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Faltering ecology in the Arab region
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 05 - 2006

The Arab world is not yet doing enough to confront major ecological challenges, writes Mohamed El Ashry*
The Arab region, which at one time led the world in science, mathematics and literature, now faces unique development and environment challenges. Despite some improvements over the past decade, future generations in the region will continue to face serious environmental problems unless significant attention is given, and investments are made, to reverse the current state of environmental degradation, particularly with regard to water scarcity, pollution and health problems, and weak environmental institutions and legal frameworks.
Environmental and natural resource problems are dictated by the region's geography and its arid and semi-arid climate. As a result, the distribution of water resources and arable land has led to a concentration of about 250 million people in the coastal zones and river valleys. This phenomenon, along with a corresponding concentration of industry, agriculture and transport activities, has created unique and complex environmental management problems. The pressures on the resource base are exacerbated by demands from relatively high population growth rates and continued migration from rural areas to increasingly crowded urban centres.
Region-wide, there is a dichotomy of development. Levels of education, health, population growth and environmental degradation indicate that countries of the region are less developed than a glance at their economies and infrastructure would imply. Across and within countries, differences in income and opportunities are striking. These "development gaps" are complicated by enormous contrasts in economic and resource conditions of the region's countries. Some countries have major oil resources and attract labour from other parts of the region; others have abundant populations, limited natural resources, and are labour exporters. Some lower income countries are limited both in government institutions and human resources. Common to all countries of the region, however, is an evident need for the strengthening of institutions, particularly those concerned with integrating environmental protection and natural resource management issues into the overall development process. Stronger institutions are imperative if a successful transition to balance and sustainable development is to be achieved throughout the Arab region.
In one way or another, the major environmental issues facing the region revolve around the reduced quantities of water available for human consumption and severe water quality issues emerging from limited supply, inadequate municipal treatment, high agricultural runoff, and uncontrolled effluents from industry.
Today, average per capita water availability in the region is about 1,200 cubic metres per year (world average is about 7,000). According to the World Bank, annual water resources per capita are expected to fall to 740 cubic metres per year by 2015. Despite growing urban populations, almost 90 per cent of the region's water resources are allocated to the agriculture sector, with only 7 per cent going towards domestic consumption.
While conventional water availability remains relatively constant, demand is increasing sharply as a result of population growth and irrigation development. To meet this increasing demand, groundwater -- the main source of water in many countries -- is being extracted beyond its renewal rate in parts of the region. In coastal North Africa, excessive pumping of groundwater has resulted in the contamination of aquifers with seawater.
Degraded water quality further reduces the availability of fresh water for domestic and agricultural use and increases the cost of the treatment and reuse of water. Less than 15 per cent of the total wastewater generated in the region is adequately treated. Other sources of water pollution include agricultural runoff from the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers and industrial discharges of heavy metals and toxic substances.
Despite some progress, 45 million people still live without access to safe water and 85 million people -- about 30 per cent of the region's population -- live without access to proper sanitation.
The region is also suffering from the loss of arable land and increased coastal degradation. Permanent cropland, currently less than six per cent of the total area, is shrinking due to land degradation. The cumulative impact of land degradation is estimated to have reached $1.15 billion per year in lost agricultural production. Lack of integrated coastal zone management is exacerbating competition over land and marine resources. The World Bank estimates that the region is losing about $1.2 billion a year in tourism revenues due to coastal zone degradation and the discharge of wastewater into coastal seas.
Pollution related health problems, particularly in urban and industrial centres, represent another major environmental challenge. Sources include open municipal waste dumps, open burning of municipal waste, an aging and poorly maintained vehicle fleet, inefficient use of fossil fuels for power generation and in industry, and sulphur oxide emissions from industry.
Concentration of industry around major urban centres accounts for a large part of urban air pollution in the region. Cairo and Alexandria, for example, account for about 95 per cent of industrial pollution in Egypt. The same situation can be found in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
Environmental problems in the region are not abstract issues that only -- as once was argued -- the rich can afford to address. These long-lasting challenges have significant impacts on the economy and on human health. As estimated in the National Environmental Action Plans of countries in the region, the annual cost of environmental damages ranges from 4-9 per cent of GDP for certain countries (Algeria, 9.6 per cent; Morocco, eight per cent; Syria, seven per cent; and Lebanon, six per cent). These costs are higher than those for Eastern Europe (five per cent) and substantially higher than those of OECD countries (2-3 per cent). Overall, it is estimated that the environmental health burden is about 15 per cent of the total health burden in the region.
Slow progress in improving environmental quality and pursuing sustainable development in the Arab region is routed in policy and institutional failures, coupled with a lack of public awareness and a poor knowledge base. In many countries, public access to environmental information has not advanced. Water subsidies, especially in irrigation, continue to be a major stumbling block for many countries. Similarly, energy subsidies prevail.
Development strategies can only be sustained when countries integrate environmental issues and actions into plans and policies. Arab countries should also remove the perverse incentives embodied in subsidies and price interventions, which tend to exacerbate economic and ecological losses, particularly in the energy and agricultural sectors.
The liberalisation of investment can also provide substantial environmental benefits by promoting competition, specialisation and improving access to environmentally benign technologies. This is particularly relevant where much of the industry concentrated around urban centres in the Arab region is public sector and operating with outmoded and highly polluting technologies. Tunisia's problem with phosphates in water supplies, Algeria's problems with mercury pollution and Egypt's problem with cement dust are all associated with public ownership. Increased competition and investment in environmentally benign technologies could make significant reductions in these countries' industrial air and water pollution problems.
In many cases, these policy reforms must be complemented by targeted measures to break the negative link between economic development and environmental degradation. Taxes or direct government regulations can be directed at specific resource- users to force full accounting of the environmental costs of their behaviour.
Central to achieving environmentally sound and sustainable development is building-up institutional and technical capacity for choosing, applying and adapting suitable technologies for energy and transport, and in industrial and agricultural production. There is also a need to support the establishment of a network of first-rate research and training centres in Arab countries. One objective would be to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and develop a strong in-country capacity for science and technology and improvements in natural resource management. Such centres would also allow countries to better assess the regional implications of global change and enable them to participate more effectively in international discussions and negotiations on the global environment.
Scientific knowledge should underlie the articulation of sustainable development goals through scientific assessments of current situations and future prospects for the environment in the Arab region. Such assessments should be also used to inform the development of alternative strategies for long-term policy formulation. Science and technology research and development should provide for improvements in the efficiency of resource use, including more efficient utilisation of energy in agriculture, industry and transportation, and the development of renewable energy sources, especially solar energy.
Responding to these complex and interconnected challenges of sustainable development will also require increased regional cooperation. Economic cooperation among countries tends to reduce tensions, thereby simultaneously enabling countries to redirect resources to development, promoting a more favourable economic environment, and undercutting instability. Cooperation in trade enlarges the market and allows gains from economies of scale and from the adoption of new technologies. Some infrastructural and environmental projects, which hold the promise of contributing to economic prosperity, can only be implemented in a regional context.
The beginning of the 21st century is an opportune time for an "Arab agenda" on sustainable development and environment and a regional pact that pools resources for action on economic, environmental and social challenges. In such a pact and the cooperative development it suggests lies the long-term stability, prosperity and security of the Arab region.
* The writer is the former chief executive officer of the Global Environment Facility.
Egypt's Mohamed El Ashry : UNEP Champion of the Earth 2006
Mohamed El Ashry is one of seven 'green' leaders named the 2006 Champions of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The winners were honoured on 21 April at a gala event in Singapore.
The awards, presented for the second time, "recognize prominent and inspirational environmental leaders from each region of the world. Through leadership, vision and creativity, each Champion has made an impact at the policy level.
Mohamed El-Ashry, a champion for the wise use of natural resources, is the former head of the multi-billion Global Environment Facility which helps developing countries onto the sustainable development path."
"Beyond" extends its warm congratulations to Mohamed El Ashry for this prestigious award.


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