September 20, 2012 01:18 AM
By Najib Saab

Measured by the increase in gross domestic product over the past 50 years, Arab countries did well, as average GDP per capita increased by about four-fold.

While this was reflected in a higher standard of living, it did not necessarily lead to a better quality of life, nor did it enhance the chances of sustainability. The same period witnessed a steady deterioration in the natural capital and environmental conditions, putting the region at the brink of ecosystems bankruptcy.

During the past 50 years, nature’s products and services available for residents of Arab countries decreased by more than half. According to a study prepared by the Global Footprint Network – as part of the Annual Report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development to be released at its annual conference in November 2012 in Beirut – the Arab region has been in a state of ecosystems deficit since 1979. That gap has been progressively widening.

The drop in Arab biocapacity (life-supporting resources such as water) was accompanied by a doubling in ecological footprint, and a decrease in freshwater availability to one-fourth during the same period.

The deficit in nature’s products and services is largely bridged by imports financed by oil exports and over-exploitation of finite local natural resources, with the associated deterioration in environmental conditions.

The AFED annual reports on the state of Arab environment have repeatedly warned since 2008 that the effect of climate change, high population growth rates and uncontrolled economic growth and urbanization amplify the region’s environmental challenges and constrain its ability to manage them.

Significant among those challenges are water scarcity, land degradation, inadequate waste management, coastal and marine environment degradation and air pollution.

AFED estimated the cost of environmental degradation in the Arab region at 5 percent of GDP, while budgetary allocations for environmental purposes do not even come close to one percent of GDP.

If all humans lived like the average Arab resident, 1.2 planets would be required. If they lived like an average resident of Qatar, 6.6 planets would be required to satisfy their level of consumption and emissions of carbon dioxide. By contrast, if everyone lived like an average Yemeni, humans would demand only half of the planet Earth.

But for many countries like Yemen, the average inhabitant’s footprint is small compared to the world average, and in many cases it is too small to meet basic food, shelter, health, and sanitation needs.

Therefore, the deficit cannot be bridged by reducing the demand for resources. To improve the quality of life, the actual per capita share of renewable natural resources must become more balanced and equitable across countries, accompanied by innovative resource management. In order to increase the footprint in countries where it’s needed requires a decrease in high-consuming countries.

It is obvious that regional averages mask huge internal disparities. While three Arab countries lead the global inventory of ecological footprint per capita, other countries in the region rank at the bottom of the list.

The average resident of Qatar, for example, has the highest ecological footprint in the world, at about 12 global hectares per capita, which is 13 times more than the ecological footprint of the average Yemeni. Biocapacity availability per person also varies greatly, with Sudan having nearly 10 times that of Iraq or Jordan.

The ecological deficit puts at risk future economic expansion and stability, and demands restructuring committed to match economic consumption with resource availability and the capacity to assimilate waste.

The Arab region has one of the greatest variations in ecological footprint, biocapacity and income. In order to pursue sustainable wellbeing for all residents in the region, attention should be given to more regional economic integration and cooperation and toward more Arab free trade, where the overflow of goods, capital and people works to benefit all countries in the region. Regional programs in scientific research geared toward development are key to achieving sustainable and prosperous economies for all, based on sound resource management.

One fundamental choice is to make good use of the present income from the region’s oil resources to build a science and technology base and a research and development infrastructure, which can help to extract and use resources efficiently and develop unconventional resources, as a strategy to secure survival and a decent quality of life.

The picture, though, is not completely gloomy. We have recently been witnessing several attempts to transfer the income from oil exports into technology- and knowledge-based economy. Those are demonstrated in multibillion-dollar initiatives such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and Masdar City and Institute in Abu Dhabi, dedicated to the development of new technologies in the energy, water and food production sectors.

Lessons in this regard can be learned from South Korea. In 50 years, the country was transformed ito a modern state, and grew into a major economy and regional power, accompanied by a high standard of living. A look at Korea makes it clear progress does not happen by chance. It is the result of planning and hard work. The capital Seoul hosts the Global Green Growth Institute, and the Korean president has a team of experts advising him on green growth.

Most unique about South Korea might be its Knowledge Economy Ministry, assigned the role of promoting science for development.

It is hoped that the work of high-profile multibillion-dollar Arab institutions will be translated to better public policy and less public relations.

Najib Saab is secretary-general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development. The text is based on a Keynote Address he delivered at the World Conference of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers, which convened last week in Seoul. (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 20, 2012, on page 5.

Read more:
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::