Akram Miknas

In too many parts of the Arab world, we are so busy killing each other that we’re hardly aware of the most serious threats our region faces.

War is capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people, yet the challenges I’m thinking of could make this region impossible to live in for anyone.

Saudi Arabia is halting its production of wheat after more than four-fifths of its aquifer reserves ran dry. A similar story can be told about groundwater reserves across the whole region. For the average Saudi or Emirati, this news might seem like a minor annoyance – agricultural produce will simply cost a little more to import.

But put yourself in the shoes of the Yemeni farmer whose wells have run dry. For many Yemenis, the threats of starvation or dehydration are far more immediate and terrifying than the risks from militias and terrorism.

Even before the Yemeni state collapsed in 2011, humanitarian experts were warning that the country was rapidly running out of oil, water and fertile land; while dwindling state revenues were being devoured by corrupt leaders faster than they could arrive in the government’s coffers.

In the arid desert region we live in, it is all too easy to imagine the taps running dry and desertification eroding agricultural land which only remained fertile through constant effort and heavy irrigation under the unforgiving rays of the sun.

But what if our oil was to run out?

Oil is the reason why in the Gulf all problems can be solved by throwing money at them. The deserts can triumphantly be made to bloom; but only when governments subsidize this activity so heavily that we don’t realize that the real cost of producing milk on this land may be ten times what it would cost to import.

We live and work in glass buildings consuming thousands of kilowatts of energy for air conditioning, so that we neither know nor care that we have constructed some of the most inefficient designs imaginable for resisting the sun’s heat. However, in Bahrain and other GCC states, the phasing out of energy subsidies have seen electricity costs double and then double again in a couple of years.

This sudden leap in energy costs causes me to realize that there’s a consequence to leaving my air conditioning on full with all the house doors and windows open. Perhaps in the future we may think twice about investing in a Toyota Land Cruiser when there are cars that are five or ten times more fuel efficient.

Dubai, Bahrain and other locations consumed most of their oil reserves in just a few decades. We know not whether the remaining reserves in the region will last 50 years, or 200 years, but the one certainty is that one day these wells will run dry. Wasteful consumption brings this day even closer. Meanwhile the burning of these fuels pollutes our atmosphere and causes the climate to be more extreme and more unfavourable to agriculture.

My grandchildren – or perhaps my great-grandchildren – may ultimately face a scenario where not only has the water run out, but so have the oil revenues which allow all the benefits of the modern world to flow into this region. All they will be left with will be the unforgiving sun’s rays and infertile desert sands.

Often, when the conversation turns to such sobering issues, someone exclaims: Why aren’t our useless governments planning ahead for such scenarios?

In fact, the region’s governments are quietly doing an impressive amount to invest in renewable energy. Even the phasing out of subsidies is partly calculated to encourage a less wasteful culture. However, at root, what is needed is a cultural and social change where we manage the resources remaining under our soil with care and respect; while using our entrepreneurial skills to make our economies more dynamic and efficient and no longer entirely beholden to prices of oil.

We are obsessed with security threats and trivial national rivalries, yet ultimately we are doing a better job of destroying ourselves, than any other outside forces.

Aleppo, Benghazi and Mosul today are bullet-ridden piles of rubble; yet even if it takes twenty or fifty years, they will be rebuilt.

Yet in vast areas of Yemen, every last drop of water has already been consumed and the plants have turned to dust and the scorching air sucks every drop of moisture out of every living being. We cannot simply rebuild an environment when it has collapsed.

We forget that the cities, farmland, football fields and infrastructure all around us today are mostly built on land that was once sand and desert scrub. The cities of Dubai, Riyadh, Manama and Doha are truly miraculous achievements which arose triumphantly out of nothing within a few decades.

Yet if we fail to value the natural riches which underpinned these marvels, and we fail to live within the bounds of what our environment can bear – then, from the dust we came and to the dust we shall return.

Akram Miknas is Chairman of PROMOSEVEN HOLDINGS and Arab Forum for Environment ad Development (AFED) Board Member