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Escaping forward from the environment

By Najib Saab
March 2008

Workers in one rich gulf country went on strike last month protesting against miserable living conditions provided by a major construction firm, which is building an ‘artificial island". Each six of the workers were given one room for accommodation, less than16 sq meters in area and devoid of the basic hygiene conditions. The response came rapid by the concerned public department, explaining that the legislation permitted only 2 sq meters for each worker, meaning that a total of 8 workers can be squeezed in the room. A simple calculation shows that the arrangement of 8 beds, or just mattresses, in compact rows does not even allow for a passage route.

A public outcry should have been expected, the lease to guarantee basic human rights to healthy living. However, the response came from a local institution that proposed the establishment of an "international centre of excellence", to be hosted in that same country, mandated with developing standards for green and healthy buildings that serves the whole world! Until such a center is established, in ten years or twenty, provided that it sees the light at all, it is no problem for workers to continue be piled in congested bedrooms, maybe until a time when the whole sea is "paved" with artificial islands!

Speaking about islands and oceans, a recent campaign was launched to advocate the establishment of an organization specialized in sustainable development of world coastal areas, on principles that protect oceans and coastal areas and safeguard the local community characteristics. This is an ambitious initiative indeed, with noble objectives worth to be supported. However, what stands out is that the proponent of this initiative is a real estate developer who has constructed some of the most controversial coastal projects. The same developer refrains from making public the results of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports supposedly prepared for its fancy projects, considering them as a trade secret. Before declaring any serious commitment for enhancing the environmental conditions of their projects, they decided to embark on establishing an international body to find solutions for the whole "blue planet".

Within the context of clean development mechanisms and low carbon economy, some pioneering initiatives have been developed in the Arab world, with global perspectives that set up ambitious objectives to help saving the earth, by developing alternative technologies for energy generation and use. These are also noble objectives, as they link the Arab region to international endeavors in the field. But until such initiatives achieve their ends, why should local communities where the initiatives with international scope are set remain to be among the most and inefficient in energy and water consumption? Isn't it more logical to work simultaneously on changing local production and consumption patterns to achieve locally what is being planned globally?

During the annual meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Monaco last month, a group of young investors has presented local projects they launched in their respective countries. Barbara James from Nigeria, the CEO of a financial firm, talked about establishing a special fund that invests in clean energy technologies in Africa that has a business package of 400 million US$ serving 800 companies. Andrew Atwire from Ghana presented the work of the company he established to enhance the energy use efficiency in factories, offices and households. CEO of SELCO India, a solar energy enterprise, described how his company managed to deliver clean energy to hundreds of thousands of people in remote areas. Suceess stories were not restricted to the private sector, as the mayor of Bangkok presented programmes that his city has launched to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 15% by 2012. These are examples of pioneering initiatives that work with the people and envisage the future while contributing to solving current problems.

The mega-size initiatives in the Arab world that we mentioned are indeed required and deserve support. We still fear that talking about big projects for the future might be used as cover up to evade implementing urgent solutions for the present challenges. If we do not pay immediate attention to solving our pressing environmental problems, the mega plans will only be an "escape forward".


Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
Environmental Agenda
Environment in Arab Media
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