Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Future Shaped by Resource Management

Arab Eco-Futures was the topic of my speech at the opening of Climate Future Week, organized by Museum of the Future in Dubai, in association with Fiker Institute. Main theme of my talk was that the future of the environment is determined by sound management of natural resources. This requires not only technology, but also a shift in lifestyle and consumption patterns. I identified 5 key challenges of particular importance to Arab countries: water scarcity, land degradation, air pollution, coastal and marine degradation, sea-level rise. Average fresh water per capita dropped from 900 cubic meters to less than 500 cubic meters in less than 15 years. The deficit is bridged by expensive desalination of sea water and over-exploitation of non-renewable groundwater. The figures certainly represent absolute water scarcity; but as alarming as it sounds, the actual situation is worse than the averages: the water-poorest Arab country has only 4.5 cubic meters of renewable fresh water per capita, and 14 Arab countries are among the 18 most water-scarce in the world. We have to account for virtual water, use appropriate crops with efficient irrigation methods, change our consumption patterns, and draw our policies based on water-food-energy-climate change nexus. Food security cannot be dissociated from water and energy security.

In the past 50 years, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in most Arab countries grew fast, accompanied with higher standards of living. However, this happened at the expense of non-renewable natural resources, which were steadily over-exploited. Ecosystem deficit doubled, while freshwater availability per capita decreased four times. Ecological Footprint, which measures the demand on and supply of nature doubled in 50 years across the region, according to updated figures of the Arab Atlas of Footprint and Biocapacity, first produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and Global Footprint Network in 2012.

Regional Ecological Footprint doubled in 50 years, and the Arab region has been in a state of ecosystem deficit since 1979. This deficit is bridged by imports and over-exploitation of local resources, due to two main drivers: higher per capita consumption levels, triggered by changing income and lifestyle, alongside an absolute 4-fold increase in population.

Parallel to growing ecological footprint, biocapacity, which represents the ability to regenerate resources and absorb waste, has decreased from 2.2 to 0.8 hectares per capita. This happened mainly due to massive population growth, overexploitation, pollution, habitat destruction, and overall inadequate resource management. However, the higher ecological footprint of some Arab countries cannot be seen as absolutely negative, because it is attributed, to a large extent, to the fast development rates and growth achieved during a few years, mainly due to higher income of oil and gas. While these advancements were much needed, and were reflected positively in the society, the dilemma is to achieve the golden balance.

We cannot save the future if we fail to prevent eco-bankruptcy. While central banks can ‘fix’ deficits by printing more money, states cannot print more fresh water, clean air and productive land. Eco-deficit is a debt we pass on to future generations, and it amounts to stealing from the future.
Major existing challenges, namely water scarcity, aridity, biodiversity loss and healthcare are already there, but will be exacerbated by climate change. In this regard, Arab states should be proactive and constructive in global climate discussions. They need to advance a common vision and strategy for the forthcoming climate summit (COP28), which convenes in Dubai in two months. The Arab preparatory meeting for COP28, to be held in Riyadh in mid-October, presents a great opportunity to agree on such common pathway, similar to what African countries had done a few weeks ago in their meeting in Nairobi.

In spite of the challenges, prospects are not entirely gloomy, as demonstrated in various positive examples across some Arab countries, such as Masdar Future Energy in Abu Dhabi, Green Saudi Initiative, Global Water Organization announced in Riyadh, various renewable and clean energy initiatives, and advancing green economy strategies in general. The fact is that these initiatives are still limited to a few Arab countries, mainly those with more resources and better visionary planning. The challenge is how to ensure other countries in the region are not left behind. Richer countries benefit when their neighbors develop, as in the European Union- especially in trade in agricultural commodities.

The way forward should definitely embrace accounting for ecology. The challenge is how to achieve economic prosperity while ensuring ecological health. The fact is that protecting the environment does not mean halting progress, as research shows that sustainable investments have the highest long-term return-on-investment (ROI).

We have to respect ecological limits, and not merely rely on technology. We have as well to go beyond GDP, by accounting for ecological components in measuring national performance. National budgets should incorporate national ecological endowment, resource availability, consumption, cost of natural resources, and loss from environmental damage.

Direct practical steps include cutting food deficits, by reducing waste, raising productivity, enhancing irrigation efficiency, down to changing consumption patterns. This has to be accompanied by a shift to clean and renewable energy, and advancing scientific research and regional cooperation, building on comparative advantages among countries. Regional economic cooperation should ultimately embrace reducing trade barriers.

My last message is that we should not be shy of stealing with pride: other countries share our challenges, so we can learn from their solutions and strategies, and adapt them to our situation and needs, instead of re-inventing the wheel.