ENVIRONMENT: Green shoots

05 April 2007

The Gulf is bracing itself for more bad news. On 6 April the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release the second part of its Climate Change 2007 report and the findings are expected to be an uncomfortable read for the region's governments. The survey will assess the impact of climate change on different countries and regions around the world, including the Middle East.

It will be the second high-profile report in recent months to highlight the Gulf's poor environmental performance. In October, the UAE registered the largest ecological footprint per person on earth in the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Living Planet Report 2006. It topped the list with an ecological footprint of 11.9 hectares per person, about two hectares above the US in second place.

The report struck a nerve. 'I don't know how a reputable organisation like the WWF can come up with such a silly report,' said Majid al-Mansouri, secretary-general for the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi. 'You can't sit in an office in Geneva and evaluate countries, you have to be there.'

Although the UAE was comfortably the worst performer in the WWF report, the other Gulf countries that were surveyed did not fare much better. Kuwait's footprint was 7.3 hectares per person and Saudi Arabia's was 4.6, both more than double the global average of 2.23 hectares per person.

The Gulf's poor performance is due to a combination of factors that include geography, economics and culture, all of which place enormous demands on a land that until the 1950s could only sustain small communities of indigenous tribesmen and fishermen.

The situation could not be more different today. An abundance of oil has allowed governments to desalinate water and generate electricity to overcome their geographical and climatic shortcomings, and transform the region into one of the fastest growing on earth, with aspirations to become a global trading and financial centre.

But conquering the environment has come at a price. The drive to develop has meant that environmental issues are frequently overlooked and a culture of wanton waste has ensued. Fuel reserves are burned to desalinate water and generate electricity, large quantities of which are squandered powering year-round air-conditioning and irrigating vast ornamental gardens.

'The Gulf states cannot afford to ignore environmental issues,' says Habib el-Habr, UN environment programme director and regional representative for West Asia. 'With the increase in population and development, they are encroaching on their land and the sea, so the pressure on resources is tre-mendous. If they do not look at the environment in the long run, they will face problems.'

The problem is exacerbated by subsidised utilities, which have created a generation of Gulf nationals who do not appreciate the true value of the commodities they consume.

In Kuwait, for example, a campaign to encourage people to turn off home air-conditioning systems while on holiday overseas has been ineffective as there is no financial incentive to conserve energy.

Kuwait has a lot to worry about. No new power plants in the past four years means the state is at risk from a full-blown energy crisis when peak demand is reached in the summer. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar face a similar dilemma. Massive increases in peak demand are projected as populations grow and new real estate projects are completed, putting immense pressure on the existing grid.

Going green would save the government's blushes. If end users conserved resources, demand growth could be significantly reduced. An independent study conducted on behalf of the Saudi government concludes that charging end users for the cost of supplying water and electricity would reduce demand growth rates by about 30 per cent.

But tariffs are a highly political issue. Gulf nationals have grown accustomed to subsidies and introducing market-ba

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