Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Dubai's cautionary tale

Build it and they will come. Even if it's in the desert. Even if it doesn't make sense. (GW)

Dubai Faces Environmental Problems After Growth

By Liz Alderman
New York Times
October 27, 2010

DUBAI — Dubai’s skyline is the most sparkling in the Middle East. But down on the ground, the environmental problems of a quickly erected city built on sand look a lot less alluring.

In the last year, tourists have swum amid raw sewage in Dubai’s slice of the Persian Gulf. The purifying of seawater to feed taps and fountains is raising salinity levels. And despite sitting on vast oil reserves, the region is running out of energy sources to support its rich lifestyle.

The simple basics of waste treatment and providing fresh water, in addition to running major industrial projects, require so much electricity that the region is turning to a nuclear future, raising questions about the risks, both environmental and political, of relying in part on a technology vulnerable to accidents and terrorist attacks.

Dazzled by Dubai’s rapid urbanization, other countries in the gulf are seeking to emulate it, especially as they prepare for a population boom. Dubai offers a cautionary tale in the pitfalls of building metropolises in the parched desert.

“Growth has been so intense and enormous, but people forgot about the environment,” said Jean-François Seznec, a Middle East expert and professor at Georgetown University in Washington. “The attitude was, business comes first. Now, they are seeing increased problems, and they realize they have to be careful.”

Like a Middle Eastern version of Las Vegas, Dubai’s biggest challenge is water, which may be everywhere in the gulf but is undrinkable without desalination plants. These produce emissions of carbon dioxide that have helped give Dubai and the other United Arab Emirates one of the world’s largest carbon footprints. They also generate enormous amounts of heated sludge, which is pumped back into the sea.

The emirates desalinate the equivalent of four billion bottles of water a day. But their backups are thin: at any given time, the region has, on average, an estimated four-day supply of fresh water.

Today, the gulf’s salinity levels have risen to 47,000 parts per million, from 32,000 about 30 years ago. That is enough, said Christophe Tourenq, a senior researcher at the World Wide Fund for Nature in Dubai, to threaten local fauna and marine life.

Rapid growth has produced other problems as well, including sewage treatment operations that have struggled to keep up with development.

Until last August, Dubai’s single waste treatment plant dealt with 480,000 cubic meters, or 17 million cubic feet, of sewage daily, nearly twice the 260,000-cubic-meter capacity it could properly handle, said Mohammed Abdulaziz Najem, the plant’s director.

Some drivers of the 4,000 tankers that carried raw waste daily from Dubai to the treatment plant would simply dump their load down drains that flowed to the fashionable Jumeirah suburb, he said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of skyscrapers were built with water and electricity as afterthoughts; environmental standards were rarely applied.

Authorities acknowledge that the breakneck pace has stressed natural resources throughout the region. Efforts to achieve developed status within the next 20 years have “magnified” the challenges to environmental protection, Majid Al Mansouri, the secretary general of the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi, said in an e-mail. “While we have achieved a great deal, we recognize that much more work remains.”

Sustainability is now a big theme, and Abu Dhabi is trying to learn from Dubai’s mistakes.

To tackle the water problem, Abu Dhabi has set up a groundwater monitoring system and is recycling by irrigating lawns and desert forests with residual waste. It has started a public awareness campaign. Last month, the government awarded contracts to start building the United Arab Emirates’ first water storage facility, which could hold a month’s worth of backup.

The government has also started requiring new buildings to be designed using Western-style environmental standards that set goals for water and energy consumption, which Mr. Al Mansouri says his agency audits.

Dubai also opened part of a large treatment facility this summer, doubling capacity. Moreover, after Dubai’s financial crisis hit, an estimated 400,000 laborers left, easing pressure on the treatment plants, which enjoy excess capacity for the first time, Mr. Najem said.

But even these solutions face hurdles.

Meanwhile, major industrial projects like aluminum smelting and steel production, which require large sources of electricity, are taxing the power grid. Many of these projects produce exports that supplement the emirates’ oil business and are also used to build infrastructure.

But they are fueled by natural gas from Qatar, which limits supplies to the region. Alternates like solar energy and wind power are few and far between, while other solutions, like coal, are not viable because of transportation and supply challenges.

As a result, the emirates are turning to nuclear power as a major new source of energy. The emirates signed an accord in December with Washington allowing countries to build nuclear plants that do not enrich or reprocess uranium. Abu Dhabi plans to build four plants by 2017 and to generate about 23 percent of the emirates’ power by 2020. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt are also studying nuclear power.

While desalination plants use less energy than the big industrial projects, Abu Dhabi is already planning to power some water treatment facilities by electricity from the emirates’ nuclear reactors.

The buildup is developing as the administration of President Obama is trying to stop one of the emirates’ neighbors, Iran, from developing nuclear power, out of fear that it intends to build a nuclear weapon. But American officials say they see the emirates’ nuclear ambitions as a positive that could prod Iran along the same path of accepting proper safeguards.

“The U.A.E. has demonstrated that this is how you would do it if you want nuclear power as a source of energy,” said a Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

But from a sustainability perspective, nuclear power makes little sense, said Mohamed Raouf, the environmental director at the Gulf Research Center. While it produces clean energy, “it’s not renewable, there’s a very big problem with waste, and uranium supplies are projected to run out in 40 to 50 years — around the same time as oil,” he said. “So there’s little logic unless you really want to develop it for political and security reasons.”

Mohamed Al Hammadi, the chief executive of the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation who has worked with authorities to study ways to augment the emirates’ power needs, said the nuclear technology being used was “safe and peaceful by design.”

Still, environmentalists fear that the governments are pursuing development in a pell-mell manner. “What the U.A.E. has showed us,” Mr. Raouf said, “is that if you don’t deal with the sustainability of the environment, you’ll achieve a quick profit but face hazards.”


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