The Zayed International Foundation for the Environment was established in 1999 by H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai. It was meant to commemorate the heritage of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Father of the country, who dedicated a special place in his multifaceted work to the protection of the environment.
Much of what has now become the mainstream of environmental policy in the world was first implemented by him. In one of many examples, immediately after taking office as ruler of Eastern Abu Dhabi way back in 1946, he initiated a water management project. According to experts, the project is fully consistent with the current criteria for “sustainable development”, which the UN started talking about only in 1987. Another well-known initiative of Sheikh Zayed is the 1968 ban on hunting. Later, in 1972, the head of the newly created young state of the UAE sent the Emirati delegation to the first global environmental conference. Ever since then, this amazingly forward-looking leader has been instrumental in the adoption of many laws governing environmental protection in the country. So the establishment of the Zayed International Prize for the Environment in 1999 became a fitting tribute to the memory of a national leader who has done so much for this cause. At the same time, it reflects the UAE’s efforts in the field of environmental conservation and the will to care of both the government and its people.
We are speaking to the Foundation’s Chief Technical Advisor Dr. Eisa Ablellatif.
Could you describe the Prize itself and the criteria for its awarding?
The Foundation, from the very beginning aimed to promote sustainable development in three ways. First – establishing an influential prize that will stimulate, encourage, and showcase gratitude to eco-organizations and politicians. Second – creating a platform to exchange scientific information on eco-related topics and pass on advice and guidance to policymakers, the media, and educators. Third – using publications, so that scientists and experts would have a vehicle to share their knowledge with the wider masses.
There are three categories for awarding the Prize itself. The first category was Global Leadership on the Environment. The second one was Scientific and Technological Achievement for the benefit of the environment. And the third one was for Environmental Action Leading to Positive Change in Society.
Which world-famous winners of your prize could you name?
One of the first winners of the Sheikh Zayed Prize was Jimmy Carter, who was awarded it for Global Leadership: as the US President, he launched a program called “Global 2000”.
Back in 1977, the Carter program addressed poverty, disease, and illiteracy. And they did a great job, especially when it comes to Africa.
The Global Leadership award in the second cycle was given to the BBC, as the first global media organization that started working on environmental issues and had given them a lot of coverage. The Prize went to the BBC for about 3300 reports they had from doing a weekly update on the state of the environmental issues.
In the third cycle, this Prize was given to Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the UN. The fourth was given to Gro Harlem Brundtland. This lady is the former Prime Minister of Norway, the first female Prime Minister in Europe, who later on was commissioned by the UN to lead what became known as “The Brundtland Commission”. This committee actually coined the term “sustainable development”. They issued a report called “Our common future” in 1987.
She made history as the leader of this group, with both the commission itself and the program they developed named after her. We awarded her the Prize for her accomplishments.
In the fifth cycle, the Global Leadership award was given to the South Korean President, who led his country to developing sustainable use of resources and technological advancement in the environmental field.
Finally, the sixth cycle Prize was given to the Prince of Monaco. He also had a large-scale program and a foundation with a long track record.
The second category, the Prize for scientific and technological achievement, was awarded to several scientists, including people like Mohammad el-Kassas. He was an Egyptian scientist who by that point had been working on desertification issues for 50 years. He was the pioneer in this area of environmentalism. He got the Prize late in his life.
It was also given to the3 Professors who established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Mostafa Kamal Tolba (UNEP), Godwin Obasi (WMO), and the Swedish Bert Bolin.
Other winners of this category included Prof. Ramanathan, who discovered the Green House Gases, and Jane Lubchenco, who was later appointed by President Obama as the Administrator of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA).
The third category which was mainly about NGOs work and activism was also given to important people like Yolanda Kakabadse. She served as Minister of Environment in the government of Ecuador. Later on, she acted as NGOs liaison at the first world summit on the environment, Rio Earth Summit in 1992. She then held the role of the IUCN president.
Further down the line the Foundation also established the Young Scientists Award for Environmental Sustainability, given to laureates under 40.
How did the people and organizations use the Prize money?
Many laureates donated money to relevant NGOs. Jimmy Carter without hesitation handed the prize to the Carter Center, a humanitarian organization he founded himself. Kofi Annan gave the prize money to an African organization working to involve women in conservation movements. The Prince of Monaco also donated money to an eco-organization
Another prime example is a scientist from Palestine who spent the money he received on continuing the conservation research he was doing before.
However, awarding of the Prizes is only one part of the Foundation’s work, isn’t it?
Yes, even though at the beginning there was only the Prize, over time, from an organization that just gives out monetary awards, the Foundation has evolved into an elaborate organization which host international conferences, workshops, regional and local meetings – all devoted to sustainable development at the local, regional & global levels. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been hundreds of offline lectures and workshops.
Has the pandemic interrupted the Foundation’s work?
You know what they say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. Previously, we had held offline workshops, spending money on bringing in experts and renting the venues. Now, for a year and a half, we have only been doing online seminars via Zoom and Facebook (the last one was dedicated to cloud seeding). And this has unexpectedly expanded our audience to the whole world! In addition, the speakers can connect from any country.
The Foundation had very important Zoom sessions about issues like:
* how to use nanotechnologies for developing renewable energy systems;
* how to use nanotechnology, e.g., for desalination and to help reduce the marine environmental pollution.
* how to reduce the use of irrigation water for small scale farms.
We also raised such problems as the depletion of water resources, food insecurity, healthcare.
Workshops have a special place in our work. They are attended by guest experts, scientists from all over the world. There, we develop recommendations. The Foundation has already developed 24 declarations, many of them were used by the UN.
And now all such workshops are held exclusively online! They turned into webinars. For example, we had a webinar on sustainable infrastructure and water scarcity. Two of them covered the development of waste water treatment plants. Others covered fisheries, irrigation systems, nanotechnology, and energy production.
In addition to uploading these videos on Facebook (which is a breakthrough), we also send them to our mailing list.
Which of the issues being discussed do you consider the most urgent?
The primary challenge is probably the problem of desertification. This is another man-made phenomenon. It begins with humans depleting resources, especially in dry regions. By cutting down trees, we turn fertile soil into dust that quickly gets carried away by the wind.
(Read about this process in our opinion piece).
As a result, the soil is depleted and becomes unusable for any type of agriculture.
Desertification threatens a huge number of people, more than 1 billion worldwide.
What could you tell us about the problem of plastic waste?
In this oil-producing region, oil was considered the main pollutant for a long time. However, it has now been overtaken by plastic!
We live in a coastal area dependent on the sea. Therefore, it is critical to eliminate marine pollution and overexploitation of the Gulf’s resources.
Plastic is presently regarded as the most dangerous pollutant, as humanity throws almost ten million tons of plastic into seas and oceans every year.
Though it may seem to us that plastic in the form of small bags, disposable cups, or forks “will disappear” somewhere and completely evaporate, this is far from the truth! In reality, it breaks down into very small particles called microplastics. As small as ten microns in diameter, they can penetrate our body cells.
Currently, we may be consuming microplastics with fish, meat, and water. For example, in the United States, according to research, 97% of bottled water contains microplastics. From the treatment plant, these particles are distributed everywhere. The fish takes them in, and we eat the fish. This ultimately causes cancer in humans, as these particles are foreign to our bodies.
And besides microplastics, there are also microfibers. Every time you wash your clothes, these fibers enter the environment, traveling through sewer pipes into rivers and seas.
How far has the UAE progressed on the issue of water security?
In the Gulf countries, water and food security are a priority, because as soon as the imports of food stop, disaster follows. Water security is a problem for the whole world, but for us, it takes the first place.
2 billion people globally are faced with water scarcity. The UN predicts that by 2050 more than a third of humanity will not have enough drinking water to sustain themselves.
The problem is especially acute for the Gulf countries since they have scarce natural sources of water. Therefore, there must be a heightened focus on water security.
Desalination of seawater is a potential solution, but it is extremely expensive and negatively affects the marine ecosystem. The UAE is now working comprehensively on alternatives to desalination, looking for ways to ensure water security without endangering the marine environment.
Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi is currently developing nanotechnology to simplify water desalination. The UAE also ranks first in the world for cloud seeding programs to stimulate rainfall. Cloud seeding in the UAE is now getting really advanced, due to the great program at the National Center of Meteorology.
(In our article, you can read about the results of the program – the first rain in the middle of summer in many years. https://ecolife.ae/its-raining-in-the-uae-for-the-first-time-in-the-middle-of-summer-the-successful-testing-of-cloud-seeding-technologies/)
Both programs are designed to help with the scarce groundwater in the Gulf, as “traditional” desalination is becoming more and more difficult.
Are there any prospects for urban farming in the Gulf?
The Zayed Foundation for a period of time was awarding the Prize for Urban Farming. It is a viable alternative and is actively being developed in the UAE!
Many people in the Emirates have started their own mini-farms. There are methods developed for this called “water farming”. You don’t need soil for such cultivation, as the plants grow in floating containers. The water, by the way, doesn’t disappear in the sewers but is instead reused, going through three treatment cycles. There are also “urban farmers” who use regular soil to grow food for themselves.
This will directly improve food security. We at the Foundation have shown people that everyone can do farming in a city, albeit in a peculiar way – in containers. People can grow plants in buildings on every floor.
This could potentially save the country from having to import most of its food.
Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution already in the UAE?
We call digitalization the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s the use of programming, nanotechnology, different kinds of software to minimize the consumption of resources in order to get cleaner energy for the country.
Here we can also include advancements in the storage and transmission of energy from solar panels. After all, it is not enough to install renewable energy sources, the energy still needs to be converted for transmission to the network. In Dubai, this issue is handled by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Energy Park. They now have a very big research center working on the task of advancing their own solar panel development, including the aspect of energy transfer.
Generally speaking, energy is still the most important industry in the UAE. It is still an oil state, though the rulers relatively early started implementing clean energy.
The main idea of research in the Emirates is not only to move, for example, to solar panels, but also to make sure that energy transmission is more efficient.
An example of Emirati progress is Masdar in Abu Dhabi, the home of an institute that researches the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The UAE is known to have been focusing on the issues of the green economy as of late.
The UAE is actually one of the first countries to seriously talk about the green economy. The Zayed Foundation have kept up with trends and have hosted a conference on this topic.
So far the UAE authorities have advanced quite far with natural resource conservation technologies. Almost all the latest green developments could be found here; sometimes even get ahead of Europe and the USA. Observing this support for technology firsthand, I believe in a sustainable future for the Emirates.
The implementation of all these important projects requires support from the population, especially the youth. What is being done to advance and promote eco-ideas to the general public?
Our goal of spreading knowledge was first realized through a newspaper supplement with Al Bayan. It was just 10 pages of text that later grew into an independent magazine called Society and Environment.
It is published in English and Arabic, and both versions differ in content and editorial composition. The Foundation addresses people from different cultures, and therefore, while eco-news are the same in both versions, articles are different.
There were also experiments with publishing a children’s magazine “Friends of Nature”. We also used to put out a booklet for 8 to 14-year-olds. It featured, characters in stories discussing eco-topics.
In 2003, the Foundation began publishing a series of books united by the principle “Specialists writing to non-specialists”, where scientists deliberately express their thoughts and pass on knowledge in a language accessible to teachers, the media, politicians, and other non-scientists.
The series included important eco-topics such as (Environmental Management), (Environmental Planning), (Green Economy), (Desalination) and (Water Security in the Arab Region). Overall, there have been 29 books on various topics published so far. The range of themes is wide – water, resources, water security, desalination, forests, energy – in a word, all the burning regional & global eco-issues.
We also published toolkits. For example, we have a joint publication with United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) on cleaning up contaminated areas. It will guide technical teams to clean sites contaminated with persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which are difficult to remove from ecosystems. Two similar toolkits were issued for municipal & industrial wastewater treatment.
Those toolkits give a complete set of advice to technicians, people responsible for “fieldwork”: from design & equipment repair and maintenance to public relations. Such books can also help authorities to make the right decisions to protect the environment.
The Foundation had books on eco-management, on “green building”, and on the cultivation of mangrove forests near the sea, on the protection and stability of fish resources.
All these publications introduced the concept of “project management” to the people in charge. They also helped the media and teachers spread eco-messages in their circles.
Desalination plant in RAK (Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates)
What is your vision when it comes to the future work of the Foundation?
We intend to disseminate technological and scientific knowledge about the most relevant issues for the Gulf region & the world at large – climate change, desalination, renewable energy.
Going forward, for example, we will talk more about electric vehicles and their impact on the environment, seeing how everyone is wondering if they are more sustainable than traditional cars.
There will also be a webinar on hydrogen. It is the energy source of the future that will be more popular than solar panels.
And in September, we will have a webinar on space dumps. Have you heard of these? Or, say, about “dead satellites” and how many of them are there? A guy from NASA and other experts will talk about turning space into a garbage heap. We have some ambitious plans, but they are only a part of the work that needs to be done by mankind to preserve the planet Earth for future generations.