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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Earth Day 2014 – Focus on Green Cities

Earth Day, celebrated annually on April 22, marks the birth of modern environmental movement. Earth Day has now grown into a global tradition making it the largest civic observance in the world and is one of the widely celebrated events in which over one billion people from over 190 countries participate by taking suitable actions for saving our mother Earth. The Earth Day was first organised in 1970 to promote respect for life on the planet and to encourage awareness on air, water and soil pollution. Each year a different theme or topic is selected.

Earth Day 2014

Earth Day 2014 will focus on ‘Green Cities’ as a unique environmental challenge to make our livelihood environmental friendly. Due to rising population, more migration is taking place from rural to urban areas. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities with urbanisation rates rising and impacts of climate change have prompted the need to create sustainable communities. The Earth day is observed believing that nothing is more powerful than the collective action of a billion people.

It is a fact that people are crowding cities and with the increase in population density, pollution of all sorts is increasing as well. Many cities are finding it difficult to cope with this fast urbanisation and to provide basic facilities like shelter, infrastructures, water, sanitation, sewerage, garbage, electricity, transportation etc. to its inhabitants.

People who live in high-density air pollution area, have 20 per cent higher risk of dying from lung cancer, than people living in less polluted areas. Children contribute to only 10 per cent of the world’s population but are prone to 40 per cent of global diseases. More than 3 million children under the age of 5 years die every year due to environmental factors like pollution.

Earth Day 2014 will seek to create awareness amongst people to act in an environmental friendly manner, promote and do smart investments in sustainable urban system transforming our polluted cities into a healthier place and forge a sustainable future. It’s exceptionally challenging for our communities and cities to be green.

Action Plan

It’s time for us to invest in efficiency and renewable energy, rebuild our cities and towns, and begin to solve the climate crisis. Over the next two years, with a focus on Earth Day 2014, the Green Cities campaign will mobilise a global movement to accelerate this transition. Most of the Middle East nations have limited land area and are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change which is affecting the social and environmental determinants of health, clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.

We need to audit our actions and see what are we contributing towards your environment and community? Earth Day is a day for action; a chance to show how important the environment is to us. Earth Day is about uniting voices around the globe in support of a healthy planet. The earth is what we all have in common.

Let us be a part of this green revolution, plan and participate in Earth Day activities moving from single-day actions, such as park cleanups and tree-planting parties to long-term actions and commitments and make our city a healthier place to live as the message of the Earth Day is to “Actively participate and adopt environmental friendly habits”.

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Trends in Sustainable Housing

There has been large-scale proliferation in construction of buildings worldwide due to population growth, economic development, urbanization and migration. According to UN Habitat, there has been a migration of the world's population from rural areas to cities or smaller urban areas. In fact, this trend is expected to continue and cities within the developed as well as developing nations are expected to grow in terms of population. As a result all forms of construction activities are expected to become more intense than ever in the years to come.

Usually the development of urban areas suffers from weak process of planning and control which lead to bad housing conditions, poor sanitation system, limited electricity and water supply, and often poverty.  These issues coupled with high population growth rate, environmental degradation, global warming and limited non-renewable resources highlights the importance of sustainable housing for the survival of humankind.

Sustainability in Buildings

Building construction and operation have extensive direct and indirect impacts on the environment. Buildings use resources such as energy, water and raw materials, generate a variety of wastes and emit potentially harmful gases. Basically the environmental impacts of buildings take place within six stages of building lifecycle:

  • Design process
  • Material or product manufacture
  • Distribution
  • Construction phase
  • Operation
  • Refurbishment or demolition

In terms of energy consumption, 60 percent of the world’s electricity is consumed by residential and commercial building. Space heating accounts for 60 percent of residential energy consumption and water heating for 18 percent in developed countries. Therefore radical changes must be made in design and performance of the buildings to reduce energy consumption and its corresponding environmental impact.

In many countries, sustainable construction methods are being adopted to lead the building industry towards sustainable development and provide better quality living environment. Basically sustainable building design and construction intend to diminish environmental impacts of building over its entire lifetime by paying attention to environmental, socio-economic and cultural issues.

Trends Around the World

The developed and developing world is facing sustainable housing and urbanization challenge in different ways.  Currently industrialized countries are the highest contributor in CO2 emissions. However it is expected that developing countries will take the lead in global warming in the near future. Developing countries are experiencing fast-paced urbanization and at the same time slums and informal settlements are also expanding rapidly which makes development of sustainable housing a difficult proposition.

Countries around the world are taking steps towards implementing sustainable design in the building sector. However most of them are still far from reaching the intended targets.  The major barriers in implementing energy efficiency in the building sector include:

  • Economic and financial issues;
  • Structural characteristics of political, economic and energy system; and
  • Lack of awareness and information

However different countries adopt different approaches for sustainable construction and set different priorities, depending on their economic condition. Nations with high economic growth are developing sustainable buildings making use of latest technologies and innovations. In case of developing countries, social equality and economic sustainability are foremost considerations. In fact, developing countries are moving slowly or even negative towards adopting sustainable housing strategies.

As far as Middle East is concerned, economic considerations dominate for oil and gas-rich GCC countries as they protect their oil and gas export reserves by investing in new ways to boost energy efficiency and lower energy consumption. However for less-affluent countries, such as Jordan, lack of indigenous energy resources and high energy costs are the primary reasons for implementation of sustainable design strategies in buildings.

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