UAE’s first astronaut urges climate protection on Earth

UAE astronaut Hazzaa al-Mansoori reacts shortly after the landing of the Russian Soyuz MS-12 space capsule about 150 km south-east of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan on October 3, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 12 November 2019

UAE’s first astronaut urges climate protection on Earth

  • Mansoori became the first Arab astronaut to visit the ISS and returned home to a hero’s welcome after an eight-day mission
  • “It is really difficult to live in space, we have to provide a lot of oxygen, air and food... and we have all of this here for free,” he said

DUBAI: Wearing a blue space suit with a UAE flag on one sleeve and a spaceship on the other, the first Emirati astronaut said Tuesday his mission highlighted a crucial issue — climate change.
Witnessing Earth and its beauty from space made him realize the importance of preserving it, said Hazzaa Al-Mansoori, a 35-year-old former military pilot who reached the International Space Station in September.
“We have to appreciate the planet and make sure that we save it for the next generations,” said the father-of-four, urging efforts to address “the reasons behind climate change.”
Mansoori became the first Arab astronaut to visit the ISS and returned home to a hero’s welcome after an eight-day mission, during which he participated in scientific experiments including a time-perception study.
His space trip has become a source of great pride in the UAE, a newcomer with ambitions to send an unmanned probe to orbit Mars by 2021.
In a Dubai hall swarming with journalists, Mansoori recounted the magic of his trip.
“When you see our planet from space... it’s really something amazing and a spectacular view,” he said. “I spent a lot of time looking out that window, I didn’t even want to sleep.”
Mansoori said living in space showed him that life on Earth was “a blessing.”
“It is really difficult to live in space, we have to provide a lot of oxygen, air and food... and we have all of this here for free,” he said.
The five-year period ending 2019 is set to be the hottest ever, said a UN report published in September, scientists’ latest grim reminder that climate change is already a reality.
Last month was the hottest October ever recorded worldwide, according to data released by the European Union’s satellite monitoring service.
“We are lucky to live here — let us protect the Earth and its atmosphere,” said Mansoori.
On board the ISS, Mansoori, who was selected from more than 4,000 UAE candidates, donned Emirati dress and treated crew members to his country’s snacks.
He flew to the station after the UAE signed a contract with Russian space agency Roscosmos to make him a “spaceflight participant,” a term used for people from outside the main space agencies who take short trips to the ISS.
As part of its space plans, the UAE has announced its aim to become the first Arab country to send an unmanned probe to orbit Mars by 2021, naming it “Hope.”
“It’s the golden age for space exploration in the UAE,” said Salem Al-Marri, of the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center.


Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

Updated 12 December 2019

Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

  • For Oman and other Gulf states dominated by vast deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high cost
  • In Sur, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant

SUR, OMAN: “We have water, and it’s the most important thing in a house,” says Abdullah Al-Harthi from the port city of Sur in Oman, a country that relies on desalination plants.
But for Oman and the other Gulf countries dominated by vast and scorching deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high financial and environmental cost.
In Sur, south of the capital Muscat, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant that serves some 600,000 people.
“Before, life was very difficult. We had wells, and water was delivered by trucks,” the 58-year-old told AFP. “Since the 1990s, water has come through pipes and we’ve had no cuts.”
But these benefits — relying on energy intensive processes that produce carbon emissions — do not come without a cost, particularly as global temperatures rise.
The United Nations says 2019 is on course to be one of the hottest three years on record.
And there is another impact: the desalination plants produce highly concentrated salt water, or brine, that is often dumped back into the ocean.
Researchers say more than 16,000 desalination plants around the globe produce more toxic sludge than freshwater.
For every liter of freshwater extracted from the sea or brackish water, a liter-and-a-half of salty slurry is deposed at sea or on land, according to a 2019 study in the journal Science.
All that extra salt raises the temperature of coastal waters and decreases the level of oxygen, which can conspire to create biological “dead zones.”
The super-salty substance is made even more toxic by the chemicals used in the desalination process.
Oman’s bigger neighbors produce the bulk of the brine.
More than half comes from just four countries — Saudi Arabia, at 22 percent, United Arab Emirates with 20 percent, and smaller shares by Kuwait and Qatar, according to UN data.
“Brine production in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar accounts for 55 percent of the total global share,” according to the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
It said new strategies are needed “to limit the negative environmental impacts and reduce the economic cost of disposal.”
This would help “to safeguard water supplies for current and future generations.”
At the Sur plant, “almost no chemicals” are used during the pre-treatment phase, as the water is naturally filtered through the cracks of karst rocks, said Mahendran Senapathy, operations manager at French company Veolia which runs the plant along with an Omani firm.
There are other ways to safeguard freshwater supplies, from encouraging savings and efficiently to recycling wastewater.
Antoine Frerot, chief executive of Veolia, said wastewater recycling will help resolve the problem of water scarcity.
He also pointed out that “reused water is less costly,” nearly one third less than that won through desalination.
Omani authorities continue to mount campaigns urging people to use water wisely, mindful that other demands — especially the energy sector — also guzzle up large amounts.
Across the Gulf, huge amounts of water are used not just for homes, gardens and golf courses, but also for the energy sector that is the source of the region’s often spectacular wealth.
On the edge of the Arabian peninsula’s “Empty Quarter,” the world’s largest expanse of sand, lies the Khazzan gas field, operated by BP and the Oman Oil Company.
The method used to extract the gas here is hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as fracking — said Stewart Robertson, operations manager at the site.
The method requires huge amounts of water. The site is supplied by a facility that provides 6,000 cubic meters of water a day, extracted from an underground aquifer 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
Fracking involves directional drilling and then pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock and release the hydrocarbons.
The rock formations that hold the gas are “like a big sponge with lots of little holes in it,” said Robertson, explaining that fracking is the process “to open those holes slightly to take the gas out.”
So the more the region extracts oil and natural or shale gas, “the more they need water,” said Charles Iceland of the World Resources Institute.
“The Middle East is projected to need more and more energy,” he said. “So that means the situation is going to get worse.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “if they can produce power using solar photovoltaic technologies, which are getting reasonably priced in the Middle East, that would take care of a lot of the problem because solar PV doesn’t need much water.
“You need just some water to clean the solar panels.”