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How innovation is driving the Middle East and North Africa's response to climate change

Date
30 November 2023

ICE student chapter presidents Afeefa Muhammad Iliyas, Alexander Ayson and Biji Sara Binu reflect on the progress of the region.

How innovation is driving the Middle East and North Africa's response to climate change
COP28, taking place in the UAE, shows the country's dedication to a better future. Image credit: Shutterstock

The construction industry is constantly evolving.

Over the years, there’s been a paradigm shift in our methods and technologies as we’ve become more aware of the climate emergency.

Now, engineers all over the world are coming together to create a better environment by incorporating change and innovation.

As ICE student chapter presidents at United Arab Emirates universities, we want to take a closer look at changes in practices across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The MENA region has rich engineering heritage

The MENA region is characterised by grandiose architectural marvels ranging from ancient structures like the pyramids of Egypt, to innovative projects like the Museum of the Future in Dubai.

As a civil engineering student in the UAE, it’s highly valuable to be surrounded by these structures.

We witness the development of large-scale, ambitious projects that symbolise progress, prosperity and cultural identity.

The cultural nuances, expectations and unique challenges of engineering here have become evident.

As the climate crisis grows, there's been a significant shift towards sustainable engineering practices.

But the harsh climate, water scarcity and regulatory compliance pose considerable hurdles.

How the MENA region experiences climate change

Though the region has abundant oil reservoirs and other resources, it's vulnerable to rising temperatures, declining water resources, coastal threats and other effects of global warming.

Heat

The temperatures are increasing faster than the global average, potentially exceeding human capacity to withstand it and increasing mortality.

This has significantly affected low and middle-income countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon due to their limited capacity to adapt.

Water scarcity

Political factors, such as the blocking of major rivers like the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates, have created water scarcity downstream, endangering the livelihoods of millions.

In fact, climate change is projected to reduce the region's internal renewable water resources by 4% by 2050, creating tension for over 80-90 million inhabitants.

Rising sea levels

Rising sea levels threaten coastal cities and infrastructure.

In Alexandria alone, over 2 million people were displaced by just half a meter rise in sea level.

Desertification

Desertification, the process by which vegetation decreases and eventually disappears, and aridity are reducing arable lands, further disrupting agriculture.

The MENA region already relies heavily on food imports, and climate change threatens to worsen food insecurity.

As a result of the above, rural-urban migration is expected to increase, putting more pressure on urban services and resources.

Although climate change itself doesn’t directly cause violent conflicts, it can intensify existing socioeconomic and political vulnerabilities in the region.

Despite all this, we’ve taken some bold steps towards sustainability.

Setting sustainability targets

Several countries in the MENA region have set national sustainability goals to underscore their commitment:

  • The UAE aims for net zero emissions by 2050.
  • Saudi Arabia targets 50% renewable energy by 2030.
  • Egypt transitioning to 42% renewable energy by 2035.
  • Qatar strives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030.

COP28, which is taking place in the UAE, is an example of the country’s dedication towards a better future.

Sustainable practices in the MENA region

Countries like the UAE are diversifying from oil-dependent economies, leading to a new generation of eco-conscious engineers committed to sustainability.

Sustainable construction and maintenance

In Dubai, for instance, there’s a growing emphasis on sustainable construction.

Innovative designs such as the Al Bahr Towers feature dynamic facades inspired by Islamic architecture to optimise natural light and reduce energy consumption.

Moreover, Dubai's commitment to sustainability is emphasised by its ambitious goal of retrofitting a total of 30,000 buildings by 2030. Currently more than 8,000 have been retrofitted.

This is part of its goal of saving 1.4 TWH of electricity, 4.9 billion gallons of water and producing 1 million tonnes less CO2 emissions.

Clean energy

Clean energy technologies, including green hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, are being actively developed.

Saudi Arabia aims to produce 4 million tonnes of green hydrogen annually by 2030.

The region also invests in diversifying energy sources. For example, the UAE's Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, the first of its kind in the Arab world.

Urban planning

The region also sets a shining example in sustainable urban planning through projects like Masdar City and NEOM, focusing on renewable energy, electric transport, and zero waste practices.

Road traffic is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Mainly caused by commuters, a possible solution would be to offer more home working.

However, homes must have an adaptable design to enable people to work and relax appropriately, repurposing their spaces as needed.

Water security

Water scarcity concerns are being addressed through innovative technologies such as water desalination, air and moisture capturing, nanotechnology, greywater recycling, and more.

Sustainability starts with you

We still face challenges in securing financing, overcoming policy barriers, developing local skills and addressing resistance to change.

But the MENA region is demonstrating its potential to contribute significantly to global sustainability efforts.

It’s illustrating the power of vision and collective action in building a greener, more sustainable future.

These changes are happening not only in the region's engineering sector but our personal outlooks.

We're embracing the principle that sustainability starts with yourself.

This concept gives power to each of us as individuals in addressing environmental challenges through proactive, eco-conscious living.

We urge you to apply this simple principle in your life as well.

Let it guide your choices, inspire your actions, and fuel your commitment to sustainability and engineering!

  • Afeefa Muhammad Iliyas, ICE student chapter president at Heriot-Watt University Dubai
  • Alexander Ayson, ICE student chapter president at University of Bolton Ras Al-Khaimah
  • Biji Sara Binu, ICE student chapter president at Manipal Academy of Higher Education Dubai