x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

'Lifestyle in the UAE is unsustainable'

The havoc caused by erratic weather is likely to increase thanks to global warming, and the facts point to this being driven by human behaviour.

The country's recent record-breaking storms occurred despite an overall trend of decreasing rain.
The country's recent record-breaking storms occurred despite an overall trend of decreasing rain.

Rain sounds nice when it drops on tin roofs. It creates a sense of renewal, a promise to wash us clean of our mistakes and help us shine again. In a country experiencing a steady decline in rainfall over the last 13 years, it is all these things and more. After all, this is a country so inflicted with drought that the sight of the people and their leaders praying for rain is a seasonal fixture.

This time the answer was loud and clear. Through some of the heaviest recorded rainfall, the UAE saw four people killed, major highways closed, industrial areas drowned and millions in damages to public and private property. The record-breaking storms occurred despite a trend of decreasing rain. These deadly events have become relatively common because though the country is experiencing droughts and the intervals between rainfalls are longer, "when it rains it pours". Hailstorms wreaked havoc on public infrastructure in 2008, and in 2007 the region was hit with Cyclone Gonu, which killed 78 people and caused $4.3 billion in damages.

Hot weather is popularly misunderstood to imply drier climates - it actually means increased rates of evaporating moisture from bodies of water, which is then pushed into the clouds, creating the conditions for rainfall. Add this to the fact that according to the Pew Centre on Climate Change, the period from 1998 to 2007 saw an increase in the frequency of Atlantic hurricanes from five per season, the average for nearly a century and a half, to eight.

The weather is becoming unpredictable, unsettled, and fierce. Climate change deniers have had a field day with recent scandals involving the way science has been compiled. But these scandals reveal two things only: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have overestimated the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and scientists in the University of East Anglia in Britain behaved in a way that may have contravened the British Freedom of Information Act. These are only two mistakes in hundreds of thousands of pages of climate change science written carefully over a 22-year period. No major revelation has emerged and no finding has disproved climate change. What was proved is that scientists are human too.

Yet if you listen to the deniers you would think that the entirety of climate change science was a conspiracy. The facts remain resolutely intact; heat-trapping gases released through the combustion of fossil fuels contributed to the warming of the Earth's surface for the last 200 years. As a direct result all major ice caps are melting. Hurricanes and erratic weather patterns are increasing and droughts are intensifying. The most important fact states that these phenomena are driven by humankind's behaviour. This is not a theory, nor is it an opinion, this is a fact upon which, according to a 2009 Pew study, 97 per cent of PhD-holding climatologists agree.

The recent storms in the UAE were a welcome sight for eyes accustomed to stinging dust and sand, but the damages these storms wreak on public infrastructure, private property, agriculture, livestock and homes are disastrous and the clean-up bill will add unaccounted expenditure to the state budget, diverting money from investments in education, health care, transportation and other pressing needs.

That is not the only potential effect of climate change in the UAE. As most of the population is coastal, rising sea levels could devastate our major cities. Rising temperatures could destroy the marine life and have already resulted in wide-scale bleaching of coral reefs and a decline in fish stocks. The UAE is obviously not immune to climate change, and the effects of the crisis are already being felt. The fact that they have not had catastrophic impact yet, should not drive us into complacency.

It would be nice to be wrong about all this. I'm afraid though, that we don't have the luxury of waiting to find out. We must start engaging the solutions. So where does this leave us? We have already seen the UAE's leadership take an active role in combating the crisis, resources are invested into clean energy initiatives, and environmental building regulations have become the norm. The puzzle, though, is missing a critical piece: active community engagement. Our lifestyle in this country is unsustainable, from home landscaping to suburban sprawl, from our car culture to the addiction to plastic; substantive efforts should be undertaken by people to limit their own carbon footprint. I do not think I can sum up comprehensively what individuals and the community can do, but the first step is educating ourselves about changing consumption habits. There is no need for a family of four to own six cars. Buy organic local or even regional produce. Limit air travel and if one must travel then explore ways to ethically offset the flights, seriously embark on making recycling part of our everyday lives, consume less energy and improve the efficiency of water usage. There are millions of ways for us to live sustainably but almost always the first step begins with awareness. Knowledge is key.

Muath al Wari is an Emirati researcher who has assisted in the UN Development Programme and the Mohammed bin Rashid Foundation's Arab Knowledge Report