For Earth Day 2023, ICE Fellow Mark Jamieson reflects on the environmental challenges the region faces.
Sitting by a pool in the heart of Riyadh, with an intense sun beating down, it can be easy to forget the challenges of humanity as we try to balance our demands for consumption with the finite resources that Mother Nature provides.
Across the Middle East, the visions for economic growth and development are unbounded.
The investment demands are unprecedented, with a significant percentage of GDP focused on the construction industry.
Professional civil engineers are duty-bound to improve the built environment using sustainable measures (as outlined in the UN SDGs) and ensure that, like our forebears, we build for the future, not just for now…
But in a region full of contrasts and conflicts, how do we do that?
Regional background – where are we at?
The UAE has one of the latest nuclear power plants currently providing over 13% of the country's needs, and the adoption of electric vehicles is increasing.
But the region is the largest producer of hydrocarbons and needs to be more proactive in adopting best practices around reuse and recycling. It also has a rapidly growing population.
Yet, it has significant investments in wind (London Array, Masdar), solar (industrial scale PV farms), TSE (recycling of sewage for irrigation), and local content continues to grow (such as hydroponic farms).
So, what do we, as civil engineers, need to do to promote sustainability and environmental conservation?
Individual vs collective action
For me, there are two challenges – what do we do as individuals, and what do we do as organisations?
As an individual, it’s arguably easier to make informed choices:
- what we eat and where it’s sourced from (look local, not just what you are used to from ‘home’)
- what we drive (hybrid/electric vs. gas guzzling tanks)
- how much energy we consume (not just leaving lights on because we don't pay the bill)
- our holiday choices
- separating and recycling our waste – be it at home or when we are out and about
For organisations, more stakeholders are involved, which provides different challenges and stresses.
Still, the move to increased use of digital solutions and better designs, regulated by government initiatives are reflective of a step change to the old ways of building.
These regulations incorporate not just international standards such as LEED, BREAM, and CEEQUAL, but also the local ones such as Estidama, GSAS, and others.
Equally, procurement through local sourcing plays a much more significant role in reducing the overall impact of the region's transportation CO2 emissions.
Unique environmental challenges facing the Middle East
We live in a hostile environment: desert, heat, sandstorms, limited water sources, and the like.
But such challenges have their rewards as we see the built environment transform the landscape by using great cutting-edge technology.
How are civil engineers addressing these challenges?
Significant steps are being taken to harness the use of solar energy across the region and adopt cleaner burn on existing power plants.
From a water perspective, adopting TSE as the primary source of irrigation is to be commended.
In the UAE, we’ve seen significant changes in behaviour around the recycling and reuse of materials.
Saudi also seeks to create a 12,000km ‘river’ to make use of its desalination plants.
Still, the overall challenge remains as demand will increase with population growth - Riyadh is expected to double in size in the next 10 years.
How do you make a meaningful impact on Earth Day and beyond?
We need to continue to ask why.
Is there a more sustainable alternative? Are we really compelled to do it this way?
Rather than thinking of sustainability only on a project-by-project basis, can we embed sustainability as a core programme value?
Can we develop governance that protects environmental performance and makes it the responsibility of every member of the team, not just the environmental sustainability expert?
We also need to challenge ourselves and our colleagues and help educate them on the need for resilience and reduction.
But we equally can all make personal choices that on their own may not move the dial much, because, collectively, they do make an impact.