x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Take environment seriously or risk prosperity, experts tell firms

Businesses 'need to appreciate the full scope of the impacts of climate change and water scarcity on economic prosperity and business opportunity'.

ABU DHABI // Many businesses in the Middle East are putting economic prosperity at risk by not taking major threats to the environment seriously enough, climate experts warn. Water conservation, waste management and climate change are regarded as the top three environmental concerns in the region, a survey of 106 businesses revealed.

Yet 42 per cent of respondents in the online study, carried out in October, said they were "not really" addressing the issues, and 48 per cent said they were "not applicable". "Given current predictions for the region in relation to water scarcity and climate change, this is an alarming result," said the Sustainability Advisory Group (SAG), an international alliance of experts that conducted the survey.

"There is a significant amount of work ahead for public policy leaders and scientists to encourage businesses to appreciate the full scope of the impacts of climate change and water scarcity on economic prosperity and business opportunity," the group said. "The results could indicate that a number of regional businesses are not yet fully prepared to deal with the shifting business context." Dr Mohammed Raouf, the manager of the environment programme at the Gulf Research Centre, said he was not surprised by the survey data.

"The results represent the Middle East; the awareness of stakeholders here is not as high as in the West. The economic crisis is also affecting the situation," he said. He suggested that governments might consider economic incentives to encourage a shift towards better environmental practices among the region's business community. The survey targeted business decision-makers in a variety of fields including management consulting, banking, communications, construction, energy and real estate.

Almost 60 per cent of the businesses surveyed were based in the UAE, with the remainder from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, the Palestinian Authority and Qatar. A total of 30 per cent were multinational companies, 42 per cent were large national or regional firms, with the remainder being small or medium enterprises. Maria Sillanpaa, the founding director of SAG, said addressing water conservation, waste management and climate change required the involvement of all sectors of society.

"Obviously, these three issues are differently significant in different sectors," she said. "However, they now need to be considered as everybody's business if we are to tackle them effectively in the Middle East and elsewhere. "This is not only [important] for environmental conservation reasons, but also for managing the increasing direct and indirect costs associated with them." The UAE is one of the biggest per capita consumers of water, and one of the largest generators of waste, in the world.

In Abu Dhabi, groundwater reserves that can be accessed easily have been projected to run out within 20 to 40 years, according to the Abu Dhabi Water Master Plan, which was developed by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) last year. EAD's latest figures, from 2006, show groundwater makes up 71 per cent of total supply, followed by desalinated water at 24 per cent and treated wastewater at five per cent.

In addition, the desalination industry has been growing so rapidly that the amount of gas needed to power it is projected to exceed local supply levels by 2015. Meanwhile, most of the UAE's waste ends up in landfill sites where it emits large amounts of the greenhouse gas methane. Many of the sites are also leaching dangerous chemicals into the soil and groundwater. Climate change is forecast to cause the region to become hotter and drier over the next 25 years, further exacerbating water scarcity.

Gayatri Raghwa, an environmental education specialist at the EAD, said awareness of climate change was increasing in the emirate, albeit slowly. In August, the agency commissioned its own environmental survey Of the respondents, 21 per cent of companies said they had water-saving initiatives in place and 42 per cent had implemented power-saving policies. A total of 40 per cent were actively reducing office paper use, while 18 per cent had customer awareness initiatives focusing on environmental issues.

Both Dr Raouf and Mrs Raghwa said improving the environmental performance of businesses was linked to improving awareness of the issues in society as a whole. And this, they said, was as much about morals as it was about laws and incentives. One way to change perceptions, especially when it came to Muslims, was to utilise Islamic teachings, Mrs Raghwa said. "Islam puts big emphasis on conserving natural resources. We should use the power of religion," she said. "It will have a major effect because people are very religious here. If people believe in something, they will do it no matter what."

vtodorova@thenational.ae