Najib Saad 14/11/2016

Even if all conflicts and wars were to stop immediately, the Arab region cannot meet the target of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 using traditional methods. Many Arab countries have experienced collapse at gigantic scale over the past years, which has largely reduced their hopes to no more than re-establishing the status quo which prevailed in 2010, rather than achieving the SDGs by 2030. This is the main finding of a recent report published by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development.

Entitled “Sustainable Development in a Changing Arab Climate,” the report recommends an alternative approach, based on integrating sustainable development principles within the anticipated rebuilding efforts. It calls upon local, regional and international aid organizations not to limit their scope to providing safety and basic necessities to those affected, but rather to use the relief plans as a launch pad for promoting new approaches to development, rooted in a transition to a green economy.

This report builds on the previous eight reports on the state of Arab environment produced since 2008 by AFED, which have so far addressed major issues including water, food security, energy, the green economy, ecological footprints, sustainable consumption, and climate change. The report highlights the policy options available for the Arab countries to realize the Sustainable Development Goals by the 2030 target set by the United Nations, in light of the new political, economic and social developments.

Realizing the SDGs by the 2030 target demands setting the right policy options, based on basic principles: The first is that effective implementation requires deploying local knowledge based on an understanding that is relevant to a particular place and time, while utilizing generalized knowledge. The second is about advancing effective participation of non-state sectors, homegrown science, capacity building and job creation. The third is about partnerships for development, matching foreign aid by local action through reforms in subsidies, tax collection practices and involvement of regional and national development funds. The fourth is that governments need to adopt a cross-sectoral approach to sustainable development, mainly by the integration of climate change considerations in the implementation of the SDGs, based on the water-energy-food nexus.

We believe that to achieve sustainable development, Arab countries need to address a series of challenges, dominated by political turmoil, peace and security. The impacts of climate change aggravate the scarcity of water, energy and arable land, which in turn compromises food security.

Unsustainable consumption and production patterns, as a result of extreme demographic changes, rising urbanization, changing lifestyles and the heavy subsidies of energy and water, pose another impediment. Population growth of about 2.2 percent represents a major driving force for high demand on limited natural resources.

At a poverty line of $2.75 per capita per day, the poverty rate in the Arab region would be 40 percent, combined with over 50 million undernourished people. To tackle this challenge, AFED report recommends policy options including improving crop and water productivity, recycling and use of treated wastewater, minimizing the high level of post-harvest losses, developing other high-quality sources of proteins such as fisheries, considering the concept of virtual water in national planning to foster cross-border cooperation, and regional cooperation based on the comparative advantage in agricultural and financial resources of different countries.

To achieve water-related goals, national water strategies should include making shifts in water allocation among different sectors based on the concept of integrated water resources management. AFED endorses new pricing policies using progressive tariffs, regulation of groundwater abstraction, strict water-demand management and improving the performance of the agriculture sector.

Energy efficiency and renewable energy are crucial factors contributing to achieving the SDGs. Indiscriminate subsidies have been so far impeding a fast shift, a trend which recently started to be reversed, with many Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, embarking on phasing out subsidies and placing price on nature services. Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia, the Green Economy Strategy in the UAE and Morocco’s daring target of 52 percent of the energy mix by 2030 are shining examples of a major shift. While AFED lauds such changes, the report notes that in many cases they came sharp and too late, causing a hard impact and resentment.

Earlier steps to diversify the economy would have prepared for soft landing to a green economy, leading to a shift from a “virtual economy” based on speculation in real estate and money markets, to a “real economy” based on sustainable production with added value. A productive economy which invests wisely in the natural capital can also create new jobs and support social enterprise development.

A pivotal message the AFED report sends to Arab governments is to adapt wholeheartedly to the international climate regime and build national capacities to deal with different aspects of the climate change threats. No action in the climate issue cannot be an option anymore. Arab countries should embrace regional cooperation to adapt to the potential climate risks, especially those related to drought, sea-level rise and health. As the Paris Climate Pact went into force, adhering to the rules would put Arab countries in a position to grasp the opportunities to attract climate finance and climate technology transfer.

The foremost priority is to achieve peace, security and stability; otherwise the Arab region will be doomed to perpetual chaos. When rebuilding starts, achieving and maintaining the SDGs requires genuine investment in people-centered development. This fosters integration of human rights, including the right to development, and the principles of genuine public participation, accountability and transparency into the development agenda.