Sustainability in an increasingly energy-hungry region

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The recent refugee crisis and the rising pace of urbanization processes has placed an immense load on already-strained infrastructures across the MENA region.

Arab countries are not only vulnerable to climate change, but also barely coping with poverty, migration and the overpopulation of urban areas.

According to a report released in March by the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD), Masdar, the University of Cambridge and PricewaterhouseCoopers, a $48 trillion investment is needed in energy infrastructure to meet growing demand over the next decades.

Growing energy needs

More than 50 percent of the Arab world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that has more than quadrupled between 1990 and 2010 and is expected to reach 75 percent by 2050, according to the United Nations. By that same year, the climate patterns predicted for the region are expected to reduce water supplies by 20-30 percent in most MENA countries.

A panel at Harvard Arab Weekend, which took place at Harvard University earlier this month, addressed important initiatives tackling a lagging energy infrastructure in MENA. The panelists provided examples of cities that have been successful in tackling these challenges through new technologies, innovative business models or public-private partnerships.

“The main challenge is changing the behavior of the people, whether the local community, the local municipalities or private sector,” says Radwa Rostom, founder of Hand Over, a startup providing sustainable, affordable and resilient housing solutions.

Radwa Rostom, founder of Hand Over, speaking at Harvard Arab Weekend. (Images via Harvard Arab Weekend)

Rostom believes people often consider sustainability and climate change a lesser priority.

“Another challenge is the lack of policies and regulations to promote sustainability actions in all fields and enforce industries to respect such approaches,” she says.

A possible solution, she says, requires a stronger collaboration between public and private sector, NGOs and social enterprises. 

The cost and opportunity in informal settlements

Weak governance has allowed for the proliferation of informal settlements across MENA’s biggest cities. That makes the task of enforcing building regulations and monitoring urban changes even more difficult.

Cairo is an example of this growth. At least two thirds of the city’s population live in unplanned areas built after the 1950s. Mostly devoid of planning or control, such areas are relfected in Alaa Al-Aswany’s narrative description of this phenomenon in his book The Yacoubian Building.

But informal settlements can also present many opportunities. In some cases, instead of being seen as an obstacle, they have slowly become a space where the creativity and resourcefulness of local entrepreneurs has flourished, becoming golden opportunities to experiment.

Several organizations in cities across the Arab region, like Beirut, Abu Dhabi or Cairo, have taken timid steps towards improving their sustainable urban areas.

Rostom’s startup is itself an example of this. In 2015, Hand Over rebuilt two housing units in an informal settlement in Abu-Qarn district in Masr Eladima. “We collaborated with a group of experts to discuss sustainable techniques of construction, intercultural training, project management and environmental design, and partnered up with a local initiative,” Rostom said.

Currently, Hand Over is collaborating with an initiative called Catherine Exists to build a community center for a village called Al-Tarfa in Saint Catherine, Sinai in Egypt. Another project is an open space for the local residents in Stabl Antar in Cairo, in collaboration with Open Architecture Collaborative's chapter in Cairo. They are also working with a Lebanese partner and NGO to design and build a sustainable shelter unit for refugee camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa area.

Opportunity in government

Stephen Severance, head of program management and marketing at UAE’s Masdar, is confident the region is moving towards better times as stakeholders recognize the need to shift towards clean and smart solutions for the Arab urbanization.

“We are witnessing an overall growth in the industry and a greater focus on sustainability in the Middle East and Africa. This trend is led by the governments, corporations, but especially entrepreneurs, who are also critical part of this growth,” he said.

Masdar designed Masdar City, a planned city project that relies on renewable energy sources, largely built with seed funding from the Abu Dhabi government. The City’s cleantech hub is attracting local and expatriate entrepreneurs in sustainable industries.

“There is some significant interest from local entrepreneurs, who are receiving increasing support from governments and business in terms of technical and business training,” he said.

“The key [to success] is networking with the major centers of innovation and identifying both key emerging technologies and the most promising local clean tech startups, as well as establishing synergies between capital, industry expertise and local talent to make it easier for local businesses in sustainability to access this innovation ecosystem,” Severance added.

Winners of the Harvard Arab Weekend startup competition, change:WATER Labs.

Startup pitch competition

The entrepreneurship initiative in the field of sustainable urban planning was also particularly evident at this year’s Harvard Arab Weekend startup pitch competition. The Samih Darwazah Prize of Entrepreneurship and Excellence Award worth $25,000 was given to change:WATER Labs, Inc., a for-profit social venture commercializing smarter solutions for non-sewered households and vulnerable families to access safe, dignified sanitation.

Sewage management in many emerging markets is increasingly widespread problem, requiring radical, decentralized solutions that are sustainable and low-cost. Change:WATER is creating disruptive yet frugal “off-line” sanitation solutions by leveraging technology that rapidly shrinks daily sewage accumulations onsite.

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