#InspireMENA Story 1: Humanizing Architecture – Through the Eyes of Abeer Seikaly

Through the jasmine-scented roads of L’weibdeh (Jordan) I navigated my way to Abeer Seikaly’s studio, an old house that resembles Jordan's genuine and inspiring identity. Abeer Seikaly is a young Jordanian architect who has been featured on several global and local media platforms because of her innovation "Weaving a Home" that was shortlisted for the 2012 Lexus Design Award.

Influence of Education and Local Knowledge

Top architecture schools in the Arab world are heavily influenced by international trends in built environment and sustainability, and unfortunately Arabic reference material is largely ignored in teaching. The emerging thinking around built environment and its relationship with people and nature rely largely on digital and virtual practice leaving students with minimal interaction with communities and building materials. Moreover, the growing disconnect between research and market requirements in most developing countries magnifies the gap between engineering and sustainable development.  Acknowledging the uniqueness of traditional Arab architecture and its historical importance in shaping sustainable building concepts raises concern on the diminishing role of local knowledge in responding to contemporary sustainability challenges.

For Abeer, having the chance to study abroad provided her with new insights not only about architecture but more importantly about her own potential and abilities within a larger context. What her culture-rich home environment gave her, on the other hand, was respect and appreciation for art, creativity and surroundings. With time, exposure and experimentation, Abeer defined her own architecture. Emphasizing that the pure definition of technology is craft, weaving, and making, her definition of innovative architecture combines old and new, traditional and contemporary. It is also thinking about architecture as a social technology.

Re-defining Success

When people are focused on the product, they usually tend to neglect the joy and benefit of the process itself. Focusing on the process boosts self-confidence and self-awareness and yet requires diligence and mindfulness while enjoying experimentation. It enables us to engage more deeply with the present, and thus, allow us to learn faster and experience life to the fullest.

According to Abeer Seikaly, architecture is not about the building itself but more about getting into it and experiencing its metaphysical nature with time. “Ordinary architects nowadays are inclined to use computer software to design buildings while sitting in closed offices. This is only dragging them away from people and from nature. As a real architect, you need to be out there to feel, interact and test your designs”, says Seikaly. “Creating is about the process and not about the outcome.”

Thinking through Making: The Tent

As a firm believer in the process, Abeer Seikaly has been working on her creative structural fabric for years. When the time was right, she used this creative work to bridge a gap in human needs. Participating in the Lexus Design Award was part of engaging her fabric with people and nature.  Disaster shelters have been made from a wide range of materials, but Abeer turned to solar-absorbing fabric as her material of choice in creating woven shelters that are powered by the sun and inspired by nomadic culture. The use of structural fabric references ancient traditions of joining linear fibers to make complex 3-D shapes.

Tackling an important issue like shelter for a humanitarian purpose can't be more relevant to both innovative architecture and sustainable development. With Jordan being host to more than 1.4 million Syrian refugees, this is about humanizing architecture and meeting basic human needs.  Abeer has explained everything about her fabric and its use in disaster relief on her blog.

Study model showing movement of the system and its collapsibility

She passionately mentions her ultimate inspiration: thinking through making. “Experimenting, looking at material's behavior, testing, and slowly you are there”, says Seikaly. “It is about thriving and not about surviving. Revelation results from years of hard work and continuous perseverance throughout the process”, she adds.

Recipe to Innovate

There is no recipe for innovation, Abeer Seikaly explains, but Jordanian engineers and architects need to ask themselves the following: What are you about? What is local/sustainable? What is Jordan about?

When asked about role of engineering firms, Seikaly stressed the fact that most corporations nowadays do not provide an enabling environment for youth to learn and grow. Emphasizing the importance of innovation, she says “With no personal attention and coaching, engineers are disconnecting from themselves and from community. Despite all the difficulties we face in our country, innovation goes back to personal drive and motivation: if you need it, you will make it”.

“Define your role as an Architect in a developing country, I have discovered mine and became an aware human being. To serve society and improve well-being is who I am”, concludes Abeer.

Architecture and Sustainable Development

The straightforward link between architecture and sustainable development goals is Global Goal No. 11 i.e. Sustainable Cities and Communities; nevertheless, a deeper look at how architecture influences and gets influenced by other elements brings about a link with almost each of the other Global Goals. The unique relationship between built environment, people and nature makes it an opportunity to demonstrate real sustainable development, as highlighted by Abeer Seikaly’s innovation. Around 60% of the world's population will be living in cities in 2030 which dictates a new and integrated way of thinking about urban design and architecture.

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Food Waste in Ramadan: Trends and Counter-Measures

With the holy month of Ramadan starting, preparations are in full swing to make all necessary arrangements by the government, traders and commercial establishments to provide all utilities, goods and food that are required during Ramadan. Muslims countries, Arab nations in particular, generate huge quantities of food waste which increases substantially during the month of Ramadan and festivals whereby the consumption and wastage of food increase at an alarming level. As per conservative estimates, around 15-25% of all food purchased or prepared during Ramadan find its way to the garbage bin before even being used or consumed.

In Bahrain alone, more than 300 tons per day of organic food waste is being generated as domestic waste in the country which constitutes around 11% of the total municipal waste. The food waste is being discarded along with other domestic waste and is being collected by the local private contractors, which is transported and disposed at the Asker municipal landfill site located some 25 km away from the city center in a quarry area.

Food Waste Trends in Ramadan

The trend shows that during Ramadan, the demand for beef, mutton, chicken and related meat products increases by almost 50% of the normal demand, which in itself is very high. Similar is the fate of other related food items like vegetables, fruits and dairy products etc. which are out of shelves quickly in the super markets and cold stores during special religious occasions.

The enormous food waste generation can be witnessed at all socio-economic levels. It is environmentally and morally considered offensive that as a society we have become so casual about the basic raw materials of life. Over the period of years, the society and people have become more wasteful due to rise in income, living standards, consumerism and affordability. But affording does not mean that wastage should increase as it is contrary to the Islamic principles of sustainability.

During Ramadan, people tend to buy more than their normal requirements for self consumption plus for taking care of guests. Due to the limited quantity of food to be consumed by people this additional quantity of cooked or made food becomes waste as Fatoor is not usually eaten as midnight snacks or as sahoor the other day. The demand for fresh food increases as majority of people are willing to spend an extra amount for the better quality of food.

The rich also sympathize greatly in this month and donate more food for charity which at times is not consumed by the poor section of the society due to late delivery and evening prayers. This trend again leads to more wastage, as the food items bought are not being fully and efficiently utilized and ultimately end up in garbage bins.

Key Counter-Measures

We need to change our attitude of not laying the table with more food than people can eat. This is not hospitality and welcoming the guests.

  • People should not buy in excess to avoid another trip to the grocery store or super market.
  • We need to develop better food habits and respect for the Mother Nature. The problem of food wastage lies in socio-cultural sensitization and behavioral change.
  • Buying in actual quantities especially fruits and vegetables. Making a shopping list first before going to the market will be more useful.
  • Buying items with a longer expiry dates for ease in using it during a longer period.
  • Daily checking of the food items in our fridge/ deep freezer to ensure its utilization before it becomes waste.
  • Inculcating good food utilization and storage habits can also play a key role in waste minimization.

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Environment as a Peace-Building Tool

The world is changing demographically, economically, politically and environmentally. The acquisition of natural resources, such as water, can be viewed as a threat to the international security. Severe environmental degradation can deepen regional divisions and trigger social conflicts for communities that depend on these resources for their livelihoods and fulfillment of basic needs. Moreover, the environment itself can be dramatically affected by such conflicts.

The unprecedented demand for natural resources is fuelling ethnic conflicts, causing large-scale displacement and is a severe threat to the lands, livelihoods and the way of life of indigenous people. Infact, many of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa and Asia in recent years have been fuelled by profits from the exploitation of natural resources, including diamonds, timber and minerals. Indigenous communities ranging from the Batwa of Central Africa to hill tribes in northern Thailand, Bedouin in the Middle East and Uighurs in China's Xinjiang province face a grave risk of being forced from their land and resources by activities taking place in the name of industrial development.

Locally, tensions over non-extractive natural resources that have an impact on livelihoods can also drive conflicts. Tension can result from the decline of limited sources and inequitable distribution and utilization within a given context; this may spill over into wider instability and violence. In the case of Darfur, one of the reasons that led to violence is competition between herders and farmers over land; historical ethnic divisions compounded this conflict.

A New Approach to Stability

Recognizing the linkages between the environment and insecurity, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for integrating environmental initiatives to solve conflict and instability into the U.N.’s conflict prevention policy. So, if environmental degradation can trigger conflict and violence, then environmental cooperation initiatives can be used as stability-sustaining tools. This can create a dialogue between parties in conflict. Environmental challenges, such as industrial pollution, are global issues that ignore political boundaries. These challenges require a long-term perspective to achieve sustainable management, encourage local and nongovernmental participation, and extend community building beyond the polarization of economic linkages. Furthermore, environment cooperation can build bridges across boundaries and between people, and enhance building a more sustainable peace and stability.

Environmental cooperation can be initial building blocks for increasing confidence and enhancing trust between communities, hence, reducing uncertainties and mitigating tensions. Cooperative sharing of resources encourages common goals, and establishes recognized rights and expectations. Moreover, initiatives of cooperation to manage environmental resources will promote peace between disputing parties and may establish sustained interaction and long-term relationships, encouraging stability. The more environmental initiatives exist, the more conflicts will be resolved in a non-violent manner. Environmental initiatives can be used to initiate dialogue between disputing parties even for non-ecological conflicts.

Shared water supply is an important domain for environmental conflict resolution. Sharing of water resources represents an opportunity to keep the dialogue alive between disputing parties such as in the Nile river case. Management of biodiversity conservation in disputed areas is a major aspect of environmental peace-building strategies. This may help to achieve win-win solutions between local communities. It is worthy to mention that NGOs can enhance the chances of sustainable peace by promoting awareness and motivation of local community participation. Therefore, their influence must be strengthened in policy decisions that are related to environmental security.

Environment and the Arab Spring

In the wake of historic Arab Spring, a new approach to sustainability is required in the Middle East. The Arab world offers a fertile ground and ample opportunities to prepare a sustainable mechanism for peace and regional security using environment as a tool. Traditional tools of conservation, such as Hima and Haram, produce a promising opportunity for environmental synergies in the region.

In order to protect land, forests and wildlife, Prophet Muhammad (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) created inviolable zones in which resources were to be left untouched. Haram areas were drawn up around wells and water sources to protect the groundwater from overpumping. Hima applied to wildlife and forestry and designated an area of land where grazing and woodcutting was restricted, or where certain animal species (such as camels) were protected.

Adopting natural environmental initiatives, such as Hima and Haram, has multiple direct and indirect benefits for development in West Asia. It can enhance trust, build confidence, and reduce uncertainties in the Arab world, which may help in finding an amicable solution to multiple problems faced by this strategic region.

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Understanding Qatar’s Ecological Footprint

Qatar’s environmental impact remains worryingly high. The country’s per capita ecological footprint is now the second highest in the world, as another Gulf state, Kuwait, has overtaken it to become the worst offender of the 152 countries that were measured, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report 2014. The third country in the list is the UAE, with Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, in 33rd position. By comparing the total footprint with the planet’s biocapacity – its capacity to generate an ongoing supply of renewable resources and to absorb waste -the report, based on 2010 data, concludes that the average human’s per capita footprint exceeds the planet’s capacity by 1.5. Most MENA countries’ ecological footprints also exceed their biocapacity in terms of their global rankings.

Qatar’s footprint, measured in global hectares (gha), is 8.5 – the second highest in the world, but down from 11.6 in the 2012 report. Only Kuwait fared worse, with a footprint of over 10gha. According to the WWF report, if all people on the planet had the footprint of the average resident of Qatar, we would need 4.8 planets. If we lived the lifestyle of a typical resident of the USA, we would need 3.9 planets. The figure for a typical resident of South Africa or Argentina would be 1.4 or 1.5 planets respectively. The world’s average footprint per person was 2.6gha, but the global average biocapacity per person was 1.7gha in 2010. This is based on the Earth’s total biocapacity of approximately 12 billion gha, which has to support all humans and the 10 million or more wild species.

Salman Zafar, founder of EcoMENA, a voluntary organisation that promotes sustainable development in the Arab world, attributes the Qatari situation on lack of environmental awareness among the local population, lavish lifestyles and a strong dependence on fossil fuels. “The huge influx of workers from across the world has put tremendous strain on already stressed natural resources. Migrant workers, who make up a huge chunk of the population, remain in the country for a limited period of time and are not motivated enough to conserve natural resources and protect the environment,” he adds. As for Kuwait, he says the growing ecological footprint may be attributed to its flourishing oil and gas industry, an increase in desalination plants, the presence of hundreds of landfills, excessive use of water, energy and goods, a huge expatriate population and the absence of concrete environmental conservation initiatives.

Of the 25 countries with the largest per capita ecological footprint, most were high-income nations. For virtually all of these, carbon was the biggest component, in Qatar’s case 70%. Carbon, specifically the burning of fossil fuels, has been the dominant component of humanity’s footprint for more than half a century, says the WWF report – in 1961, carbon had been 36% of the total footprint, but by 2010 it had increased to 53%. In 2013, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa, Hawaii – the site of the oldest continuous carbon dioxide measurement station in the world – reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since measurements began in 1958. This is higher than they have been for more than a million years, and climate science shows major risks of unacceptable change at such concentrations. Furthermore, 2014 has globally been the hottest year since measurements started, and the World Meteorological Organisation predicts that this upward trend will continue.

The world’s total population today is already in excess of 7.2 billion, and growing at a faster rate than previously estimated. The dual effect of a growing human population and high per capita footprint will multiply the pressure humans place on ecological resources, the report states. As agriculture accounts for 92% of the global water footprint, humanity’s growing water needs, combined with climate change, are aggravating water scarcity. The authors also make it clear that in the long term water cannot be sustainably taken from lakes and groundwater reservoirs faster than they are recharged. Desalination of seawater also leads to brine (with a very high concentration of salt and leftover chemicals and metals), which is discharged into the sea where it poses a danger to marine life.  In terms of biodiversity, the report shows an overall decline of 52 percent between 1970 and 2010. Falling by 76 percent, population of freshwater species declined more rapidly than marine and terrestrial (both 39 percent) population.

With regards to Qatar’s biocapacity, its fishing grounds make up 92% of the total, while the country ranks 66th globally in terms of its biocapacity per capita. Like other Gulf states, it can operate with an ecological deficit by importing products, and thus using the biocapacity of other nations; and/or by using the global commons, for instance, by releasing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning into the atmosphere, says the report.

Although Qatar has initiated plans to reduce its footprint and live less unsustainably, the latest electricity demand figures from Qatar General Electricity and Water Company (Kahramaa) show a 12% rise in demand for power over the previous year. This is in line with the country’s population growth, meaning that there has been no reduction in the per capita consumption, which is still under the top 15 countries in the world. Its water consumption per capita is also one of the highest in the world.

Qatar’s heavy reliance on gas and oil, its subsidised water and electricity, and the huge amount of energy needed for water desalination and air-conditioning make it unlikely that the country’s per capita standing in terms of the ecological footprint will improve anytime soon, but given the country’s small size its total impact is still relatively small.

Salman Shaban from the metal recycling company Lucky Star Alloys, regards the report as only highlighting Qatar’s current rapid development. “It is not fair to come to any conclusions at this stage when the construction, transport system and population boom is taking place. Any place that will go through such a fast development will initially have its impact on the ecological systems.” He foresees a gradual carbon footprint reduction once the construction and development phase is completed.“ Having said that, it is still every resident and citizen moral responsibility to conserve energy and protect the environment,” he adds. “Recycling should be a standard part of every household culture.”

According to Salman Zafar, grass-root level environmental education, removal of subsidies on water and energy, sustainable waste management practices, effective laws, awareness programs and mandatory stakeholder participation are some of the measures that may improve the environmental scenario in Qatar.

Although it makes for some disturbing reading, the report makes it clear that many individuals, communities, businesses, cities and governments are making better choices to protect natural capital and reduce their footprint, with environmental, social and economic benefits. But given that these exhaustive reports are based on data that is four years old, any current changes for better and worse will only become clear in the near future.

Note:

  • WWF is one of the world’s largest independent conservation organizations; its mission is to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature. The full report is available at this link.
  • An edited version of this article first appeared in The Edge, Qatar’s Business Magazine. 

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The City of Nouakchott – Perspectives and Challenges

Nouakchott, capital city of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is the biggest city in the Sahara region. Like other major cities worldwide, the city is plagued by environmental, social and economical challenges. Sewage disposal network, dating back to 1960’s is no longer sufficient for Nouakchott. The country is heavily dependent on fossil fuels and woody biomass for meeting energy requirements, though there is good potential of solar, wind and biomass energy. Solid waste management is becoming a major headache for city planners. Population is increasing at a tremendous pace which is putting tremendous strain on meagre civic resources.

Making of a City

Mauritania is a Western African country bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Morocco, Algeria, Mali and Senegal. Most of its 1,030,700 km2 are covered by deserts. A country as wide as Egypt, it is only scarcely inhabited by some 3.500.000 people. A crossing of cultures, most of the country is inhabited by Arab nomads, the Moors, while the South is inhabited by the African Toucouleur and Soninke people.

Before the country became independent in 1960, the French founded the new capital city Nouakchott. Originally, Nouakchott was a city intended for 3.000 inhabitants. Most of the inhabitants were nomads and the city was established at a meeting place and cattle fair for the nomads. The etymology of the name may mean salt marsh or shore. The area is flat, protected from the sea by low dunes and originally bordered by savannah type vegetation.

After independence, the city grew very quickly, well beyond the expectation of its French founders. In the 1970’s Mauritania sided with Morocco in the Western Sahara war, and was badly defeated by the Polisario rebels. The war caused a massive arrival of refugees from the combat zones in Northern Mauritania. At the same time, drought and famine devastated the whole Sahel region which causes a large-scale refugee influx in the Nouakchott region.

Problems Galore

The arrival of refugees swelled the population of the city, making it the fastest growing city in the region, apart from causing a massive disruption in the environment. For decades, the majority inhabitants of Nouakchott lived in slums. The refugees came with their cattle and contributed to the destruction of existing savanna vegetation by overgrazing. The sand dunes quickly became loose and began to threaten the city from the East and North. Chaotic urbanization caused further environmental destruction, destroying the littoral zone.

The city also suffered social problems, as traditional ways of life disappeared. Former shepherds, agricultural workers and freed slaves became urban poors with little education and abilities to fit in a new economical model. The modern way of life lead to proliferation in plastics items and the landscape of Nouakchott got littered with all sorts of wastes, including plastic bags and bottles.

Nouakchott continues to grow with population reaching one million. However there is stark absence of basic amenities in the city.  Apart from several wells, there are no potable water supplies. The city had no bituminous road beside the two main avenues until recently. The city lacks urban planning, wastewater management and waste management. The construction of harbour and urbanization has led to the destruction of the littoral dunes. The city is in real danger of being flooded in case of sea storm or high tide. The most threatened place is Tevragh Zeina, the most affluent part of the city.

Sand dunes are another cause of worry for Nouakchott. In the 1990’s a Belgian project for the construction of a green belt helped in stopping the progression of dunes. However with expansion of the city, people have now started to build their dwellings in the green belt. The city is also at risk of being flooded in case of rain. In September 2013, during late rainy season, several parts of the city were flooded by rain. Parts of the city are still marked by semi-permanent sewage pools which are a major threat to public health.

Silver Lining

Environment and sustainable development has become a priority during rule of President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz. The government has built roads in Nouakchott and constructed a water abduction system for bringing water from the Senegal River. Slums have been replaced by social dwellings for the poorest.  New schools, hospitals and universities are sprouting at a rapid pace.

Plans are underway to develop the interior of the country to stop internal immigration to Nouakchott. The country is also making made ambitious climate change strategies and has banned the use of plastic bags which has led to its replacement by biodegradable or reusable bags. Mauritania has rich biodiversity, especially in its sea. Infact, the country has many biodiversity hotspots which may attract people for ecotourism. 

There are huge challenges to be tackled to transform Nouakchott into a modern city. Due to nomadic links, Mauritania’s Arabs have a special link to desert and are counted among the environmentally-conscious people of Western and North Africa. However considerable efforts are required to educate the people living in and around Nouakchott and motivate them to become an active participant in sustainable development of the city.

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A Message on World Water Day

Water is the major driving force of sustainable development. World Water Day aims to increase people’s awareness of the water’s importance in all aspects of life and focus on its judicious use and sustainable management. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly designated 22 March as the first World Water Day (WWD). Since then the WWD is celebrated to draw wider public attention to the importance of water for mankind. Globally the day is celebrated to focus attention on water conservation, carrying out appropriate concrete measures and implementing the UN recommendations at individual, local and national level. WWD is a global day creating awareness on the subject and urging people to take appropriate actions for its conservation and avoiding its misuse.

The World Water Day 2016 theme is ‘Better water, better jobs’ which aims to highlight how water can create paid and decent work whiile contributing to a greener economy and sustainable development. Water is essential to our survival, it is essential to human health. The human body can last weeks without food, but only days without water. Water is at the core of sustainable development. From food and energy security to human and environmental health, water contributes to improvements in social well-being and growth, affecting the livelihoods of billions.

Globally, 768 million people lack access to improved water sources and 2.5 billion people have no improved sanitation. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 7.5 liters per capita per day to meet domestic demands. Around 20 liters per capita per day will take care of basic hygiene needs and basic food hygiene. Poor water quality and absence of appropriate sanitation facilities are detrimental to public health and more than 5 million people die each year due to polluted drinking water. The WHO estimates that providing safe water could prevent 1.4 million child deaths from diarrhea each year.

This year, the UN is collectively bringing its focus to the water-sustainability development nexus, particularly addressing non access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, sufficient food and energy services. It is ironical that a large number of people in the Middle East are still consuming excess water and are ignorant or careless about the looming water shortages. With the threat of dwindling water and energy resources becoming increasingly real and with each passing day, it is important for every person in the Arab world to contribute to the conservation of water.

Celebrating World Water Day means that we need to conserve and reduce our water use as excessive water use will generate more waste water which is also to be collected, transported, treated and disposed. We need to understand that 60% of total household water supply is used inside the home in three main areas: the kitchen, the bathroom and the laundry room.

Saving water is easy for everyone to do. Let us try to implement the following basic water conservation tips at home:

  • Turn off the water tap while tooth brushing, shaving and face washing.
  • Clean vegetables, fruits, dishes and utensils with minimum water. Don’t let the water run while rinsing.
  • Run washing machine and dishwasher only when they are full.
  • Using water-efficient showerheads and taking shorter showers.
  • Learning to turn off faucets tightly after each use.
  • Repair and fix any water leaks.

The World Water Day implores us to respect our water resources. Act Now and Do Your Part.

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Food Waste, Ramadan and the Middle East

With the holy month of Ramadan only a few days away, huge food wastage in the Middle East is again hogging limelight. It is a widely acccepted fact that almost half of the municipal solid waste stream in the Middle East is comprised of food wastes and associated matter. The increasing amount of food waste in the Middle East urgently demands a strong food waste management strategy to ensure its minimization and eco-friendly disposal. 

Food Waste in Ramadan

Middle East nations are acknowleded as being the world’s top food wasters, and during Ramadan the situation takes a turn for the worse. In 2012, the Dubai Municipality estimated that in Ramadan, around 55% of household waste (or approximately 1,850 tons is thrown away every day. In Bahrain, food waste generation in Bahrain exceeds 400 tons per day during the holy month, according to Rehan Ahmad, Head of Waste Disposal Unit (Bahrain). As far as Qatar is concerned, it is expected that almost half of the food prepared during Ramadan will find its way into garbage bins.

The amount of food waste generated in Ramadan is significantly higher than other months. There is a chronic inclination of Muslims towards over-indulgence and lavishness in the holy month, even though the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), asked Muslims to adopt moderation in all walks of life. Socio-cultural attitudes and lavish lifestyles also play a major role in more food waste generation in Ramadan in almost all Muslim countries.

Economic Implications

The greater the economic prosperity and the higher percentage of urban population, the greater the amount of waste produced. A good example is the case of oil‐rich GCC which figures among the world’s most prolific per capita waste generators. High-income groups usually generate more food waste per capita when compared to less-affluent groups. Hotels, cafeterias, restaurants etc are also a big contributor of food wastes in the Middle East.

Food waste generation is expected to steadily with the rapid growth of regional economies boom. The per capita production of solid waste in Arab cities such as Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi is more than 1.5 kg per day, placing them among the highest per capita waste producers in the world. These statistics point to loss of billions of dollars each year in the form of food waste throughout the Arab world.

Parting Shot

The foremost steps to reduce food wastage are behavioral change, increased public awareness, strong legislations, recycling facilities (composting and biogas plants) and community participation. Effective laws and mass sensitation campaigns are required to compel the people to adopt waste mimization practices and implement sustainable lifestyles. During Ramadan, religious scholars and prayer-leaders can play a vital role in motivating Muslims to follow Islamic principles of sustainability, as mentioned in the Holy Quran and Ahadith The best way to reduce food waste is to feel solidarity towards millions and millions of people around the world who face enormous hardships in having a single meal each day.

 

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Water-Energy Nexus in Arab Countries

Amongst the most important inter-dependencies in the Arab countries is the water-energy nexus, where all the socio-economic development sectors rely on the sustainable provision of these two resources. In addition to their central and strategic importance to the region, these two resources are strongly interrelated and becoming increasingly inextricably linked as the water scarcity in the region increases.  In the water value chain, energy is required in all segments; energy is used in almost every stage of the water cycle: extracting groundwater, feeding desalination plants with its raw sea/brackish waters and producing freshwater, pumping, conveying, and distributing freshwater, collecting wastewater and treatment and reuse.  In other words, without energy, mainly in the form of electricity, water availability, delivery systems, and human welfare will not function.

It is estimated that in most of the Arab countries, the water cycle demands at least 15% of national electricity consumption and it is continuously on the rise. On the other hand, though less in intensity, water is also needed for energy production through hydroelectric schemes (hydropower) and through desalination (Co-generation Power Desalting Plants (CPDP)), for electricity generation and for cooling purposes, and for energy exploration, production, refining and enhanced oil recovery processes, in addition to many other applications.

The scarcity of fresh water in the region promoted and intensified the technology of desalination and combined co-production of electricity and water, especially in the GCC countries. Desalination, particularly CPDPs, is an energy-intensive process. Given the large market size and the strategic role of desalination in the Arab region, the installation of new capacities will increase the overall energy consumption. As energy production is mainly based on fossil-fuels and this source is limited, it is clear that development of renewable energies to power desalination plants is needed. Meanwhile, to address concerns about carbon emissions, Arab governments should link any future expansion in desalination capacity to investments in abundantly available renewable sources of energy.

There is an urgent need for cooperation among the Arab Countries to enhance coordination and investment in R&D in desalination and treatment technologies.  Acquiring and localizing these technologies will help in reducing their cost, increasing their reliability as a water source, increasing their added value to the countries’ economies, and in reducing their environmental impacts. Special attention should be paid to renewable and environmentally safe energy sources, of which the most important is solar, which can have enormous potential as most of the Arab region is located within the “sun belt” of the world.

Despite the strong relation, the water-energy nexus and their interrelation has not been fully addressed or considered in the planning and management of both resources in many Arab countries. However, with increasing water scarcity, many Arab countries have started to realize the growing importance of the nexus and it has now become a focal point of interest, both in terms of problem definition and in searching for trans-disciplinary and trans-sectoral solutions.

There is an obvious scarcity of scientific research and studies in the field of water-energy nexus and the interdependencies between these two resources and their mutual values, which is leading to a knowledge gap on the nexus in the region.  Moreover, with climate change deeply embedded within the water energy nexus issue, scientific research on the nexus needs to be associated with the future impacts of climate change.  Research institutes and universities need to be encouraged to direct their academic and research programs towards understanding the nexus and their interdependencies and inter-linkages. Without the availability of such researches and studies, the nexus challenges cannot be faced and solved effectively, nor can these challenges be converted into opportunities in issues such as increasing water and energy use efficiency, informing technology choices, increasing water and energy policy coherence, and examining the water-energy security nexus.

References
1. Siddiqi, A., and Anadon, L. D. 2011. The water-energy nexus in Middle East and North Afirca. Energy policy (2011) doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.04.023. 
2. Khatib, H. 2010. The Water and Energy Nexus in the Arab Region. League of Arab States, Cairo.
3. Haering, M., and Hamhaber, J. 2011. A double burden? Reflections on the Water-energy-nexus in the MENA region. In: Proceedings of the of the First Amman-Cologne Symposium 2011, The Water and Energy Nexus. Institute of Technology and resources Management in the Tropics and Subtropics, 2011, p. 7-9. Available online: http://iwrm-master.web.fh-koeln.de/?page_id=594.

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Solid Waste Management in the Middle East – Major Challenges

Middle East is one of the most prolific waste generating regions of the world. Lavish lifestyle, ineffective legislations, infrastructural roadblocks, indifferent public attitude and lack of environmental awareness are the major factors responsible for growing waste management problem in the Middle East. High standards of living are contributing to more generation of waste which when coupled with lack of waste collection and disposal facilities have transformed ‘trash’ into a liability.

Major Hurdles

The general perception towards waste is that of indifference and apathy. Waste is treated as ‘waste’ rather than as a ‘resource’. There is an urgent need to increase public awareness about environmental issues, waste management practices and sustainable living. Public participation in community-level waste management initiatives is lackluster mainly due to low level of environmental awareness and public education. Unfortunately none of the countries in the region have an effective source-segregation mechanism.

Solid waste management in the Middle East is bogged down by deficiencies in waste management legislation and poor planning. Many countries lack legislative framework and regulations to deal with wastes. Insufficient funds, absence of strategic waste management plans, lack of coordination among stakeholders, shortage of skilled manpower and deficiencies in technical and operational decision-making are some of the hurdles experienced in implementing an integrated waste management strategy in the region. In many countries waste management is the sole prerogative of state-owned companies and municipalities which discourage participation of private companies and entrepreneurs.

Though Islam put much stress on waste minimization, Arab countries are among the world’s highest per capita waste generator which is really unfortunate. Due to lack of garbage collection and disposal facilities, dumping of waste in open spaces, deserts and water bodies is a common sight across the region. Another critical issue is lack of awareness and public apathy towards waste reduction, source segregation and waste management.

A sustainable waste management system demands high degree of public participation, effective legislations, sufficient funds and modern waste management practices/technologies. The region can hope to improve waste management scenario by implementing source-segregation, encouraging private sector participation, deploying recycling and waste-to-energy systems, and devising a strong legislative and institutional framework.

Silver Lining

In recent year, several countries, like Qatar and UAE, have established ambitious solid waste management projects but their efficacy is yet to be ascertained. On the whole, Middle East countries are slowly, but steadily, gearing up to meet the challenge posed by waste management by investing heavily in such projects, sourcing new technologies and raising public awareness. However the pace of progress is not matched by the increasing amount of waste generated across the region. Sustainable waste management is a big challenge for policy-makers, urban planners and other stake-holders, and immediate steps are needed to tackle mountains of wastes accumulating in cities throughout the Middle East.

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Water-Food Linkage in Arab World

The water-food linkage represents an important and vital nexus in the Arab countries. Under the current unstable food security situation (fluctuating energy prices, poor harvests, rising demand from a growing population, the use of bio-fuels and export bans have all increased prices), the ability for the Arab countries to feed their growing population is severely challenged by competition over increasingly limited water resources. Agriculture is currently challenged by competition among sectors on available water resources.

While the majority of water in the Arab region is used inefficiently in the agricultural sector (about 85% with less than 40% efficiency), which is not only crucial for food production but also employs a large labor force of rural population, the contribution of agriculture to GDP is significantly low. Hence, and using the argument of higher productivity per drop, voices are increasingly advocating for shift of water resources from agriculture to meet pressing demands of the industrial and municipal sectors.  The negative repercussions of that on the agricultural sector and rural population are most evident.  However, improving irrigation efficiency can release water for other uses (see AFED report on water in the Arab Region).

The Arab countries are far from having enough water to grow sufficient basic food, the obsession with the idea of self-sufficiency at any cost, had been predominant in the 1970s and 1980s, has been abandoned. It is no longer rational or sustainable. In fact, the region has been importing more and more food to meet its need. Recent studies have shown that more than half of the food calories consumed in the region is imported and would increase to 64% over the next two decades (World Bank, 2009). An older study in the mid-1990s showed that the food imports of the region were equivalent to 83 billion m3 of virtual water, or about 12% of the region’s annual renewable water resources. In fact, the same study has shown that for selected countries, this percentage was much higher: Algeria (87%), Egypt (31%), Jordan (398%), Libya (530%) and Saudi Arabia (580%) (FAO, 2001). With the rise of the population and improvement of lifestyles, one can expect these figures to be much higher today.

A better policy to address national food security can be to improve agricultural production and maximise water productivity and to rely on virtual water trade in food imports. By importing water intensive crops, not only can there be local water savings, there are also energy savings through reduction in withdrawal of irrigation water from deep aquifers (Siddiqi and Anadon, 2011), which could be significant for many Arab countries that have energy intensive groundwater withdrawals, such as the GCC countries. 

Moreover, Arab food security could be achieved through regional agricultural integration that combines the relative comparative advantages of all of the Arab countries, such as land and water resources, human resources, and financial resources. Joint agricultural projects could be implemented towards achieving food security for the region as a whole using advanced agricultural methods supported by active R&D programs in agricultural production as well as effective governance of water and land resources. 

References:

  1. World Bank. 2009. Water Resources: Managing a Scarce, Shared Resource. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/IDA/Resources/IDA-Water_Resources.pdf
  2. FAO. 2001. The State of Food and Agriculture 2001. Rome, Italy. ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/003/x9800e/
  3. Siddiqi, A., and Anadon, L. D. 2011. The water-energy nexus in Middle East and North Afirca. Energy policy (2011) doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.04.023. 

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Women Entrepreneurship in MENA: An Analysis

Women entrepreneurship is an important unexploited source of economic growth in almost all parts of the world. Unfortunately women in MENA have the lowest rates of Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) at merely 4% of the population. The highest rates, globally, are in sub-Saharan Africa, at 27%. Latin American and Caribbean economies also show high levels (15 percent). In just seven economies (Panama, Thailand, Ghana, Ecuador, Nigeria, Mexico, and Uganda), women had equal or slightly higher levels of entrepreneurship than men. For the rest, women represented a smaller share of the entrepreneur population.

Current Situation

The recent interest in women entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa region has spurred a number of studies that aim to explain MENA’s very low female participation in the workforce and political life, at  both the inter-regional and the intra-regional scales and  to identify the challenges facing women entrepreneurs. The comparative data shows that the MENA region has made strong gains in human development: Literacy increased to 69 percent, average schooling (for those above 15)  rose  to  5.2  years,  child mortality  rates  plunged  to  around  46  per  thousand  births,  and  life  expectancy  has climbed to  reach  68  years.”. However the level of unemployment among women remains high throughout the region. Of course, there is enough evidence to show that culture and social norms — not religion since countries with the same religion clearly show different rates — have a great deal to do with it.

The MENA region, more than other regions, faces specific barriers for women to interact in the public sphere and to access vital resources. This poses constraints that need to be addressed with specific measure in access to technology, financing and access to information which is a necessity in a globalized world. Some of the main barriers and constraints identified in hampering women entrepreneurs from entering the economic mainstream are as follows:

  • Gender specific barriers: Despite the fact that MENA nations have made considerable efforts to narrow the gender gap, much remains to be done to raise the social welfare of women in the region.
  • Cultural norms.
  • Civil law: Prevalent laws tend to enforce certain customs and social norms and, in doing so, institutionalize and legitimize certain behaviors.
  • Access to financial services and resources.
  • Barriers in the business environment.
  • Lack of research and data to inform an effective advocacy strategy.

Inter-regional Disparities in MENA

The difference of Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) rates among countries in the MENA region is well explained by the heterogeneity and diversity of their historical development, social makeup and system of governance as well as  the  key  indicators  of  human  development  such  as health, education and living  standards.  It is quite difficult to make generalizations across the MENA region as the region  includes super-rich oil economies, a relatively small population and a large expat population such as Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE; mixed oil economies such as Algeria, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and  Syria  and non-oil economies  like  Jordan, Morocco, Palestine, Malta and Cyprus. This further complicates attempts to explain variations in the character and gender aspects of employment and entrepreneurship.

Thus, each country in the Arab world is confronting constraints and barriers to women entrepreneurship in different contexts. The profile of barriers for each nation is shaped by inter-connectedness of intrinsic and extrinsic factors specific to each country. Some studies have attributed MENA’s low rates of female labor force participation in oil-exporting countries of MENA (the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) to oil. It has been argued that the economic structure, social norms, and institutional characteristics of oil-rich economies discourage women from formal sector work. Ross (2008) argues that oil production “reduces the number of women in the labor force, which in turn reduces their political influence.” Oil-rich countries tend to have undiversified private sectors characterized by male-dominated employment and large public sectors. Consequently, employment opportunities for women often are highly concentrated in the public sector

Oil is a significant source of income for some MENA countries, especially GCC nations, and has definitely limited the growth of non-oil sectors. Nevertheless, it is notable that many countries in the region are net oil importers but still have rates of female labor force participation as low as those of oil-rich MENA countries. In contrast, oil producers outside MENA such as Norway and the Russian Federation have higher rates of female labor force participation.

Ways to Enhance Female Entrepreneurship

Targeted, coordinated efforts are needed on multiple fronts to increase women’s participation in the economic and political spheres, and these efforts must be specific to country context. These efforts include changes in policies to secure women’s equality under the law, to bridge the remaining gender gaps in health and education, to redress the skills mismatch in the job market, and to promote women’s civic and political participation, and changes in economic policies by adoption of more nuanced labor taxation systems, more targeted social welfare benefits, tax credits, public financed parental leave schemes and promotion, better flex-work arrangements, enhanced access to finance and training for female entrepreneurs.

All these policy options and more can narrow the gap between men and women in economic life, and can trigger a momentum of growth and job creation that can support much higher rates of GDP and ensure prosperity for all.

Furthermore, the economic and political environment arising from the Arab Spring has created an unprecedented window of opportunity for change. Given the growing labor, demographic, and fiscal constraints, and the changing aspirations in the Middle East and North Africa region, policy reforms are urgently needed to boost job creation for all.

 

References:

  • Donna J. Kelley, Candida G. Brush, Patricia G. Greene, Yana Litovsky, GEM 2012 Women's Report
  • Ebba Augustin, Ruby Assad & Dalila Jaziri, 2012, Women Empowerment for Improved Research in Agricultural Development, Innovation and Knowledge Transfer in the West Asia/ North Africa Region, AARINENA Association of Agricultural Research Institutions in the Near East and North Africa 
  • Leyla Sarfaraz, Nezameddin Faghih and Armaghan Asadi Majd 2014, The relationship between women entrepreneurship and gender equality, The Journal of Global Entrepreneurship Research (JGER)
  • Michael L. Ross, 2008, “Oil, Islam, and Women.” American Political Science Review 
  • OECD-MENA Investment Programme, 2013, Gender inequality and entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa : A statistical portrait
  • World Bank, 2007, The Environment for Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa Region

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Food Security in the Middle East

Despite the fact that the Middle East is blessed with a rich geological inheritance of hydrocarbons and mineral resources, it is a water-scarce and arid region that has its share of demographic and socio-economic problems. It is difficult to grow food crops in the Middle East due to scarcity of water supply and limited availability of arable land. The region is highly vulnerable to fluctuations in international commodity markets because of heavy dependence on imported grains and food items.

According to a report issued in 2009 by the World Bank, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, “Arab countries are the largest importers of cereal in the world. Most import at least 50% of the food calories they consume.” Countries like Egypt, Syria, or Iraq used to be breadbaskets in the recent past but their agricultural sectors have suffered a lot due to government mismanagement, price ceilings, and underinvestment. Infact, all Arab countries are net importers of grains, with small GCC countries like Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, and Oman almost completely dependent on imports for grains.

The Middle East nations are encountering price spikes on world food markets. This is due to competition for the same food products (wheat, corn, soybeans, animal protein, etc.) from other areas of the world, especially Asia, where incomes are rising and demand for more and better calories is exploding. Besides threatening the well-being of those already living on meagre resources, the price hikes have increased the number of poverty-stricken by millions in less-affluent Middle East nations.

To make matters worse for the food supply problem, world markets have experienced severe disruptions in the past several years from distant storms, floods and droughts — from Russia to Argentina to Australia. These natural phenomena have disrupted the fabric of global market mechanisms that underlies the international food trade. Prices for basic food staples are already at socially dangerous levels, approaching or exceeding their 2008 peaks.

Of all the Middle Eastern countries facing the current food crisis, Yemen is in the worst shape. A United Nations’ World Food Programme report states that seven million of Yemen’s 21 million people are “acutely hungry”, making Yemen the 11th most insecure food country in the world. Aquifers are being pumped well beyond the rate of recharge, and the deeper fossil aquifers are also being rapidly depleted. As a result, water tables are falling throughout Yemen by some 2 meters per year. With water tables falling, the grain harvest has shrunk by one third over the last 40 years, while demand has continued to rise. As a result, Yemenis now import more than 80 percent of their grain.

In Saudi Arabia there is little farming without irrigation, which depends almost entirely on fossil aquifers. The desalted seawater used by Saudi Arabia to meet the ever-increasing water demand in cities is too costly for irrigation use. Saudi Arabia’s growing food insecurity has led it to buy or lease arable land in different countries, including world’s hungriest nations Ethiopia and Sudan. Infact, the Saudis are planning to produce food for themselves with the land and water resources of other countries to meet rising food demand of its rapidly growing population. Unfortunately, transferring agricultural land from subsistence farming to export crops has led to even more food shortages. By attempting to ensure their own food security by acquiring foreign farm holdings, affluent nations are creating new food shortages in other parts of the world.

Due to reduced flows of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, Iraq and Syria’s grain harvests have been hit badly. Given the future uncertainty of river water supplies, farmers in both countries are drilling and over-pumping more wells for irrigation. Syria’s grain harvest has fallen by one fifth since peaking at roughly 7 million tons in 2001. In Iraq, the grain harvest has fallen by one fourth since peaking at 4.5 million tons in 2002. Jordan, with 6 million people, is skating on thin ice agriculturally. Forty or so years ago, it was producing over 300,000 tons of grain per year. Today it produces only 60,000 tons and thus must import over 90 percent of its grain.

With fast growing populations and an ever increasing pressure on water resources, governments must act urgently to prevent the looming food crisis.  A recent World Bank report found great inefficiencies in many Arab ports and the ways that Arab countries store grain compared with other large wheat importers, such as the Netherlands and South Korea. Port facilities, slow customs service and inefficient transportation from the ports to the mills all contribute to the worsening food situation. Arab countries are going to be huge importers of food no matter what; therefore they should improve their port and storage facilities and manage import risks.

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