Oil and rising water

Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan
says that Middle Eastern oil producers have an obligation to future generations to tackle the causes of global warming.

The compromise agreement on climate change reached in Marrakech last November was welcome news. We must now hope that this will translate into tangible and speedy action to address the causes of global warming. We have seen too many deadlocked conferences where reluctance to give anything up has caused the threat to human livelihoods from rising temperatures to go on steadily increasing.

In her introduction to the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Gro Harlem Brundtland wrote: ‘If we do not succeed in putting our message of urgency through to today’s parents and decision makers, we risk undermining our children’s fundamental right to a healthy, life-enhancing environment.’

In the Middle East, we have a special need to pay attention to these warnings. As many of the countries of the region are low-lying and short of water, we are under threat from rising sea levels and desertification. Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that by the end of this century sea levels could rise by as much as 88 centimetres. This could flood not only coastal areas of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but also much of the heavily populated Nile Delta in Egypt and the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates river system in Iraq.

In the UAE, we are still a ‘developing’ country even though we are blessed with the wealth bestowed on us by our oil and gas reserves. We are conscious that, in the process of funding our ambitious development programme, we have a responsibility not only towards our own environment, but also that of the planet.

Environmental threats have traditionally accompanied the production of oil. We have made considerable strides in recent years to mitigate these dangers. One major achievement has been a dramatic reduction in the flaring of gases from onshore and offshore oilfields. In 1995, some 7 million cubic metres of gas were flared in Abu Dhabi every day. Today, we are down to 1.5 million – a 78 per cent reduction in just five years. Our objective is zero.

We are also anxious to capitalize on the potential for renewable sources of energy like solar power. The results from research into capturing clean energy from the sun through a new generation of solar panels are encouraging. Before long it will be possible for us to construct buildings with photovoltaic panels that will generate most of their own energy requirements.

In the UAE’s major onshore and offshore oilfields there is now a legal requirement for environmental baseline studies and impact assessments and to establish effective continuing monitoring programmes.

All projects proposed by the Abu Dhabi oil sector, as well as those put up by the various Government departments, must be approved by our Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency, of which I serve as Deputy Chairman. In fulfilling this requirement, we examine the results of the baseline studies and environmental impact assessments, and also take into account, where appropriate, both archaeological and palaeontological issues.

As a result, a number of major oil sector projects have had their original engineering designs changed in order to limit environmental impacts, through, for example, the drilling of clustered wells from a single hole and the increased use of directional and horizontal drilling. This leads to a win-win situation as it has put the UAE oil sector at the cutting edge of new drilling technology.

Our heritage is one of a people who could only survive in our fragile desert environment by learning to co-exist with nature and by developing a sustainable use of the resources available to us. Otherwise our ancestors would have starved. We recognize that today we have a global obligation to future generations and we are determined to play our part in securing the sustainable development they require

Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan is Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates and Deputy Chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency, ERWDA.

PHOTOGRAPH: Agustin Sagasti/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Secure and sustainable | Fuelling multilateralism | Meeting growing needs | Make way for the zero-litre car | Power sharing | Oil and rising water | Energetic challenges | At a glance: Energy | Competition | Power to the people | Cutting carbon | Winds of change | Power and choice | Rising sun | Give us a wave! | Less energy, more wealth

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action December 1998
Issue on Climate change December 1997
Gerhard Berz: Insuring against catastrophe (Disasters) January 2001
Pier Vellinga: Flip-flop to catastrophe (Disasters) January 2001

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Climate change
Air pollution