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The Challenge of Urbanization

Urbanization in West Asia has proceeded very rapidly, presenting massive challenges to future prosperity and the fight to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Among the problems are the sheer physical scale of growth, massive infrastructure needs, the plight of the urban poor, pollution of the environment and degradation of the coastal areas. West Asia’s total population increased from 36 million in 1970 to 118 million in 2005. The total urban population in the region went up from 16 million in 1970 to 75 million in 2005 (GEO Data Portal based on United Nations 2005b).

Urban growth rates were much more rapid in the Arabian peninsula, where the urban population increased from 38 per cent of the total in 1970, to 63 per cent by 2005. In the same period, the urban share in the Mashriq sub-region (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Syria) increased from 52 per cent to 65 per cent (GEO Data Portal based on United Nations 2004). By 2030, the urban population in West Asia is projected to reach 143 million (Figure 2). The concentration of population in urban areas has resulted in increased air pollution, inadequate solid waste collection and disposal, toxic and hazardous waste problems, poor or non-existent sanitation facilities and degradation of urban environments (UNEP 2003, World Bank 2005).

Cities such as Sana’a, Damascus (Box 2), Baghdad and Manama among other major cities in West Asia suffer air pollution levels that sometimes exceed WHO guidelines (UNEP 2003, Meslmani 2004, Meslmani and others 2005). Although few West Asian countries monitor air pollution levels systematically, available data and reports indicate that the main sources include industrial processes, inappropriate disposal of solid and hazardous waste, vehicle emissions and the burning of oil in electric power production. Waste management is a serious problem in the region. In some countries, municipalities face problems in finding new landfill sites (Box 3) since the existing ones have reached their limit, resulting in air, soil and water pollution (El-Khatib 2005).

Although some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have placed recycling at the top of their waste management priorities, the low cost of landfill and the availability of land (usually old quarries) in most of these countries render recycling programmes difficult. There are no recycling targets, and the only comprehensive form of recycling available within the GCC countries is for paper and cartons (Alhumoud 2005).

Another problem facing some West Asia countries is contamination of coastal areas due to reclamation, land filling, or discharge of industrial effluents from coastal factories such as those north of the Sitra industrial zone in Bahrain (ROPME 2004). Hotspots on Lebanon’s public beaches were found to be “highly polluted” in a recent study (Environment and Development 2005).

Box 3: Green Award for Bahrain industrial landfill site
The Hafira Industrial Landfill Site in Bahrain has become an example for the design and operation of hazardous waste landfills in similar geographical locations. The Bahrain Directorate of Environmental Control, Public Commission for the Protection of Marine Resources, Environment and Wildlife recently won a Green Apple Award from the UK’s Green Organization for the landfill site. The project has also been chosen by UNEP in the preparation of a set of guidelines for the design and operation of a waste landfill in hyper-arid areas. The project contributes to sustainable and integrated waste management in Bahrain, by making it possible for companies to stop storing industrial and hazardous wastes on their own sites. The landfill site, completed at a cost of US$1.2 million, is designated as a Class II landfill with three disposal cells and three evaporation ponds for treating the landfill leachate and liquid industrial waste, and two boreholes to monitor ground water pollution. Since the project started in February 2001, the landfill site has accommodated around 51 499 m3 of industrial waste. Fees from the waste generators have paid the construction cost and by May 2005 the project had accrued a profit of US$1.7 million. Source: Ahmed 2005
Box 4: Sustainable development plan for Bubiyan Island
Bubiyan Island is located in Kuwait, in the northwestern corner of the ROPME Sea Area. A unique network of tidal channels in the northern part of the 888 km2 island encompasses regionally important salt marsh wetlands. In 2003, the Kuwait government decided to develop an environmentally driven Master Plan for the island. The Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) conducted a comprehensive baseline environmental field inventory programme of the island's ecosystems. Over 75 interpretive thematic and constraint maps were created and considered by the planning team and decision makers. The study demonstrated that Bubiyan Island has a unique significance for terrestrial and marine biodiversity. The sustainable development plan for the island is unique to the region because it uses a comprehensive environmental baseline study as the basis for master planning and long-term national policies. It incorporates contributions of many stakeholders in government and nongovernmental organizations. KISR is also involved in the follow-up development of comprehensive resource conservation and management plans. Source: Omer 2005
Box 5: Champion of the Earth
The late President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, posthumously received the UNEP Champions of the Earth Award in April 2005 for his outstanding work in preserving the environment. Sheikh Zayed oversaw the planting of over 150 million trees in the UAE in an effort to stem the encroachment of sand onto agricultural land and urban areas. To protect the country’s fauna, Sheikh Zayed banned hunting more than a quarter of a century ago. He created the island reserve of Sir Bani Yas, a sanctuary for endangered species such as the Arabian Oryx and the sand gazelle. The Dorcas Gazelle, the symbol of Abu Dhabi, was declared a protected species, and special programmes were started to increase its population. Other species such as the rare Arabian Leopard, the ibex and the dugong also received special protection. Sheikh Zayed had previously won other prestigious environment-related awards, including a gold medal from the Food and Agriculture Organization, for his agricultural development efforts. In 1997, he won the World Wide Fund for Nature’s highest award, the Gold Panda – the first time that a Head of State was so honoured. “On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so only because they recognized the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live, and to preserve it for succeeding generations. With God’s will, we shall continue to work to protect our environment and our wildlife, as did our forefathers before us. It is a duty, and, if we fail, our children, rightly, will reproach us for squandering an essential part of their inheritance, and of our heritage.” - Sheikh Zayed, speech on UAE’s first Environment Day, 1998. Sources: UNEP 2005, UAE Interact 2005
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