How Middle East cities can meet the sustainability challenge

Vertical planting turns a skyscraper green at One Central Park, built as part of an urban renewal project in inner-city Sydney. Climate change, water shortages and population growth pose a challenge for many global cities. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 14 December 2019

How Middle East cities can meet the sustainability challenge

  • With a growing population and diminishing water resources, region's cities face a major challenge
  • Despite tech breakthroughs and growing use of renewable energy, many of the world's cities are ailing

DUBAI: As the cities of today grow into those of the future, they will encounter daunting sustainability challenges.

Arguably, the most significant factor that all urban centers will have to take into account is climate change.

With temperatures projected to rise, new infrastructure and operational challenges will have to be tackled by city authorities.

“We need to manage our greenhouse gas emissions while managing our economy,” said Fahed Al-Hammadi, director of climate change at the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change.

“We must understand future trends in the region and how we will be affected in different sectors. We must engage with the private sector because we can’t work as a government alone,” he added.

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Percentage of its lifetime a car in the US is parked on average.

“We need to attract more ‘green’ investors, and ensure that the capacity of renewable energy we’re transitioning to can cope with the transformation.”

Speaking at a recent summit in Dubai on emerging technologies, Al-Hammadi envisioned cities of the future contributing to a reduction in emissions — transportation currently contributes a third of total emissions — and thus helping governments achieve their emission-reduction targets.




Senseable City Lab at MIT collects data on car movement to improve urban transport. (Supplied)

Cities’ sustainability will prove a major challenge in the Middle East, a region with a growing population and diminishing water resources.

“Climate change is happening and there are future challenges, but it’s very important, with the structure we have in modern cities, to have an understanding of the impacts and the changes we’re going to experience,” Al-Hammadi said.

One tool that is becoming increasingly important for urban authorities planning for future challenges is data.

Carlo Ratti, director of Senseable City Lab at MIT, said that reliable data is essential for a better understanding of the cities we live in.

He is working on collecting data from the movement of cars to understand transport patterns in a city and how it can be improved.

With the average number of car sensors today ranging from 2,000 to 3,000, Ratti told the EmTech MENA conference that the “ambient sensing platform” can be scaled up to include taxis and used for monitoring a city’s “structural health” (bridges and other infrastructure). Pilot projects are currently being conducted in collaboration with Uber in Singapore, he said. 

“You can radically change the way we move in a city,” Ratti added. “In the US today, a car is parked on average 95 percent of the time. It uses valuable space in our cities as well. But a self-driving system can change that.”

Ratti  offered the example of the 1.37 million parking spots in Singapore, 70 percent of which can be cut with autonomous cars. 

His work encompasses traffic lights as well, whereby cars will be able to detect intersections, removing the need for such lights.

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam self-driving boats that can be used as floating platforms for temporary bridges are being deployed to configure the city in an increasingly dynamic way.




Self-driving boats are used as temporary bridges in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Supplied)

“The beauty of technology isn’t about creating new needs. It’s about doing things in a different and better way,” Ratti said.

Experts have jumped to cities’ defense by trying to make them more resilient as they face the twin onslaughts of overpopulation (55 percent of the planet’s 7.4 billion people live in urban areas) and climate change (rising sea levels due to global warming threaten to wipe out many coastal cities).

The health sector will need an overhaul to cater for the evolving needs of the cities of the future. 

A pioneer in this area is BioBot, a US biotech company that measures the concentration of drugs that are excreted in urine and collected in sewerage systems.

“We measure opioids in sewage to estimate consumption in cities, counties and states,” says BioBot’s website. “We map this data, empowering communities to tackle the opioid epidemic in real time.”

By mapping a city’s wastewater network and studying the demographic information associated with that data, more effective public-health policies can be created, said Newsha Ghaeli, the company’s co-founder and president.

“A human health crisis affecting communities, such as measles, polio, obesity or diabetes, is only heard about when the crisis turns into a catastrophe,” Ghaeli said.

“But it doesn’t have to be this way. We imagine a city where every person can contribute to a database about our health and we’re building it, based on a concept called wastewater epidemiology.”

For instance, human urine is an important pathological sample, and so can be regarded as a rich source of information embedded in city sewers.

“You need a lot of different disciplines and industries working together to make sense of this data, like engineers, chemists, biologists, public health, urban planners, water and sewers, elected officials, data scientists and public works,” Ghaeli said. “So we’re the first company in the world to commercialize data from sewage.”

Hardware units are installed inside manholes, hanging a few feet above the sewer flow, with tubes that capture bacteria and study the chemical profile. BioBot’s team of scientists then looks at the human bacteria, viruses and chemicals. 

“There’s so much we can learn from wastewater,” Ghaeli said. “We chose to tackle, first, the opioid epidemic, which is the leading cause of accidental death of Americans under 50.”

However, recent studies have shown that less than 1 percent of those who suffer from  opioid use disorder are dying. 

“So it doesn’t matter how you slice or dice the data, we just don’t have the information,” Ghaeli said. “What’s clear is that we’re measuring the wrong thing, so we are now measuring 30 different drugs and looking at emerging trends in drugs.”

The first town to test the system was Cary in North Carolina, where overdoses decreased by 40 percent last year for the first time in half a decade, Ghaeli said.




Pavegen’s tech captures energy from pedestrian footsteps to power street lighting. (Supplied)

During a six-month pilot program, BioBot was also able to create a heat map to pinpoint areas where overdoses were concentrated.

Despite such technological breakthroughs, and the fact that an estimated 33 percent of the world’s energy is now derived from renewable sources, many of the world’s most densely populated cities are ailing.

“Cities have been built for machines — cars and planes — and some have forgotten about the people,” said Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO of Pavegen.

The technology company has developed paving slabs to convert energy from citizens’ footsteps into “energy, data and rewards.”

He said: “I’m on a mission to try to make our cities greener. There is a big challenge in urban areas.”

To achieve his goal, Kemball-Cook turned to kinetic energy, capturing the energy from pedestrians’ footsteps to power streetlights.

So far, the kinetic-energy system has been used in Nigeria, London, Abu Dhabi Airport, Thailand and Birmingham, as well as on a running track in Hong Kong.

“We’re excited about the vision of the future city,” he said, adding that he hopes to take Pavegen’s technology to Expo 2020 in Dubai and Neom in Saudi Arabia.

“The potential of using human power in our cities is huge. The technology in a city has to work with the people,” Kemball-Cook said.

“A city isn’t just about finding a new energy solution, it has to be about wellness, smart (practices), fun, sustainable and connecting into the Internet of Things data layout,” he added.


Fatah committee member sets up separate electoral list, defies leaders’ orders

Updated 44 min 32 sec ago

Fatah committee member sets up separate electoral list, defies leaders’ orders

  • Nasser Al-Qudwa launched the Palestinian Democratic Forum, with 230 prominent Palestinians attending
  • Al-Qudwa is a nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and runs the Yasser Arafat Foundation
AMMAN: Nasser Al-Qudwa, a member of the Fatah Central Committee announced on Tuesday that he has set up a separate electoral list for the upcoming legislative elections, in defiance of orders from the party’s leaders. Al-Qudwa could still support a Fatah-nominated government, however. Al Qudwa held an online meeting on Tuesday to announce the launch of the Palestinian Democratic Forum, with a number of key figures in attendance. The forum attendees included 230 prominent Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank, and the diaspora. Participants called on imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti to join them too. Committees dealing with media, legal affairs, management, and candidacies were formed and it was agreed that members of these committees should not be on the electoral list. It was also agreed that there would be strict guidelines regarding candidates’ donations. Hani Al-Masri director-general of Ramallah’s Masarat think-tank, told Arab News that Al-Qudwa’s move could be a game-changer. “Al-Qudwa combines clean hands, respected national presence, and popular support, it will be a game-changer if Barghouti supports the list,” he said. Al-Qudwa is a nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and runs the Yasser Arafat Foundation. He resigned from the Fatah Central Committee in May 2018, but his colleagues in the committee soon convinced him to withdraw his resignation. He has never served time in an Israeli jail. The backing of Barghouti would strengthen his credentials in the eyes of many Palestinians. In a poll conducted in September by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research, Barghouti received 61 percent of the vote versus 32 percent for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, although Haniyeh still defeated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by three points in that poll. In a subsequent December poll, Barghouti again beat the Hamas leader convincingly. Hamas is unlikely to challenge in the presidential race scheduled for July 30. Al-Qudwa stated in the meeting that he has no issue with rank members of the reform faction loyal to former Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan being involved in the Palestinian Democratic Forum, even though he has been critical of Dahlan. “The new group is intended only to be a forum and not a vehicle to solve Fatah’s many problems,” he said. “We are creating a list and our aim is not to cause a crisis.” Al-Qudwa provided a 22-point initial program for the forum and said that the new body “is open for engagement and discussion in the coming meeting scheduled for March 4.” In addition to laying out ideas about how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the program calls for unity between Gaza and the Wes Bank, the rebuilding of the PLO, and government efficiency, as well as addressing issues including democracy, the rule of law, fighting corruption, and gaining national independence for the Palestinian state using the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital. The wide-ranging meeting also discussed negotiations, the Oslo Accords, Israeli settlements, how to protect and reclaim Palestinian land, women’s and children’s rights, and Palestinian martyrs and prisoners.

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Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit reappointed

Updated 55 min 3 sec ago

Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit reappointed

  • The 78-year old, was first elected to lead the Cairo-based pan-regional body in 2016
  • Since its founding in 1945, the Cairo-based league has chosen an Egyptian diplomat as its chief, apart from 1979 to 1990

CAIRO: Egypt’s Ahmed Aboul Gheit was reappointed for a second term Wednesday as secretary general of the 22-member Arab League, a diplomatic source said.
The 78-year old, who served as Egyptian foreign minister between 2004 and 2011, was first elected to lead the Cairo-based pan-regional body in 2016.
“Arab foreign ministers unanimously decided to approve Egypt’s request to reappoint Arab League secretary general Ahmed Aboul Gheit for a new five-year term,” the source said.
Since its founding in 1945, the Cairo-based league has chosen an Egyptian diplomat as its chief, apart from 1979 to 1990, when a Tunisian was appointed and the headquarters moved to Tunis, after Egypt signed a peace deal with neighboring Israel.

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Egypt’s fostering campaign helps orphans find homes

Updated 03 March 2021

Egypt’s fostering campaign helps orphans find homes

  • In 2020, Egypt broadened the rules for who can foster a child to include single women over 30 and divorcees
  • A social media campaign encouraging both taking children home and financing them has also helped spark change

CAIRO: Yasmina Al-Habbal always wanted to take in an orphan but only did so last year after Egypt’s government eased regulations over who could do so and campaigned to change public attitudes, enabling her to take home baby Ghalya.
Formal adoption — where people permanently adopt a child, give them their surname and make them their legal heir, is not accepted in Islam due to the importance of respecting lineage, and not practiced in Egypt, although people are encouraged to sponsor children or foster them.
Complexities around Islam and adoption prevented some people from fostering and instead people chose to support children who remained in the full-time care of orphanages.
In January 2020 however, Egypt broadened the rules for who can foster a child to include single women over 30 and divorcees, and reduced the minimum level of education required, hoping that by increasing the pool of prospective foster parents it could make fostering more widespread and socially accepted.
A social media campaign “Yala Kafala” (Let’s sponsor a child) encouraging both taking children home and financing them, started by an Egyptian woman, has also helped spark change.
Habbal, 40 and unmarried, had always dreamt of having a daughter and said she faced social pressure when choosing to care for now seven-month-old Ghalya.
“My friends said to me: ‘how will you face society? What are you going to tell people? Are you going to tell Ghalya that she isn’t your child? Are you going to tell everyone else?’.”
Habbal assured her friends she would respond by telling people their prejudiced views were wrong, and she would tell Ghalya it didn’t matter where she came from.
“I’m going to tell Ghalya... ‘what is important is the positive change you’ve made to so many people’s lives’.”
She added she has a seen a change in attitudes to fostering, and her experience is encouraging others to apply.
“In this past year, the number of families who have applied to sponsor orphans shows just how much people have accepted it. People used to be afraid of it, but now, Egypt’s highest religious authority Al-Azhar, civil society organizations and the ministry of social solidarity are all trying to make the idea more widespread,” she said.
Reem Amin, a member of Egypt’s social solidarity ministry’s alternative families committee said its main goal was to remove the need for orphanages by 2025.
“An orphanage’s main goal is as a stopover point before the child moves to a foster home,” she said.
The ministry’s legal adviser Mohamed Omar said around 11,600 families have taken in orphans since January 2020 and another 11,000 orphans needed homes.
In the second half of 2020 as restrictions due to the pandemic began to ease, the ministry received 1000 requests from families wanting to sponsor orphans.
Cairo couple Mohamed Abdallah and his wife had initially failed to conceive a child of their own and decided to take in an orphan instead.
Months later, Abdallah’s wife Merna became pregnant and now they are raising their biological son Soliman and Dawood, their foster child. “I have a dream that they will be an example for a normal society — two brothers who love each other, even though they are not related by blood,” said Abdallah.


Yemen’s army launches offensive in Taiz to relieve pressure on Marib

Updated 03 March 2021

Yemen’s army launches offensive in Taiz to relieve pressure on Marib

  • During the early hours of the offensive, the army troops liberated a number of villages

AL-MUKALLA: Yemen’s Army has launched a new offensive in the southern city of Taiz to break a six-year-long siege by the Iran-backed Houthis and ease military pressure on government forces in the central province of Marib, a Yemeni army spokesperson in Taiz told Arab News on Wednesday. 

Abdul Basit Al-Baher said that hundreds of army troops on Tuesday night attacked Houthi-controlled locations on the western and eastern edges of the city, triggering clashes with the rebels. 

During the early hours of the offensive, the army troops liberated a number of villages and mountainous locations and killed at least 12 Houthis and destroyed military equipment. 

“The national army activated four battlefields in Taiz and managed to push Houthi militia from different locations,” Al-Baher said, adding that the army is pushing to break the Houthi siege on Taiz and open a strategic road that links Taiz with the Red Sea areas. If the government forces seize control of Al-Bareh, the epicenter of the fighting, government forces will be able to partially end the Houthi siege on Taiz and funnel fighters and military equipment from the western regions.

About the timing of the offensive, local Yemeni commanders say that the Houthis in Taiz have been weakened since they sent their elite forces and heavy equipment to participate in the movement’s offensive on the central city of Marib. 

“The Yemeni Army offensive partly aims to ease military pressure on Marib,” Al-Baher said. 

On Wednesday afternoon, artillery shells fired by the Houthis landed in areas close to Al-Thawra hospital in the eastern part of the city, residents said. No one was reportedly hurt in the shelling. 

The Houthis have imposed a siege on the city of Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, since early 2015, after failing to seize control of the city due to strong resistance from army troops and resistance fighters. 

The Houthi siege has stifled the densely populated city, pushing tens of thousands of people to the brink of famine and triggering condemnation from local and international rights groups.

Houthis earlier this month renewed a major offensive to recapture the central city of Marib, the Yemeni government’s last stronghold in the northern half of Yemen. 

In the western province of Hodeidah, a civilian was killed and his brother was wounded when an artillery shell fired by the Houthis exploded inside their house on Tuesday night in the town of Hays, south of Hodeidah city, local media said. 

The Joint Forces, an umbrella term for three major military units in the country’s western coast, said that Houthi sporadically shelled civilian areas in Hays, causing panic among residents. 

A truce imposed under the Stockholm Agreement in 2018 has largely failed to bring peace to contested areas in Hodeidah as local rights organizations say that hundreds of civilians have been killed in shelling and by land mines planted by the Houthis during the last three years.

Yemen’s government has hailed US sanctions on two Houthi military leaders for orchestrating terrorist strikes inside and outside Yemen. 

Yemeni Minister of Information Muammar Al-Eryani described the US decision as a “right step” on the path to punishing the Houthi group for rejecting peace ideas and launching deadly attacks on civilians across Yemen and in Saudi Arabia.


Lebanon’s president wants investigation into currency crash

Updated 03 March 2021

Lebanon’s president wants investigation into currency crash

  • While officially, the US dollar costs only 1,520 Lebanese pounds, the black market price was around 9,900 pounds on Wednesday
  • Just a few months earlier dollars could be bought at a rate of some 7,000 pounds

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president ordered the central bank governor on Wednesday to open an investigation into currency speculation, after the Lebanese pound plunged to record lows on the black market this week, leading to protests in the stricken country.
The request by President Michel Aoun came after the country’s banks were required to raise their capital holdings by Feb. 28, and local media reported that some had to scramble to get hard currency from the black market, sending demand for it — and its prices — surging.
While officially, the US dollar costs only 1,520 Lebanese pounds, the black market price was around 9,900 pounds on Wednesday — a day after briefly hitting a record high of 10,000. Just a few months earlier dollars could be bought at a rate of some 7,000 pounds.
In a statement released by his office after meeeting central bank governor Riad Salameh, Aoun said if it turns out that the crash was because of speculators, they should face justice. Enraged protesters, angry over the higher costs of dollar denominated goods, have blocked roads and highways with burning tires across the country.
Lebanon’s banking association denied it was responsible for the situation, blaming instead a lingering political implasse, pileups of unpaid state contracts, and houshold dollar hoarding.
Bickering between Lebanon’s political rivals has left the country in a stalemate for months, only worsening the economic disaster sparked by a debt crisis and soverign default last year. Disagreements between Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri have delayed the formation of the government for more than four months.
Lebanon has been hit by one crisis after another, with widespread protests against the country’s corrupt political class breaking out in October 2019. That has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and a massive blast in Beirut’s port last August that decimated the facility.
The country desparately needs foreign currency, but international donors want major anti-corruption reforms first, lest the funds disappear into a notorious state sector sinkhole that has brought the nation to the brink of bankruptcy.
The crisis has driven nearly half the population of the small country of 6 million into poverty. Over 1 million refugees from Syria live in Lebanon.