Since the beginning of civilization, buildings have served as humanity’s stamp on time. From Neanderthal caves and exquisite hammams, to the boundary-pushing buildings in the Middle East, architectural innovations capture the zeitgeist; embodying the hopes and ambitions of the moment as well as the underlying technological prowess that points to the future of our built environment.
Backed by a searing ambition to fashion a new image for the region (and in many cases, funded by the deep pockets of sovereign funds), buildings in the Middle East have, in the past 15 years, achieved the impossible: They have quite simply raised the bar for architectural and structural innovation around the world. The journey hasn’t been without criticism: design purists have nicknamed region an architect’s Disneyland and eyebrows have been raised about the Middle East ‘buying’ design cred. And whilst that is true to a certain extent, it is also offering designers from around the world the infrastructure – and the funding – to imagine future icons.
The Middle East’s expertise in handling heat could be of benefit worldwide, writes Aly Abousabaa, director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and CGIAR’s regional director for Central and West Asia and North Africa.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the driest in the world and home to four of the five most water-stressed countries on the planet. But its legacy as the cradle of agriculture also makes it an increasingly valuable source of global wisdom and innovation for adapting food systems for hotter, drier climates – a challenge that lies ahead for a growing number of countries.
Thanks to its “fertile crescent”, a richly biodiverse area in the Middle East, the region has witnessed more than 10,000 years of agricultural transformation and continues to be at the forefront of dryland farming.
With rising temperatures and desertification spreading around the globe, this year’s COP28 climate talks in Dubai (30 November-12 December) offer a timely opportunity to learn from the region’s vast experience and the scientific solutions that are enabling desert farming against the odds.
What MENA lacks in freshwater, it makes up for in resilient, ancient plant and animal species and millennia of agricultural ingenuity.
The region’s extraordinary agricultural heritage and harsh conditions mean it remains a treasure trove of “crop wild relatives” – original food plant species that have evolved over thousands of years to survive heat, water stress and poor soil.
“Governments, policymakers and climate negotiators at COP28 must heed the lessons of the MENA region to enshrine food security in a hotter, drier world.”
Aly Abousabaa, director general, ICARDA
For scientists looking for plant genetic traits that can withstand the kinds of climate extremes now occurring in countries such as Australia, Canada, Spain and the US, MENA is a hotbed of source material from which to develop hardier, more climate tolerant crops.
For example, CGIAR recently released six new drought tolerant varieties of barley and durum wheat using samples stored at a crop genebank managed by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Morocco.
Farmer Aziz el Kaissi conducts a durum wheat trial in Ait Bouhou, Morocco, as part of an ICARDA project to collect data on improved crop varieties. Photo: Michael Major/Crop Trust.
CGIAR’s climate-smart crops offer a vital buffer against the impact of drought, which last year reduced wheat production by around 70 per cent in Morocco, where conditions were so harsh the episode was named “the drought of the century”.
ICARDA has released about 880 new crop varieties in the last 40 years, generating annual benefits worth over US$850 million – and this goes well beyond the MENA region. In the last five years, more than 120 climate-resilient cereal and legume crops have been grown in more than 20 countries.
CGIAR’s heat-resilient wheat varieties, derived from the MENA region’s crop wild relatives, increased yields by up to 24 per cent when tested on sites in Ethiopia, Lebanon, Morocco and Senegal.
Alongside breeding hardier crops, agricultural researchers in the region have also developed cutting-edge early warning systems to help MENA countries and other water-stressed nations to better forecast and anticipate droughts.
Scientists working on the MENAdrought project in collaboration with governments in Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco, have built country-specific systems which predict the likelihood of drought conditions over the next one to three months. This allows farmers and local authorities to manage water resources more effectively and make better-informed planting decisions.
A drought index has already been adopted to show where stressed conditions exist and trigger actions to help, and the project has expanded to Tunisia, with interest from other MENA countries.
The region also offers a compelling example of how traditional knowledge and practices can be harnessed to bolster food security, accelerated through local and regional collaboration.
Techniques that have improved productivity and reversed desertification include water management innovation, green energy integration, vertical farming, conservation agriculture and deep learning through satellite observation.
A novel technique is the use of an ancient practice known as “Marab”, which involves creating areas of relatively flat land that slows water flow after rainfall, allowing more moisture retention and less degradation.
Reseeding indigenous range species, including grasses and legumes with reduced water needs, and controlling the grazing of livestock have also been shown to contribute to rangeland rehabilitation. Using this technology in Jordan meant barley production increased from 0.34 to 8.37 tonnes per hectare and the yields became more reliable due to a lesser dependence on unpredictable rainfall.
While the world races to limit global temperature rises, climate change is already under way with now inevitable consequences both in MENA and beyond.
As many more countries face hotter and drier conditions, the MENA region is a valuable test case for the adaptive capacity of agriculture. Many of the innovations developed in the Middle East and North Africa will become instrumental to farming in a climate emergency.
Governments, policymakers and climate negotiators at COP28 must heed the lessons of the MENA region to enshrine food security in a hotter, drier world.
ICARDA researches and develops climate-smart agri-innovations to generate resilient livelihoods for dryland farmers suffering a climate crisis.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global desk.
“The Human Right to the Environment affirms the right to life itself. When humans protect nature, they are also securing human health and wellbeing.” An article by eminent environmental lawyer Prof. Nicholas A. Robinson sees the recognition of the Human Right to the Environment (HRE) as a first step in a long process of restoring a healthy environment for people and the planet.
Professor Robinson’s article is published in a special issue of the Journal of Environmental Policy and Law on The Human Right to Sustainable Environment. In the preface Editor-in-Chief Bharat H. Desai, PhD, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Centre for International Legal Studies, stresses the essentiality of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, the importance of which is increasingly evident in the wake of the Political Declaration adopted at the SDG Summit (New York: September 18-19, 2023). This called to “act with urgency to realize its vision as a plan of action for people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership, leaving no one behind. We will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.”
“The progressive attainment of Sustainable Development Goals will require investments of time and effort beyond the target date of 2030, but momentum has begun and can be sustained,” according to Prof. Robinson, JD, Executive Governor, International Council of Environmental Law, Kerlin Professor of Environmental Law Emeritus, at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law of Pace University.
Prof. Robinson continues: “These past 50 years, virtually all states have neglected to enforce their environmental statutes. Scientific studies confirm that harm to public health and natural systems has escalated during this time. The right to the environment will breathe rigor into the governmental enforcement of environmental protection norms. This will not be easy, as business as usual and inertia retard change. It is past time for making peace with nature.”
When the United Nations General Assembly adopted its landmark Resolution A/76/300 on July 28, 2022, entitled “The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment,” a new human rights framework was launched. The UN Environment Program described environmental crises of climate change, biological diversity loss, and escalating pollution of the planet as the triple threat to human civilization, calling upon all states to “make peace with nature.”
The human right “to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment” is already being implemented. The UN General Assembly recognized that this right is related to other rights and international law, and that the vast majority of states have already incorporated the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment into their national laws. However, in most countries this basic right is not yet being enforced in courts. The UN General Assembly urged international organizations, commercial enterprises, and all relevant stakeholders to share best practices and further build capacity “to share good practices in order to scale up efforts to ensure a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment for all.”
The article in Environmental Policy and Law highlights one such example of international collaboration: the Global Judicial Institute on the Environment (GJIE), which is an independent association of judges launched in 2016 with the assistance of the World Commission on Environmental Law of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the UN Environment Programme. Not all countries have judicial institutions to provide continuing judicial education of judges and court personnel. There is no inter-governmental international service to assist courts. GJIE is a network by judges for judges, filling this gap in international cooperation.
The addition of the “Green Amendment” to the New York Bill of Rights and its implications are also highlighted in the article. New York’s Constitutional Bill of Rights now guarantees the liberty that “each person shall have a right to clean air and water and a healthful environment.” In the first year under the new Bill of Rights provision, there are now four lawsuits pending in New York courts.
Prof. Robinson elaborates: “Campaigning to secure adoption of the ‘Green Amendment’ in New York took more than 15 years. Inertia is a powerful force, and governmental frameworks tend to perpetuate past arrangements. Business as usual is not the status quo, it is regression. Failure across any and all sectors to adapt and embrace the Human Right to the Environment places the life, liberty, and property of each person in jeopardy. Slow reforms themselves are insufficient, in light of the destruction of wildfires, floods, droughts, and heat waves on land and under ocean waters. ‘Scaling up’ requires systemic and profound change. Notwithstanding all their problems, courts are the one authority that can oblige the public and private sectors alike to respect the right to life.”
The above-featured image is for illustration and is credit to TravelWeekly
In recent years, the landscape of the UAE has witnessed a remarkable transformation in the field of architecture, with dazzling skyscrapers and innovative designs dotting the urban sprawl.
While Dubai and Abu Dhabi have taken the spotlight with their iconic structures, there’s a hidden gem in the heart of the UAE that has quietly been shaping its architectural identity – Sharjah.
Sharjah, the third-largest emirate in the UAE, has undergone a significant architectural evolution, blending tradition with modernity in a unique manner. This transformation has solidified its position as a destination for those seeking an authentic cultural experience amidst a modern urban environment.
To celebrate Sharjah’s architectural prowess, we have unveiled the top seven most uniquely designed buildings in the emirate. These structures are a testament to the creativity and vision of architects who have transformed Sharjah’s skyline.
1. BEEAH Headquarters
Situated within the Al Sajaa desert, this expansive 9,000-square-metre structure was conceptualised in 2013 by the studio’s visionary founder, Zaha Hadid, with the intention of mirroring the undulating contours of the neighbouring desert sand dunes.
Today, it stands as the corporate office for Beeah Group, a company specializing in environmental management, and has been realized by Zaha Hadid Architects following her passing.
Powered by its solar array and equipped with next-generation technologies for operations at LEED Platinum standards, the new BEEAH Headquarters has been designed to achieve net zero and will be the group’s management and administrative centre.
The headquarters is the latest milestone for BEEAH Group as they continue to pioneer innovations in sustainability throughout the UAE. BEEAH Group’s new headquarters demonstrates how technology can scale sustainable impact and ultimately serve as a blueprint for tomorrow’s smart, sustainable cities.
2. Kalba Ice Factory
An abandoned industrial ruin in the southern outskirts of the city, Kalba Ice Factory was built in the 1970s, the brutalist concrete structure, enclosed by the saw-tooth silhouette of a corrugated metal roof, was once a fish feed mill and ice storage facility.
It was acquired by Sharjah Art Foundation in 2015 and used as a venue since Sharjah Biennial 12. The factory was recently retrofitted by Lima-based 51-1 Arquitectos for exhibition purposes as well as temporary residence facilities, a pavilion-style restaurant and a shaded walkway.
The area is next to Kalba Creek (Khor) and the Al Qurm Nature Reserve, a mangrove and wildlife sanctuary, home to rare bird species, sea turtles and mammals. Kalba is an exclave of Sharjah on the Gulf of Oman, flanked by the Emirate of Fujairah in the south and a second Sharjah exclave, Khorfakkan, in the east.
According to the archaeological record, Kalba has been a site of human settlement since 2,500 BCE, its historical layers suggesting early contact with Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and the northern Arabian Gulf. Briefly under Portuguese colonial control in the seventeenth century, Kalba was recognised by the British as a sheikhdom in 1937 before it was integrated with Sharjah in 1951.
3. Khor Kalba Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary
Hopkins Architects, a British design studio, has conceived a collection of prefabricated concrete pods as the architectural solution for the Khor Kalba Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary, situated on the eastern coast of Sharjah in the UAE.
Commissioned by Sharjah’s Environmental Protected Areas Authority, this sanctuary and visitor center find their place at the periphery of the Kalba nature reserve.
The primary goal for Hopkins Architects was to create a network of interlinked structures that would be in harmony with the site’s natural surroundings. This location is nestled alongside the Indian Ocean, adjacent to a lagoon, and enveloped by dense mangrove vegetation.
Created as a base for research and monitoring of the reserve and to provide information to visitors, the structure occupies seven interconnected circular pods.
Informed by fisherman’s baskets, the low structures were designed to be unobtrusive within the protected setting.
4. The House of Wisdom
Located on the Sharjah International Airport Road, ten kilometres from the city centre, the two-storey building embodies a sense of clarity and lightness, with a large floating roof cantilevering on all sides of a transparent rectilinear volume.
Its rectilinear form and the distinctive roof that overhangs by 15 metres in all directions are designed by Foster + Partners to complement its desert surroundings. Movable bamboo screens at a low level are deployed by the building users, to provide privacy or to control glare. When not in use the bamboo screens are left open, preserving the visual connections with the landscaped gardens.
While characterising the concrete and steel building, the cantilevered roof also helps shade the library’s large transparent facades from the city’s hot climate.
This works in tandem with fixed aluminium screens that filter the low sun in the evenings and movable bamboo screens inside that occupants can use to control glare.
5. The Flying Saucer
SpaceContinuum Design Studio, based in the UAE, has joined forces with the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) to undergo a remarkable transformation of a 1970s restaurant in Sharjah. Originally established in 1978 as a French restaurant and patisserie, the iconic Flying Saucer has undergone a meticulous renovation to emerge as an avant-garde arts centre.
The SAF, known for orchestrating the emirate’s prestigious art biennial and collaborating with the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, has taken the visionary step of repurposing this local landmark.
Having endured a stint as a supermarket in the 1980s and later serving as a chicken restaurant in the 2000s, the Flying Saucer was acquired by the SAF in 2012. The recent transformation involved a careful stripping away of layers to unveil the restaurant’s original and distinctive silhouette.
An attached annex was dismantled, removing its grey and orange aluminum cladding to reveal the remarkable 32-pointed concrete dome, elegantly supported by triangulated and intersecting columns. Internally, false ceilings and partitions were removed, resulting in a spacious, uninterrupted area crowned by the impressive 7.3-meter-high dome. This expansive space is poised to host major art installations, further solidifying its significance as a hub for artistic expression and cultural exploration in Sharjah.
6. Buhais Geology Park Interpretive Centre
Hopkins Architects has successfully completed the Buhais Geology Park Interpretive Centre, situated on what was once a prehistoric sea in the emirate of Sharjah, UAE. This unique visitor center is nestled in the desert, approximately 30 miles southeast of Sharjah city, adjacent to the Jebel Buhais archaeological site within the expansive Al Madam plain.
The building itself draws inspiration directly from the region’s geological history, particularly the fossils of sea urchins found in the area. The primary structure of the centre comprises a group of interconnected circular pods made of reinforced concrete, with their exteriors adorned in bronze-coloured steel cladding.
Visitors are welcomed through a bridge that leads to a reception area, providing access to the primary exhibition halls housed within two of the circular pods. The first pod is enclosed, offering an immersive experience, while the second provides panoramic views of Jebel Buhais.
These interconnected spaces eventually lead to a theatre, featuring a large window that also overlooks the rocky outcrop, further enhancing the visitor experience.
7. Al Faya Lodge and Al Bait Hotel
Developed by Sharjah-based Shurooq, the Al Faya Lodge and the Al Bait Hotel offer hospitality that connects travellers with Sharjah’s rich and layered history.
Al Faya Lodge, an exquisite hotel and saltwater spa nestled amidst the crimson sands of the Maliha desert to the east of Sharjah, has earned nominations in two categories of the awards program: Guestrooms and Renovation, Restoration, and Conversion.
This exceptional hotel represents a remarkable transformation. It was formerly a disused petrol pumping site, where a collection of abandoned structures has been converted into a boutique hotel featuring five luxurious rooms, a saltwater spa, and an outdoor swimming pool.
The renovation was masterfully executed by the London- and Dubai-based architectural firm, Anarchitect. Al Faya Lodge is conveniently situated in proximity to the Jebel Buhais archaeological site, where the recent completion of a visitor centre by Hopkins Architects has added to the cultural and historical significance of the region.
On the other hand, the Al Bait Hotel is a renovation of a group of historic homes situated next to a functioning souk, and is intended to connect travellers with Sharjah’s past.
The primary objective of Al Bait is to offer a genuine glimpse into the way people once lived. Instead of merely converting it into a conventional museum, the aim was to provide guests with the opportunity to actually spend a night in one of its rooms and truly immerse themselves in that historical lifestyle.
The essence of Al Bait lies in transporting visitors on a unique journey, one that can only be fully appreciated by staying at the Al Bait Hotel in Sharjah.
The above-featured image is one of the author’s selections and is “Flames and smoke rise from the site of twin bombings at al-Khodhary Street in Karm al-Loz neighborhood, Homs, Syria, April 2014.EPA/stringer”
The Israeli bombardment of Gaza following the Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 has forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of their homes. At least 43% of all housing units in the Gaza Strip have been either destroyed or damaged since the start of the hostilities, according to the Ministry of Public Works and Housing in Gaza.
Israel says that 1,400 people were killed in the Hamas attack on Israel and more than 220 taken hostage. Meanwhile, according to the health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza, more than 6,500 people have been killed in Israeli air strikes and more than 17,400 injured.
There is a modern term for what’s happening in Gaza. Domicide refers to the deliberate destruction of home, or the killing of the city or home. It comes from the Latin word domus which means home and cide, which is deliberate killing.
But, home here doesn’t only mean the physical, tangible built environment of people’s homes and properties, it also refers to people’s sense of belonging and identity. We are seeing in many conflicts and wars across the world that alongside the destruction of architecture, people’s sense of dignity and belonging is also being targeted.
There is a link between genocide and domicide: genocide refers to the killing of people and domicide to the erasure of their presence and their material culture. In 2022, a UN expert on housing argued that domicide should be recognised as an international crime.
When people are continuously displaced from their homes, sometimes for decades, or even a lifetime, there’s a sense of grief and sorrow that their history is being erased.
The destruction of Homs
My home city of Homs, Syria, which I focus on in my research, has been completely transformed since the 2011 uprising against the government of Bashar al Assad.
Over 50% of the neighbourhoods have been heavily destroyed, and over a quarter partially destroyed. Across the country, more than 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes. Of these, 6.8 million people are displaced inside the country, and 5.4 million people live as refugees in neighbouring countries and beyond.
Domicidal campaigns like this also work to erase evidence that a community actually existed in a particular place and that it had a history and culture there. This is an attempt to write people out of history through destroying their homes and heritage in a way that’s systematic and deliberate. In Homs, for example, whole neighbourhoods that opposed the Assad regime were targeted and razed to the ground. In other cities, such as Damascus and Hama, entire neighbourhoods were wiped out through new land and property laws which designate these neighbourhoods as “informal”.
There is no need to compare Homs and Gaza, as each place has its own context and struggle. But I’ve been following the news continuously since the Hamas attack on Israel, and I can’t stop looking at the updates about the heavy Israeli bombing. The scale of destruction, the level of mass displacement is just so heartbreaking. Gaza has been described as an open prison and people in that open prison have been pushed away from their homes.
Israel says it has the right to defend itself, and is targeting Hamas positions, but the scale to which ordinary people’s homes, hospitals and “safe areas” have been hit means what’s happening in Gaza is absolutely domicidal. People living in the north of the Gaza Strip were told by Israeli authorities to move to the south of the territory to the supposed “safe areas”, but the southern areas continue to be bombed too. The bombardment is killing civilians, killing their everyday lives and causing the mass destruction of neighbourhoods. As we have seen in videos, entire buildings have been levelled.
It’s not the first time that Palestinians in Gaza have had their homes destroyed. Many of the Palestinians who live in Gaza are people who have been displaced before. This is why many academics, activists, journalists and even Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, call for context, for situating the Palestinian struggle within a history of suffering, dispossession and forced displacement since the Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948.
When one million people are ordered to leave their homes it’s important to understand that these people have attachment to their places, to their neighbourhoods, to their streets. The impact of displacement and loss of home can live with people for their lifetime.
In my interviews with people from the city of Homs, I’ve heard many people say that even if they are still living in Homs, they feel like strangers in their own city, or they feel exiled inside their own city. For people such as the Palestinian diaspora or the Iraqi diaspora or the Syrian diaspora who are unable to return to their home countries, that suffering and pain and trauma of displacement continues.
I imagine people have different mechanisms to cope with these traumatic events, but that’s why it’s so important to have memory projects where people at least can reflect on what happened to heal and grieve, even when, sadly, many are unable to return and some spend their lifetime in exile.
After researching conflicts, wars, dictatorships and occupations for several years, I always say that the pain of people start as a headline in the news media, and turns into a footnote in history. Let us resist that, let us remember the life of every human being and keep the struggle for a free and just world for everyone.
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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