JEDDAH: Flying into the Saudi capital Riyadh, visitors can’t help but notice the patchwork of green spaces that have sprung up across the city. Less than a decade ago, the scene upstairs would have looked more like the fictional planet of Tatooine in Star Wars.
Although much of its territory is covered in desert, Saudi Arabia has worked hard in recent years to protect and restore its biodiversity, and has opted for a more sustainable future by transforming swaths of its landscape into havens of greenery.
Last year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched the Saudi Green Initiative and the Middle East Green Initiative, which feature the world’s largest reforestation projects, to capture carbon from the air, improve soil quality and improve the quality of life.
The second edition of the Saudi Green Initiative Forum is taking place in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh from November 11-12 to coincide with the UN climate summit, COP27.
“As the world’s largest oil producer, we are fully aware of our responsibility in advancing the fight against the climate crisis, and that just as we have played a leading role in stabilizing energy markets in the age of oil and gas, we will work to lead the next green era,” the crown prince said at the launch of the initiatives.
A warming climate is already wreaking havoc on the Kingdom and the wider Middle East, with less rainfall to water crops and fill underground aquifers, rampant desertification and land degradation, and dust storms whose scale and the frequency increases.
Both initiatives are designed to help the Kingdom and the wider region adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate variability and adopt technologies and practices that will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. environmental.
By the end of 2021, around 60 community projects and collaborations with the private sector had already been launched as part of the initiatives aimed at improving public health, improving the quality of life and promoting sustainable lifestyles. At the heart of it all is the city of Riyadh.
The growing metropolis is set to more than double its population over the next few decades thanks to an $800 billion project to transform it into an economic, social and cultural hub for the region. Such a transformation will of course be accompanied by environmental challenges.
In 2019, the Green Riyadh Project, the world’s largest integrated urban reforestation project, announced plans to plant 7.5 million trees in the capital, increase green spaces from 1.7 to 28 square meters per inhabitant and to increase the total green spaces to 9%. .
The project aims to reduce ambient temperatures by an average of 8 to 15 degrees Celsius in the city’s wooded areas, improve air quality by 3 to 6%, and improve the overall aesthetics of the urban center.
Given Riyadh’s location and high density, it will take time, hard work and investment to become a sustainable city that meets the goals set out in the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 quality of life program, Abdullah said. Aldakheelallah, architect and urban researcher, at Arab News.
“Urban areas should not only incorporate green spaces. They must also provide basic amenities, spaces for entertainment through environmentally friendly practices, reforestation on roads and in neighborhoods, construction of sidewalks and walkways,” Aldakheelallah said.
“Projects in the Kingdom must adapt and adjust to the strategic keys of the Quality of Life Program in their unique way to contribute to the improvement of urban cities as a whole.
“Green pockets of land will help nurture a city, they can promote outdoor recreational activities, improve the health of citizens, and help reduce the urban heat island (UHI) phenomenon, where surfaces absorb heat and retain heat for longer hours.”
Another benefit of the urban reforestation project is that it will limit the effects of “unmanaged surfaces”, such as uninhabited land, roundabouts and other empty spaces that tend to retain heat longer, Aldakheelallah said.
“About 20% of Riyadh is unmanaged land. By shading these areas, their objective is to reduce exposure to solar radiation from unmanaged surfaces and to reduce temperatures in the city during the day. Studies predict that by doing so you can reduce daytime temperatures by 4-5 degrees,” he added.
Beyond increasing tree cover, Aldakheelallah says the design and renovation of buildings can also have a significant impact on local temperatures.
“Roofs play a crucial role in the energy balance of buildings and the surrounding environment,” he said. “The ratio of total height to floor area and the width of the roof are determining factors in reducing direct exposure to radiation.
“Unfortunately, modern methods of building houses have given way to reducing the height and width of roofs, which has had adverse effects.”
To create and maintain its new green spaces, Riyadh must ensure abundant and sustainable fresh water – a limited resource in a country that does not have its own rivers and receives very little rainfall.
Deep groundwater and desalination plants are the Kingdom’s main water resources. In major Saudi cities, desalinated water consumption is extremely high, especially in Riyadh, where its share was 63-64% in 2020.
Much of the capital’s drinking water came from desalination plants in Makkah, Jeddah and Taif – a practice that, until more plants are powered by renewable energy sources, continues to contribute to the carbon emissions of the Kingdom.
Dr. Mark Tester, associate director of the Center for Desert Agriculture at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, says Riyadh needs to better integrate its wastewater management if it is to irrigate its green spaces sustainably.
“Wastewater is a huge resource, especially in a country that has so little water,” Tester told Arab News. “You need to be able, for example, to separate gray water from black water and then use the gray water directly.
“This saves huge sums of money and significantly reduces CO2 emissions from pumping and treating wastewater. You can use gray water locally and with minimal treatment, giving you the opportunity to green the environment. »
Black water, also known as sewage or brown water, is wastewater from bathrooms, which can carry diseases and bacteria, both of which can be harmful.
Greywater, on the other hand, is waste water from sinks, washing machines, bathtubs and showers. It contains lower levels of contamination, making it easier to process and process.
Recycled greywater is commonly used in irrigation and artificial wetlands. In fact, gray water that contains food particles can even feed plants. Using treated greywater in Riyadh could lead to improved planning, regulations and building codes, could irrigate tens of millions of trees and dramatically improve health and well-being.
Indeed, at the very heart of the greening strategy is the happiness and well-being of Saudi residents and foreign visitors, enabling them to enjoy the psychological benefits of the great outdoors in a safe and manageable climate.
“Green spaces should be prioritized where they can be safely and conveniently accessed and enjoyed by all, regardless of age, gender or physical ability, for example, in a neighborhood park as opposed to a median street or at a traffic roundabout,” Huda Shaka, a sustainable cities adviser, told Arab News.
“These spaces can improve the physical and mental health of the urban population and provide opportunities for improved biodiversity, air quality and access to food.”