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Confronting Environmental Challenges in the GCC: The Initiatives at Play

BY Sophie Smith



Confronting Environmental Challenges in the GCC: The Initiatives at Play

Climate change has steadily moved to the forefront of the global agenda with sea levels and temperatures set to rise while extreme weather events become more frequent. This has exposed a host of environmental challenges, ranging from water scarcity and land degradation to biodiversity loss. The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impact of climate change given their geographical location in the Arabian Desert, which consists of arid land and low levels of freshwater with meagre precipitation levels (90 mm a year on average) and high temperatures (reaching nearly 50 degrees during summers).[i]

This vulnerability has increased with the exploitation of vast amounts of oil reserves that has fuelled rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, combined with population growth. By 2050, the GCC population is expected to grow by additional 6 million, reaching 64 million people.[ii] Such trends have driven climate change, leaving numerous environmental challenges. Indeed, supplies of limited resources, such as water, are declining as demand grows; by 2050, for example, freshwater consumption is predicted to rise to 33.7 billion cubic metres, surpassing future storage level by nearly 8 billion cubic meters in the GCC.[iii] Additionally, air pollution is a rising challenge with carbon emissions averaging 23 tonnes per person in the Gulf, compared to an average of 7 tonnes per person in Europe.[iv] Cities, communities and infrastructure located along the coast, in particular, are vulnerable to climate change as sea levels are predicted to rise by 0.5 metres by 2100, leaving low-lying coastal areas in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE particularly vulnerable.[v] This will certainly harm biodiversity and human health with the increased possibility of heat- and air-related illnesses as temperatures and pollution levels grow. These impacts also spillover into the economy as productivity is likely to fall, reducing economic growth and development.

Faced with such consequences, the GCC states are motivated to tackle environmental challenges and have earmarked several initiatives to do so. In fact, each GCC state incorporated confronting environmental challenges into its economic development plans to diversify economic life away from hydrocarbons and embark on more sustainable paths. This includes investments in water, agriculture and energy technologies, as well as taking part in regional and international initiatives, notably the 2015 Paris Accords, the 2005 Kyoto Protocol and the 1995 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Environmental Challenges and Initiatives in the GCC

The following section presents an overview of the most pressing environmental challenges facing each GCC country and some of the most significant, recent initiatives adopted to counter them.

1. Bahrain

Bahrain is a small island state with flatlands and a high population density. Its primary environmental challenge is water scarcity — Bahrain has no rivers or lakes and, lacking freshwater, relies heavily on groundwater and desalination.[vi] This reliance on groundwater has led to the overexploitation of the Dammam aquifer, Bahrain’s main natural source of freshwater, which has registered a decline in the water level and quality.[vii] The dependence on desalination poses problems as well, notably due to the release of highly concentrated brine into the sea, which harms marine environment, and associated CO2 emissions.[viii] Such issues are further exacerbated by the rising temperatures and sea levels, coupled with high industrialisation and population growth (from 115,000 in 1950 to the projected 2.3 million in 2050), which drive up demand to access the evermore limited resources.[ix] Indeed, Bahrain is likely to suffer a water crisis by 2040 as the per capita share of natural water has already decreased by 74 percent since the 1980s to levels well below the acute water poverty line.[x] Another environmental challenge — air pollution — is linked to the Kingdom’s rapid economic development, predominantly emanating from the transportation and industry sectors and power generation and transmission, which depreciated air quality to levels 7 times higher than considered safe.[xi] In tandem, the exploitation of land resources, notably for agriculture purposes, is a further concern as arable land remains around 2 percent of the total land area.[xii] Growing population demands, coupled with the degradation of underground water, air and soil quality, has placed agriculture under increasing strain, potentially jeopardising food security. A fourth key challenge involves the marine and coastal environment, which is under threat from rising sea levels and pollution, which also threatens local biodiversity. Indeed, between 27 and 56 percent of Bahrain could be underwater by 2100.[xiii] The shrinking of liveable space would lead to some significant changes, considering that currently over 90 percent of the Kingdom’s population is located on the coast, and the number of people is set to increase.

Recognising the importance of confronting environmental challenges, the government formed the Commission for the Protection of Marine Resources, Environment & Wildlife was formed to draft and implement the 2002 National Environment Strategy.[xiv] The Kingdom established a Water Resources Council to conserve and develop sustainable water usage and, in 2018, it adopted the National Water Strategy 2030 to improve the efficiency of water management.[xv] One initiative corresponding to this is the Muharraq wastewater treatment plant, which is part of the Kingdom’s wastewater privatisation programme to meet increasing water demands while improving the efficiency of water management.[xvi] In conjunction, Bahrain’s agriculture sector has increased its use of horticulture – a more sustainable type of agriculture that requires less land and water – to address related resource challenges.[xvii] Moreover, on the issue of the marine ecosystem, Bahrain announced a ban on plastic bags in 2019 to reduce plastic waste on the coast and in the sea, protecting species.[xviii] In tandem, the country is investing in renewable energy sources to reduce air pollution, as well as its reliance on hydrocarbons. This includes investments in solar energy, such as the recently inaugurated Solartecc Green Energy Factory, the second solar panel factory in Bahrain, to achieve the goal of renewable energy covering 5 percent of the country’s energy mix in 2025.[xix] Such initiatives have increased the production of renewable energy from 2011 to 2018 — although only by 8 GWh to date.[xx]

2. Kuwait

Kuwait is a coastal country, one of the most urbanised countries globally with roughly a 100 percent of the population living in urban areas.[xxi] One of the most pressing challenges is water scarcity as supplies struggle to meet rising demands with very limited quantities of freshwater, depletion of the groundwater resources, high risks of water pollution and a reliance on desalination. Indeed, by 2050, Kuwait is likely to face a freshwater shortage as average consumption is expected to exceed storage capacities by 381 million cubic metres per year.[xxii] Similarly, marine ecosystems are under threat by increased sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification and water salinity, all of which disturb the habitats and survival of species. To date, there are already 72 species that face the threat of extinction – a number likely to rise.[xxiii] Simultaneously, the vulnerability of the low-lying coastal area is a concern with rising sea levels that could see Kuwait lose between 1.4 and 3 percent of its coastal territory, threatening critical infrastructure and private properties as 90 percent of the population is located near the coast.[xxiv] This is slightly aligned with the Kuwaiti public view, which sees issues related to pollution of the seas, beaches and lakes; water resources; and waste management as the country’s three most pressing environmental challenges.[xxv]

Kuwait’s experience with the oil fires in 1991 when retreating Iraqi forces set fire to numerous Kuwaiti oil fields, causing significant long-term environmental damage, played role in raising awareness about environmental challenges in the country. The Kuwaiti oil fires produced the same amount of CO2 emissions as South Africa with 59 million people in 2019.[xxvi] However, Kuwait only recently launched its National Adaptation Plan in 2019 to redress climate change.[xxvii] The State has invested in renewable energy to support its target of increasing renewable energies to 15 percent of its total energy mix by 2030 and thus reduce its carbon emissions; this includes the Al-Shagaya Renewable Energy Park, which, once complete, will save 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through solar power.[xxviii] Kuwait has equally invested in wind energy, including the Shagaya Wind Project, being the largest Gulf producer of wind energy at 18 GWh in 2018.[xxix] Indeed, the country has gradually increased its renewable energy production by 88 GWh since 2011.[xxx] Similarly, new power plants, such as the Al-Zour International Refinery, have adopted environmental standards to improve air quality by limiting sulphur oxide emissions.[xxxi] On water scarcity, in particular, the country has developed floating monitoring stations to gauge the water quality and the marine environment, enabling authorities to better deal with pollution incidents.[xxxii] Kuwait is also developing the Umm Al Hayman Wastewater Project – one of the world’s largest projects treating sewage wastewater – to save water by reusing wastewater for irrigation and is also working to improve the efficiency of the desalination industry through water-saving technology.[xxxiii] On top of these initiatives, Kuwait is attempting to increase environmental awareness through the online environmental portal, Beatona, which provides updates on environmental projects and scientific data in a user-friendly manner.[xxxiv]

3. Oman

Oman is home to a diverse environment with mountains, deserts and a 2,000 km coastline, the second longest among the GCC countries.[xxxv] Like its GCC counterparts, the Sultanate faces the challenge of limited water resources, making it heavily reliant on groundwater, as freshwater consumption is expected to exceed future annual storage capacity by 564 million cubic metres in 2050.[xxxvi] A similar challenge exists in the sustainability of agriculture as the irrigation of crops requires high quality water, which is threatened by rising sea levels that limit the quality of water and the amount of available arable land. Around 95 percent of Oman’s land is facing moderate desertification.[xxxvii] A further concern is the vulnerability of urban infrastructure to sea-level rises and flooding as circa 80 percent of the population live in low-lying areas near the coast. Flooding has already increased 10-fold in the urban, at-risk areas between 1960 to 2010, and the inundated land from sea level rises is estimated to reach between 385 and 929 square kilometres by 2100.[xxxviii] In tandem, marine biodiversity is also under threat with the change of the Arabian Sea’s physical and chemical composition, endangering also fisheries, an important economic sector. For example, by 2100, the amount of yellowfin tuna – critical to the Sultanate’s fish industry – is estimated to decline between 28 and 65 percent.[xxxix]

To mitigate the impact of these challenges, Oman has been engaging with environmental issues since 1974 when it established a government body dedicated to environmental preservation. Since then, it has embarked on several projects, recently in line with its economic development plan, Vision 2040. This involves investing in renewable energy as the country has launched several solar power facilities, including the 100 MW Amin solar farm, the country’s biggest solar plant, and 11 solar-diesel hybrid projects.[xl] Moreover, in 2017, the ‘Sahim’ initiative was launched for households and businesses to install solar panels.[xli] Oman is also pursuing wind energy, establishing for example the Dhofar Wind Power Project, the first large-scale wind farm in the GCC which increased the country’s production of renewable energies – although it remains low at 16 GWh in 2018.[xlii] On the issue of biodiversity, Oman has implemented a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan to conserve its biodiversity and marine environment.[xliii] Building upon this, the Environment Society of Oman, a civil society group, has been founded to protect the marine ecosystem, having launched several marine conservation initiatives, including organising clean-ups.[xliv] Similarly, regarding water security, Oman adopted several water-related initiatives for the sustainable development, management and conservation of water resources. For instance, most recently, it has announced a reduction in water subsides from 2021 to reduce inefficient water usage.[xlv]

4. Qatar

Qatar is a small state located on a mini peninsula, characterised by flatlands with more than 560 km of coastline of its roughly 625 km boundary length.[xlvi] Water scarcity is a dominating environmental challenge as limited freshwater resources — leaving it reliant on desalination – are threatened primarily by climate change. The country has one of the world’s highest per capita water consumption rates at over 500 litres per person per day, which puts it at risk of a water crisis.[xlvii] Moreover, biodiversity loss, in particular of marine species, presents another concern; Qatar hosts a variety of species: around 995 marine species have been identified, and at least 26 of these face the threat of extinction, predominantly as a result of oil and gas industry activities.[xlviii] A third environmental challenge is land degradation as industrialisation and population growth lead to over-irrigation. The population has grown more than three-fold since 2000, which, in conjunction with ever harsher climate, degrades the quality of soil and land utility.[xlix] This damages food production, livelihoods and ecosystems as Qatar’s arable land as a percentage of total area remains limited at 1.2 percent in 2016.[l] In tandem, air pollution is an increasing issue for Qatar, which has the highest carbon emission rate per capita in the world and unsafe air quality levels, exceeding the recommended level of a key air quality indicator by 9 times.[li]

In accordance, Qatar’s National Vision 2030 has listed environmental development as one of its key pillars after initially acknowledging the issue of climate change with the ratification of the UNFCCC in 1996. To reach its goal of increasing renewable energies to 20 percent of the national energy mix by 2030, the country has launched Msheireb, a low-carbon city project, that focuses on sustainability and green buildings to cut energy consumption.[lii] Moreover, it has engaged in reducing gas flaring, which accounts for 12 percent of total emissions; for example, Al-Shaheen field’s gas gathering system captures gas and turns it into renewable energy as the world’s largest clean development mechanism project.[liii] Qatar has also invested in a carbon storage plant that intends to capture over five million tonnes of CO2 annually from the LNG industry by 2025.[liv] In tandem, the country is developing the Al Kharsaah solar power station, which is designed to reduce CO2 emissions by 26 million tonnes.[lv] This comes as it will be the first country to host a carbon neutral FIFA World Cup in 2022 through solar-powered stadiums and other water and energy-saving technology.[lvi] Besides investing in renewable energy, the Ministry of Municipality and Environment has launched initiatives to counter land degradation, such as planting one million trees.[lvii] On the issue of water scarcity specifically, Qatar General Electricity and Water Corporation have embarked on the Mega Reservoirs Project to address rising water demands, as well as is investing in recycled water.[lviii] Qatar hopes to recycle 100 percent of the treated wastewater in Doha.[lix]

5. Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is the largest GCC country, accounting for 59 percent of the GCC population.[lx] As a result of its desert climate and human-induced emissions, notably from the petrochemical and hydrocarbon sectors, leading its air quality to depreciate by nearly 9 times safe levels, pollution features high on the government’s environmental priority list.[lxi] Saudi Arabia accounts for 1.6% of the world’s CO2 emissions, similarly as Canada and less than Germany.[lxii] As in the other GCC countries, water scarcity is a major issue in Saudi Arabia, which has less than one fifth of the absolute water scarcity level of 500 m3 per capita. Despite that, Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest consumers of water per capita globally, with the demand growing by 7.5 percent every year, requiring significant investments into technological solutions to meet the demand.[lxiii] Similarly, waste management is another environmental issue that has resulted from population growth and industrialisation as the Kingdom generates more than 15 million tonnes of municipal waste yearly.[lxiv] The government has also emphasised the country’s vulnerability to desertification – aggravated by climate change and human activities – as 76 percent of its land is non-arable, with 38 percent being desert, threatening biodiversity and food production.[lxv]

The Kingdom acknowledged such challenges with the ratification of the UNFCCC in 1994, submitting its first National Communication in 2005. As part of its economic development plan, Vision 2030, the government seeks to counter environmental challenges through various initiatives, including generating 50 percent of the Kingdom’s electricity from renewables by 2030.[lxvi] To do so, the government launched NEOM, a smart, carbon-free city, which will include the world’s largest green hydrogen plant powered by wind and solar energy.[lxvii] Moreover, the country hosts the region’s largest wind farm, Dumat Al Jandal, which reduces CO2 emission by one million tonnes per year.[lxviii] Equally, Saudi Arabia is exploring nuclear energy as part of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy to account for growing energy demand, while reducing reliance on hydrocarbons.[lxix] On the issue of water consumption, the Qatrah programme has been implemented to reduce water usage by raising awareness and adopting more efficient water technology to reduce water consumption by 24 percent by 2022.[lxx] This includes removing water subsidies to encourage more sustainable consumption by its population.[lxxi] In conjunction, Riyadh seeks to shift towards a circular economy system and hopes to expand recycling by 42 percent to combat waste management issues; the country currently produces 53 million tons of waste every year, which is largely landfilled for very cheap.[lxxii] This comes alongside other recycling initiatives, including the state-owned energy giant, Saudi Aramco, which recycles industrial waste, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and costs.[lxxiii]

6. The United Arab Emirates

The UAE has a diverse environment composed of desert, mountain, coastal and wetland ecosystems with a rich biodiversity.[lxxiv] The country’s environmental challenges include water scarcity and increased likelihood of natural disasters, exacerbated by global warming, including flooding and droughts. The country is likely to face a freshwater shortage by 2050 as consumption is expected to exceed future storage capacity by 112 cubic metres per annum.[lxxv] A further challenge is the vulnerability of agriculture as temperatures are set to rise by 1.5 – 2 degrees by 2040 while the water quality is likely to fall, presenting a threat to the already low percentage of arable land at 0.6 percent in 2016.[lxxvi] Rising temperatures, stemming from the climate change, also boost the use of air conditioning, which in turn further contributes to global warming. Additionally, air pollution – predominantly emanating from cars and industrial plants – is a major concern as the UAE emitted circa 20 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2019, one of the highest in the world.[lxxvii] The UAE’s biodiversity is equally threatened with human activity and climate change that jeopardise the livelihood of species as 18 percent of reptiles and amphibians are vulnerable to or near extinction.[lxxviii] This applies, in particular, to fish as a result of overfishing, which has led to at least 13 species being harvested beyond sustainable levels.[lxxix]

The vulnerability of coastal areas represent a challenge as rising sea levels endanger developments and infrastructure along the coast; the UAE could lose up to 6 percent of its developed coastline by the end of the century – particularly concerning since almost 80 percent of the population live in coastal areas.[lxxx] A last issue is linked to waste management as the amount of generated waste has steadily increased – reaching 11 million tonnes in Abu Dhabi alone in 2019 – with economic and population growth; this further harms the environment as waste often generates significant quantities of methane.[lxxxi]

Given the host of challenges, the UAE became active in tackling climate change in the 1990s, participating in the preparatory meetings that led to the UNFCCC and is arguably the most active in targeting environmental issues in the GCC. The UAE has launched the National Climate Change Plan (2017-2050) to curb greenhouse gas emissions and increase climate resilience while sustaining economic growth.[lxxxii] As part of this strategy, the UAE has also released its Green Agenda 2015-2030, which acts as a framework for the green economy. This falls in line with its Energy Strategy 2050 that seeks to increase clean energy as part of the total energy mix to 50 percent by 2050 and improve consumption efficiency by 40 percent.[lxxxiii] To realise these goals, the UAE has invested in clean energy, including the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park and the Al Dhafra Solar Photovoltaic Project, two of the world’s largest solar power plants.[lxxxiv] Moreover, the UAE hosts the Middle East’s first clean coal power plant, Hassyan, set to operate at full capacity by 2023.[lxxxv] Last year, it started producing nuclear energy at the Barakah Nuclear Plant, which is expected to produce around 25 percent of the country’s electricity upon completion.[lxxxvi] On a larger scale, the UAE is also developing Masdar City, a low-carbon city based on sustainable development in Abu Dhabi.[lxxxvii] Indeed, such initiatives have increased its renewable energy production by 1291 GWh from 2012 to 2018, making it the largest GCC renewable energy producer.[lxxxviii] Moreover, to reduce the landfill and methane gas emissions, the country has invested in waste management; for example, the Dubai Municipality is developing the world’s largest waste-to-energy plant, which will treat around 60 percent of Dubai’s annual garbage production.[lxxxix] Besides, the UAE is also experimenting with new forms of agriculture, such as vertical farming, to produce higher yields using less space and water. For example, the Emirates Flight Catering vertical farm utilises 99 percent less water than outdoor fields.[xc] Moreover, the country is investing in water resource management through more efficient water technologies in agriculture and constructing additional desalination and wastewater treatment plants.[xci] And, in regard to biodiversity, the UAE has released a National Biodiversity Strategy to tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss by integrating biodiversity principles across all sectors and raising awareness.[xcii] In tandem, to protect fisheries, it has adopted, for example, the Sustainable Fisheries Programme to improve the sustainability of fishing.[xciii]

Charting a Way Forward

The GCC countries have come a long way in addressing climate change and the resulting environmental challenges. However, there still remains some way to go as the countries continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels. In this regard, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to re-establish and re-invigorate the relationship with the environment and place climate change at the top of the recovery agendas to lead the way for sustainable development. The upcoming UN Climate Summit (COP 26) hosted by the United Kingdom later this year can solidify this as the Gulf countries have the opportunity to establish new ambitious and comprehensive targets as part of their Nationally Determined Contributions, in conjunction with renewed international cooperation. In that regard, the new US Administration offers a glimpse of hope as it rejoined the Paris Agreement earlier this year and could reclaim the lead on reviving the global environmental agenda.

Such reengagement with the environment — and meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goal targets — could help mitigate the GCC’s environmental challenges and bring benefits to society as a whole. The benefits for the quality of life as human health will benefit from reduced levels of carbon emissions, as well as from strengthening water and food security with the adaptation of more efficient water-use strategies and resilient agricultural practices, are undeniable. At large, such actions would promote sustainable economic growth in line with ambitions to reduce the region’s over-reliance on hydrocarbons. However, ultimately, even if the Gulf countries manage to meet their goals and achieve carbon neutrality, these benefits can only be reaped if all countries around the world actively engage with environmental issues. Such challenges demand global efforts that can only be solved through collective responses.


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