What Price Do We Pay?

The State of Kuwait and the illustrative byproduct of non-sustainable development and environmental neglect.

It is predicted that temperatures in Kuwait will reach up to 60° Celsius (140° Fahrenheit) this summer. This news does not come as a shock. It is mid June and temperatures are already reaching 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit). After being parked outside for just ten minutes, the interiors of cars become so hot that book binding melts, phones break, and metal burns your finger tips. The wind burns your skin — it is relentless in its abuse.

60° Celsius is a temperature that renders the country physically uninhabitable without air conditioning. Without AC’s blasting cool air into our homes, offices, and stores, we would not be able to survive the heat.It’s not just Kuwait that’s heating up. More than 500 people have perished in India because of a recent heat wave. The world is becoming a hotter place.

I’m not trying to be too liberal, but one could easily assume that one of the reasons for these global temperature increases goes hand in hand with a phenomenon known as climate change.

With this reasoning, the AC’s that make the State of Kuwait habitable in these temperatures are also making sure that the next year is even hotter.

In addition to scorching summer temperatures, Kuwait has been experiencing an increase in off season sandstorms. Sandstorms are seasonal to the region and an expected occurrence during the interval periods of winter and summer. Over the past five years, however, Kuwait has experienced a yearly increase in the intensity and frequency of its dust-storms. These storms are sometimes so severe that the sun is obscured by a thick layer of floating dust particles.

These dust storms, however, do not stem from climate change directly. Rather, they can be attributed to the direct and indirect human activities that contribute to the neglect of the environment. The same activities that stem from an economic and political system that allow for climate change to occur in the first place. These activities include non-sustainable urban development and direct environmental deterioration.

A man stands waiting for help as his car is stranded in the road — sunken into the sand. Copyright: Nora Nisi

It should be noted that Kuwait is one of the world’s richest countries and boasts the world’s strongest currency — the Kuwaiti Dinar. Kuwait’s crude oil revenues and reserves are envied by industrialised nations around the world, and the state can claim a financial stability that other countries could only dream of.

Yet despite all of the relative monetary stability, if Kuwait continues along its current trajectory it may become, in the near future, uninhabitable for the human species.

Let us delve into some of the issues in Kuwait’s development decisions since its economic boom in the 1940’s.

Due in part to the fact that Kuwait’s vast development projects began well into the 1990’s and much of the urban planning strategies mirrored those of the United States, Kuwait became oriented around the car. Today there exist no substantial public transport, no trains, no railways, and no reliable bus systems. Grocery stores, shopping centers, restaurants, and all other community related infrastructures are not in walking distance. The inevitable use of cars, of course, contributes to the amounts of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere and the amount of pollution that fogs the city. Cars themselves are a nationwide status symbol, meaning that car-pooling and fuel-efficient vehicles are not too common. With a whopping USD15.60 to fill up one’s hummer mini (a gallon of petrol comes to .83cents), it is expected that joy riding (locally known as cruising) is an affordable pastime.

Air conditioning is another paradoxical issue. Kuwait has developed in light speed over the past half century. In the past ten years alone the number of buildings sprouting up across the country has increased threefold. An entire city is being built one and half hours outside of the major industrialized area — in the middle of the desert. All of these new construction projects, however, are not built in a sustainable manner. There are many ways that architects, through environmental design, can ensure that the infrastructure works with extreme environments. Yet this did not happen.

Kuwait, like other countries in the GCC, lives with extreme temperatures, no access to its own freshwater, limited farming capacity, and the need to import the vast majority of its building supplies. Despite this, project managers preferred cheap and quick solutions. Thus, Kuwait’s infrastructure is built electricity-heavy and AC dependent. Kuwait fit like a glove regarding the ‘norms’ of development.

This non-sustainable urban planning and design is paired with basic environmental neglect. There exists a general disregard of the environment on the local and state level. Sewage is a problem, pollution is an even greater problem, and although certain laws exist to protect local flora and fauna, they are not enforced due to a lack of policing.

Copyright: Nora Nisi

Kuwait’s desert, like any desert, is a natural ecosystem. In the few parts of the country where it is illegal to develop, drive, and graze, the topsoil is strong and full of nutrients, allowing for a carpet of green shrubbery and vegetation to thrive. Outside of these very small protected areas, however, the rest of the desert has had its topsoil destroyed through development projects and over-grazing. The direct consequence to the removal of plants and shrubbery that keep Kuwait’s sand in place and the destruction of the topsoil that provides the nutrients for this flora, is further desertification. Consequently to this, a year-by-year increase in the frequency and intensity of sandstorms is inevitable as the topsoil loosens and blows away.

In essence, Kuwait, despite the fossil fuel reserves that have rendered it one of the richest countries in the world, has become an illustrative example of the inhabitability that can come with our hunger for profit but ignorance and neglect of nature.

Yet Kuwait is not doomed or destined for failure. If Kuwait focuses on urban redevelopment that includes mixed-use zoning, green spaces, renewable energy, sustainable planning, and environmental design, the country can protect the natural environment and foster its community. Laws and regulations that protect local flora and fauna need to be put into place and enforced. Education and knowledge on sustainability can then influence the next generation’s ethical relationship to the natural environment.

Kuwait is not alone. There are countless countries that need to enact the same strategy to counteract the global expectations of development that had convinced them to put malls before parks.