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Urban Areas in the Arab Region: Time for Adaptation to Climate Change

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Amal Dababseh, November 21, 2012

Arab countries are witnessing significant urban growth – 56 percent of the population of the Arab world currently lives in cities and urban centers and it is expected that the population of cities and urban areas will increase by 75 percent by 2050. In addition to natural phenomena such as droughts, improved social services and infrastructure in cities have helped to speed up the urbanization process and increase migration from rural areas to urban areas in the Arab region. The latest data indicates that there is a large gap within countries in terms of the urban-rural breakdown, in that some countries have become almost completely urban (98 percent of the population of Kuwait lives in urban areas), whereas more than 50 percent of the populations of Egypt, Mauritania, Somalia, and Yemen, for example, live in rural areas.

Prevailing opinion holds that climate change has less of an impact on cities than on rural areas, since livelihoods in urban areas are less dependent on the natural environment. However, Arab cities are no longer sheltered from climate changes and rising temperatures – 2010 was the hottest year since the late 1880s, with 19 countries registering record temperatures, including five Arab countries. Kuwait, for example, registered a record temperature of 52.6°C, then followed up with another record temperature of 53.5°C in 2011.

The Arab region is most affected by temperature increases

The populations of the Arab region are used to adapting to severe heat and drought. However, urban areas are facing greater and more comprehensive challenges, since climate change projections point to an average temperature increase of 3°C throughout the region by 2050, with an additional 3° increase in nighttime temperatures due to the urban heat island phenomenon. The Arab region is currently the region in the world that is most affected by temperature increases. The reasons for this are high solar radiation as well as the region’s soil type, which tends to absorb and store heat. There are also the urban heat island effects and poor air quality in the cities, which will eventually lead to severe temperature increases. This will present a problem for most inhabitants of Arab cities, which still rely on passive cooling to reduce temperatures within buildings.

The interactions between natural risks in the Arab region, climate change effects, water scarcity, and lack of food self-sufficiency represent a serious challenge to policies and plans in Arab countries and cities. Over the last three years, climate-related disasters have cast their shadow on around 50 million people in the Arab region, and the cost of these disasters has reached 11.5 billion dollars. Although this sum may seem large, it does not reflect the real extent of the costs and losses suffered. Typically, damage costs are reported for just 17 percent of disasters, and the suffering that follows the loss of life and to livelihoods is not monitored.

Drought and flood victims represent 98 percent of the total number of people affected by climate-related disasters. There is no clear trend for these disasters, whether in terms of the frequency of their recurrence or the repercussions that they have in the form of tremendous seasonal accidents and damages. The high rate of urbanization in the region, especially in coastal areas, usually exacerbates the effects of drought, storms, flash floods, and landslides. Furthermore, the increasing frequency of floods and droughts places around 25 million urban dwellers in danger of flooding.

In this context, the increasing frequency of flash flooding in many Arab cities is due to increasing rainfall density in limited time periods, the widespread use of concrete roofs that do not absorb water, inefficient and clogged drainage networks, and construction in areas of low slopes and valleys. As a result, the size of the population affected by floods in Arab cities has multiplied in the past 10 years to 500,000 people across the region. Flash floods in the Saudi Arabian city of Jedda in 2009 left more than 116 people dead and financial losses there exceeded 427 million dollars. In the city of Fez, in Morocco, floods killed 30 people, while in 2012 a number of cities in Algeria were hit by floods, killing more than 48 people. In the Sultanate of Oman, coastal cities in 2007 were hit by monsoons and coastal flooding that left more than 30 people dead. In October 2012, the Jordanian city of Aqaba was hit by flash floods that killed two people and destroyed several homes and properties.

A large number of Arab cities are not ready yet to adopt to climate change

In order to alleviate these risks and increase the capacities of cities to face and adapt to the challenges of climate change, two measures can be taken: The first measure is to improve urban planning and offer municipal services that are consistent with projected climate changes, as a large number of Arab cities have not adapted to the current circumstances and are not ready to deal with these changes. In terms of cities, the basic steps include taking an interest in capacity-building by incorporating climate change studies and scenarios into the foundations of urban planning, and taking into account the scale and frequency of climate-related natural disasters when undertaking urban planning, especially when planning infrastructure and the rainwater drainage network. Attention should also be paid to enforcing existing regulations with regards to building codes and zoning, and areas vulnerable to climate-related disasters should be identified and considered highly sensitive areas. Consequently, large, strategic, and vulnerable buildings should not be built in high-risk areas. Furthermore, decentralized decision-making should be employed and made more comprehensive to allow city administrations to be more able – financially and technically – to incorporate climate change scenarios into urban planning.

In this context, it is worth noting that since 1990, significant progress has been made in drafting uniform building laws, including legislating national green building laws, such as the Estidama Pearl Rating System in the United Arab Emirates, which focuses on environmentally sustainable societies, as well as special programs to make cities green, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to climate changes all at once, like Oman’s green growth program. This program embraces various elements that impact – and are impacted by – climate changes at the city level, and combines limiting climate change with adaptation by designing and carrying out a set of projects within the sectors of sustainable transportation and green agriculture, as well as using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency to illuminate buildings and roads. It also includes reusing wastewater and greywater to increase green spaces in the city and using drought-resistant plants.

The second measure in particular is a response to the risks related to climate change. This measure includes assessing vulnerability to climate change in order to identify vital infrastructure and determine its vulnerability to climate risks, as well identifying adaptation options and an adaptation cost curve that would allow more consistent comparisons to be made between the benefits of implementing adaptation measures and the cost of not implementing them in the short and long term. A number of Arab cities, particularly coastal cities, have already started to employ climate change scenarios in their long-term planning, as it is currently the case in Tunis, Casablanca in Morocco, and Alexandria in Egypt, where detailed analytical studies have been conducted to predict the scale of long-term climate changes and the natural impacts and risks related to climate change. These studies and scenarios were subsequently incorporated into urban planning processes.

Ultimately, the success of operations to adapt to climate change in Arab urban centers depends on implementing climate change policies across different sectors (water, transportation, agriculture, tourism, planning, energy) and through cooperation between the public and the private sectors, between central and local governments, and between cities and civil society.