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Integrated sustainability comes of age in the UAE

Sustainability looks primed for sector-wide adoption in the UAE in 2023 as the Gulf state finds solutions to environmental challenges

Sustainable UAE Supplied
Dake Rechsand fosters sustainable farming in the desert with its Breathable Sand solution

The word ‘sustainability’, once primarily a buzz word of corporate and political circles, has finally become mainstream.

Although it hasn’t gained uniform traction worldwide, it has certainly made headway in the UAE, where sustainability looks primed for sector-wide adoption in 2023.

The Gulf state’s embrace of sustainability is driven by multi-stakeholder participation – which can be appraised through the ‘ecoWheel framework’.

This framework says sustainability, especially from the business standpoint, has four levels of maturity:

  • Defensive – where organisations are solely focused on compliance
  • Proactive – where they are focused on required actions but lack the resources
  • Managed – where they make standalone efforts
  • Integrated – where they adopt a holistic approach

If some policies, initiatives, and actions in 2022 are any indication, the UAE is primed to enter the integrated level of sustainability maturity in 2023 – a transition that could play out as follows:

Reconciling urban development with ecological preservation

Globally, about seven in 10 people are expected to live in cities by 2050.

The UAE epitomises urbanisation with its towering structures and public infrastructure, and it expects a continued influx into its bustling cities.

Policymakers are making provisions for growth, but not without factoring in sustainability.

The recently launched Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan has sustainability and environmental protection as the cornerstones of future developments. There are provisions in place for “green” projects, whose implementation will begin in 2023. 

Record rise in corporate reporting

In KPMG’s Sustainability Reporting Survey 2022, the UAE posted one of the most significant growths in sustainability reporting at 22 percent.

KPMG attributed this to the rise to national-level initiatives, as well as the upcoming UAE-hosted Cop28.

The landmark conference has created an obligation on the part of corporations. That is a welcome development because  “corporate culture” — characterised by streamlined operations, higher accountability and transparency, and tech-powered efficient mechanisms — can lead to measurable sustainability outcomes.

In 2023, local companies are expected to supercharge their CSR efforts and increase their exposure to carbon markets and renewables. 

UAE sustainability
Sponge City is a solution to both stormwater floods and water scarcity

Addressing pressing challenges

The impact of climate change is increasingly apparent in the UAE, with evidence ranging from devastating floods to the ongoing pressing challenge of water scarcity.

Enter Sponge City solutions, an infrastructure initiative whereby rainwater is efficiently absorbed and drained into appropriate areas, so avert flooding. Underground reservoirs then harvest the rainwater — the purest form of natural water – adding to water security. 

In 2023, interdisciplinary solutions — like Sponge City stormwater management and rainwater harvesting — are expected to attract more takers. The solution complements the UAE Water Security Strategy 2036, which aims to address scarcity sustainably while reducing the load on carbon- and energy-intensive desalination plants.

This strategy exemplifies the ‘integrated’ level of maturity that sustainability efforts are heading toward. 

Greening the deserts

In the UAE, where only 0.7% of the total land is arable due to desert conditions, soil salinity and limited groundwater resources, optimal greenery and agricultural yield are challenges.

However, in recent years, the government’s emphasis on local food production, desert greening, and afforestation is redefining possibilities in the UAE.

Dake Rechsand, as a Dubai-based company specialising in sustainability solutions for desert farming, water conservation and stormwater management, has emerged at the forefront of regional sustainability.

Our proprietary solution Breathable Sand — a water-retentive and air-permeable medium that leads to optimal crop yield with 80 percent less water input — has found application in turning deserts into arable lands.

Breathable Sand makes a compelling case within the food-security framework. It converged with other such drivers at the Food for Future Summit held on the sidelines of Dubai Expo.

Stakeholders are geared toward greening the deserts through different models such as food forests, low-input agriculture, Miyawaki, and tree planting.

Such efforts have implications for carbon sequestration and food security, in line with the “integrated-level” sustainability maturity. 

The broad consensus among policymakers, intergovernmental organisations, and private entities is to pursue holistic sustainability.

It is a step change from the “managed” level’s “carbon tunnel vision” — a phenomenon where stakeholders became so engrossed in addressing carbon emissions that they ignored the links between other critical issues such as water and food scarcity, socio-economic growth, and the digital divide.

The “integrated” level of sustainability maturity will characterise interconnected responses and efforts that are rooted in the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle) and the triple-bottom-line framework (social, economic, and environmental responsibility).

The alarming rate of climate change necessitates such maturity. 

Chandra Dake is CEO of Dake Rechsand

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