The signs of economic growth, modernisation and prosperity in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi are obvious. As this expanding population grows, the Emirate's thirst for modern conveniences, the urban landscape and limited environmental resources must quench this thirst. This is no small feat for the rapidly evolving Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The resultant environmental concerns cover the activities of both the Emirate's government and private sector. To ensure sustainability in the Emirate, the Abu Dhabi government has compiled several integrated 2030 plans covering Abu Dhabi City, Al Ain, The Eastern Region and The Western (Al Gharbia) Region. The concept of sustainability has been around for quite some time. For a society to meet its present needs and demands without compromising or depleting the opportunities and well-being of future generations, it must become ‘balanced.' To achieve this, the public and private sectors must act against the negative environmental consequences of growth, including economic, environmental and social factors.
Moving towards sustainable growth is necessary and presents a long-term test for the Emirate. Over time, confronting these challenges head-on will secure balanced growth and strengthen sustainability.
Current challenges: The economy of Abu Dhabi, highly concentrated in the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, may not be very resistant to global economic change. Additionally, high rates of importation for raw materials and many other products have led to economic dependency. Lastly, the process of educating the Emirati population to be fully able to compete in certain fields is still under way.
Environmental shadow: Economic instability could lead to the neglect of environmental issues. Additionally, strong economic growth has led to large-scale construction projects that reduce air quality levels and lead to sickness from public exposure to industrial pollutants. Economic growth also leads to higher raw material consumption, thus depleting natural resources. Furthermore, the environmental impact of the global use of hydrocarbons is one of the most critical issues the planet faces today.
Abu Dhabi's approach: By increasing spending on education, the government intends to promote the development of a knowledge-based economy in the Emirate. It also intends to take the lead in investment in a diverse array of other non-oil industries. Likewise, regulation and environmentally friendly government investments, such as the Masdar development, could encourage a ‘greener' approach in the private sector as well.
Sustainable Water Supply
Current challenges: Abu Dhabi, as one of the highest per capita consumers of water in the world, is depleting groundwater reserves much faster than rainfall is recharging them. This creates the need for environmentally harmful seawater desalination. Furthermore, agricultural production creates significant amounts of waste and increases nitrogen in groundwater by using fertilisers and pesticides that can lead to illness in human residents and wildlife.
Environmental shadow: Groundwater reserves are being depleted. Desalination is energy-intensive and raises the salinity of the water body near desalination plants that receives the discharged brine, causing damage to marine life. These plants are also raising the overall level of the Arabian Gulf's salinity, making it even more energy-intensive to produce fresh water from its seawater.
Abu Dhabi's approach: The government has slowed the expansion of water-hungry forests down to a crawl. Additionally, it is exploring alternative methods of desalination that could lead to greater energy efficiency. By encouraging the use of organic fertilisers, improving farm zoning and distributing farms more evenly, they are also alleviating health concerns. Other initiatives include: Estidama (see ‘Resource of Life'), the recharging of aquifers (to meet the Emirate's demand for 90 days of emergency water supplies), the installation of meters to account for water use, demand-side water management and the installation of water-saving household features.
Current challenges: The pace of urban develop-ment and economic growth in Abu Dhabi is occurring at unprecedented rates. This creates challenges when trying to meet the infrastructural needs along with balancing ecosystem conservation. The majority of development has been on the coastline, which has led to detrimental effects on coastal and marine ecosystems in Abu Dhabi. In addition to the demand for shorefront hotels and accommodation, most of the industrial activities also need to be in close proximity to seawater for cooling purposes and for generation of desalinated water. The pace of infrastructure growth has struggled to keep up with that of urban development. Demand for domestic electricity and water supply will continue to rise and wastewater generation will grow to exceed current treatment capacity and add even greater pressure to coastal ecosystems. Moreover, urban amenities and the inner-city pedestrian infrastructure are inadequate.
Environmental shadow: The expansion of the city along the coastline and adjacent islands, into inland areas and reclaimed lands, threatens valuable habitats such as mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs through dredge and fill activities. Crowding of high-rise buildings in the Central Business District (CBD), for example, could lead to a ‘heat island' effect. Additionally, expanded desalination and power generation increases the salinity and temperature of seawater and will also increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As ‘green' open spaces become restricted and the natural drainage of land is disturbed, run-off pollutants could flow into fragile habitats.
Abu Dhabi's approach: The government is developing a green building and green community design system called Estidama, which means ‘sustainability' in Arabic. This programme includes the ‘Pearl Rating System,' which resembles the sustainable construction building rating system developed by the US Green Building Council called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Furthermore, the government of Abu Dhabi is working towards integrated master planning of coastal areas to meet the interests of various users and create a balance between development and ecosystem conservation. Additionally, renewable energy and water sources and more effectively designed landfills offer an environmentally cleaner approach. Finally, improved zoning, pedestrian-friendly street design and the development of new amenities will make inner-city life more enjoyable.
Addressing Cost Shadows
Addressing these environmental cost shadows and moving towards sustainability requires innovative strategies and immediate action. Abu Dhabi‘s environment certainly has unique constraints. Fortunately, the government has sufficient resources to acquire essential sustainability expertise both locally and from around the world. Moreover, the Emirate's government is in a privileged position that enables it to mobilise multisector partnerships involving government, business, non-governmental organisations and citizens as investors in and beneficiaries of environmental sustainability. Through the Abu Dhabi 2030 plans, covering the whole of the Emirate, the government has provided insightful solutions to these environmental challenges.
Current challenges: High congestion, especially during rush hours, in urban areas of Abu Dhabi and remarkably high accident rates pose significant challenges to drivers and pedestrians. Moreover, both new and existing developments that do not provide sufficient spaces for residents make inadequate parking in urban areas even worse. These factors contribute to poor urban air quality, high noise levels and stress-related illness.
Environmental shadow: Abu Dhabi faces problems of noise pollution, exhaust emissions and the illegal dumping of car wrecks, tyres and other environmentally harmful materials outside of urban areas. Moreover, construction of new transportation projects will disturb natural landscapes.
Abu Dhabi's approach: A multimodal, integrated transportation system that will include trams, freight trains, buses, rapid transit and walking areas will help alleviate transportation challenges.