A Sustainable Future for Dubai?

August 7, 2008

My fellow futures traveller Andrew Wynberg asked me a question some time ago: “What is it like to be a futurist in Dubai?” I have been pondering that question at some length and will attempt to make a cogent and coherent answer to it over the coming few posts.

First off some reflections on sustainability:

In a presentation a while ago by Richard Slaughter that I witnessed, he provided pictures of Dubai and the various islands shaped like palms off its shore and questioned their long-term viability in the face of climate change. Local media on 28 April here in Dubai talked about a presentation by Dr Rajendra Jumar Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, of the concern for sea level rise and the potential for subsidence of these low lying areas and the need for strict zoning laws. The comments quoted by property developers in response are pertinent to my view of futures thinking in Dubai. These include:

  • That we have factored in sea level rises of half a metre over 100 years into the design of our reclamation projects.
  • That the timeframes are long and the opportunity for management, adaptation and response will extend across generations of human existence.

Now that’s all fine if sea levels do not rise but if they do by more than that, there could be some very expensive underwater real estate. Other aspects around sustainability I find interesting here surround the use of alternative energies which are few and far between. One would expect that solar energy would be encouraged with the large amounts of hot sun and warm temperatures yet I am yet to see one anywhere apart from to power remote speed cameras. And the amount of power that is used is significant per property due to the use of airconditioning, pool cooling, etc.

Further, significant amounts of power are used for desalination of water. Many people drink bottled water which is sourced from aquifers in the mountain areas. But the use of tap water is profligate. Unlike Melbourne and much of south-east Australia that is gripped by drought and suffering from extensive water restrictions, here there is no limit to what you can do with water. No restrictions at all! Fountains are running freely and more are being built (unlike Melbourne which turned them off some time ago to reduce the amount of water used and to set an example). New swimming pools are created daily and filled. Gardens, bushes and trees are watered and the grass is a brilliant verdant green.

Despite the recent efforts of the local and national governments, there is little culture of sustainability here. Recycling is difficult with no easy kerbside collection of recyclables. There are only a few bins around that provide the facility. People have a throw-away culture. As petrol is cheap, people drive large gas-guzzling cars.

It takes a long time to build a sustainability culture and change the behaviours of the populace towards greater sustainability efforts. Even though Dubai is a place that can move very quickly (one of the benefits of an autocracy), the interior conditions of the people do take time to shift as well as changing the types of energy infrastructures. Westernised countries started to make that shift years ago and are only just starting to get traction recently. In Dubai, there is a long way to go. The growth and get big quick mottos that have made Dubai what it is today and tomorrow are yet to gain a solid sustainability flavour.

More on Dubai futures in subsequent posts.