainable urban living and development set to deliver some of the highest quality living standards that the world has ever seen.
The need for a public realm
According to UN-Habitat, public spaces now comprise just 2% of the area of Middle Eastern cities, compared with 12% in the average European city. Often, the requirement for new infrastructure comes at the expense of green spaces. For example, in Riyadh, the land devoted to parks, squares, and other public spaces per person has fallen by 80% in half a century.
A recent massive survey showed many participants having a negative view of public space quality both within their neighborhoods and citywide.
When asked how far public spaces attract people, respondents thought they did not. Most residents say increased distances between buildings discourage people from exploring outdoor areas with wider streets and widely dispersed spaces.
Regarding the design and construction of public spaces within modern neighborhoods, most pointed at the lack of such spaces and pedestrian networks. The rigid edges and poor finishes of public spaces negatively affected visual character, creating unpleasant urban images, some respondents said. Also, the lack of shaded areas and climate protection discouraged the public from outdoor areas.
The New Jeddah waterfront was described as suffering from traffic congestion, crowds, litter, the careless attitudes of visitors, and a lack of well-maintained public toilets.
Jeddah has a shortage of affordable housing which means that more than one million people, a third of the population, live in unplanned settlements.
The common tales of cities facing difficulties include surging demand on infrastructure and services, mobility constraints, housing backlogs, limited access to clean water, rising pollution levels, lack of waste management and environmental sustainability, among others.
Saudi has witnessed a steep rise in urban population (over 83% of the population now lives in urban areas) and infrastructure demand resulted from tremendous economic growth.
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