Apr 282008

Ahmad Rafay Alam

Developers in the UAE have announced plans to build Masdar City, the world’s first fully sustainable, zero-carbon, zero emission city. The city is part of the Masdar Initiative and is the first time sustainable development techniques will be applied at such a scale. But there is much more here than meets the eye

The city will cost $22 billion to build and will take 10 years to complete. It is designed to be home to 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses. In order to be carbon-free, urban planners have pushed the envelope on all aspect of urban planning and design. For instance, the city will cover no more than 6 square kilometres. If you think they are building a city in such a cramped space is poor planning, remember that no point of the city will be farther than 200 meters from the nearest public transport.

The project is attracting the attention of environmental activists all over the world. Earlier this year, even the WWF teamed up with the Masdar Initiative. A press release off a WWF website says “electricity for the city will be generated by photovoltaic panels, while cooling will be provided via concentrated solar power. Water will be provided through a solar-powered desalination plant. Landscaping within the city and crops grown outside the city will be irrigated with grey water and treated wastewater produced by the city.

“Jean-Paul Jeanrenaud, director of WWF International’s One Planet Living initiative, said, ‘Today Abu Dhabi is embarking on a journey to become the global capital of the renewable-energy revolution. Abu Dhabi is the first hydrocarbon-producing-nation to have taken such a significant step towards sustainable living.

‘Masdar is an example of the paradigm shift that is needed and the strategic vision of the Abu Dhabi government is a case study in global leadership. We hope that Masdar City will prove that sustainable living can be affordable and attractive in all aspects of human living – from businesses and manufacturing facilities to universities and private homes.’” The WWF has endorsed the city as an official One Planet Living Community, which is a global initiative launched by the organisation to promote awareness of the role of sustainable urban planning.

The Masdar Initiative is a project of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company. The ADFEC is a wholly owned by the Mudubala Development Company, which, in turn, is wholly owned by the Abu Dhabi government.

The Masdar Initiative is unique because it marks the first time a major hydrocarbon-producing country has taken such a sustainable development step. By doing so, Abu Dhabi has taken the lead on issues such as sustainable urban planning, climate change and energy security.

I applaud the government of the UAE for taking on such a challenge. But doing so reminds me of a couple of things happening in our own back garden.

First, some statistics: Pakistan’s population is heavily urbanised. The UN’s Habitat programme estimates that 35% of Pakistani’s live in urban areas, and that in another 10 years over half our population will live in our cities. Others disagree. Depending on how you define an urban area, they say this figure has already reached 50%. Already, Pakistan is the most urbanised country in South Asia. What this means is that the environment policy must take stock of this alarming statistic and change its priorities immediately. (I’m not saying make cities the No. 1 priority; but they must be taken seriously.)

In a report published by the P&D Department of the Government of Punjab, it was stated that more than half of the people who live in the urban areas in the province live in slums, or irregular housing of some sort. This picture is not much different in our other provinces and is a constant theme in all our cities. In fact, the UN already estimates that over half the world’s poor live in the slums of the Third World’s cities. In Pakistan, we aren’t far from an equally distressing reality.

The environmental issues facing rising urbanism are manifold. Most pressing is clean air, water and sanitation. Not just that, buildings consume enormous amount of energy. This energy is not just consumed as electricity to power light bulbs, fans and air conditioners (and computers and other consumer items). It’s also consumed by the production of the cement that goes into the construction of the building. It is consumed in the production of the pipes, beams and girders that are used in the construction of homes. It is consumed by the cars that are needed for the most simple of domestic tasks. It is estimated that buildings (this includes plazas and residential accommodations) consume approximately half the energy produced in the world (with the remainder consumed by transport and commerce and industry roughly equally).

As our cities grow and we become a more and more urbanised population, more and more of the energy consumed by us will be from buildings located in our urban areas. It is incumbent on our frontline environmental regulators, then, to monitor how our cities are built. The future of the planet and the future environment of our country depend on them. Or at least you would think that is the case.

The EPA doesn’t have any specific policy regarding environmentally sustainable construction techniques. If you want to build a massive, utility-sucking monster in the middle of a water-starved city, as the people who are bringing the dreaded Centaurus to Islamabad are doing, the EPA will not deem its construction plans worthy of scrutiny. And if it wasn’t for environmental activists like Q Isa Daudpota and Helga Ahmed, the project proponents wouldn’t even have complied with the first law of environmental regulation (and a statutory requirement to boot): the commission of an environment impact assessment report.

In Lahore, construction is underway of the gigantic Shiekh Zayed Centre on Ferzepur Road near the Gaddafi Stadium. It’s going to be, with 60-odd floors and a height of 1,947 feet (yes, 1947 feet!), the tallest building in South Asia. It is being built on 91 kanals adjacent to the residential neighbourhood of Garden Town, and will consist of three towers housing shopping malls, hotels, corporate offices and mini-cinemas. Its Wikipedia page states it will cost a staggering $15 billion, and that its parking garage will hold up to 4,000 cars.

The Shiekh Zayed Centre is a joint venture of the Abu Dhabi Group and the Government of Punjab, both of which have entered a joint-venture partnership under the name of Taavun Limited. The Abu Dhabi Group is also owned by the Abu Dhabi government and run, by extension, by the same people who manage Mudubala Development Company and Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company. But what boggles my mind is how the Shiekh Zayed Centre – what with all the environmentally friendly hot air spewed by the Masdar Initiative people – has not been put through any environmental scrutiny, or held out as an example of sustainable development. The construction of the Gulzar Underpass on the Lahore Canal by the previous government – and an example of how political influence is used to flout the law – was part and parcel of infrastructure facilities provided for this project. And it was constructed without an EIA being conducted before the construction of the project began.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@ nexlinx.net.pk
Source: The News, 28/4/2008

 Posted by at 7:14 am

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