Identify and Discuss the Key Environmental Issues and Sustainability Challenges Affecting Riyadh City

Subject: Sociology
Type: Exploratory Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 1764
Topics: Sustainability, Environmental Issues, Geography

The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) defined sustainable development as the “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (pp.53). According to Alturki (2015), the overheads of development should not have adverse effects on future generations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has shown remarkable progress in the efforts towards sustainable development (Husain & Khalil, 2013). Riyadh City is the kingdom’s Capital. The city, founded in 1902, comprises an initial geographical footprint of 2.2 km2 and a population of 8000 people. In 1960, Riyadh began to develop and progressively propagated to a modern city. By the year 2008, the city had expanded to more than 2700 km2 with a population of close to 5 Million people (Ibrahim, 2010). Like many other developing cities, Riyadh has its share of challenges hampering progress towards sustainable development. 

For instance, in the environment sector, sustainable development faces challenges such as organic waste, pollution and urban development (Arab News, 2016).In agreement, Choguill (2008) asserts that Riyadh’s population has a propensity for excessive consumption. As a result, the city has an extravagant global ecological footprint, which coupled with the human impact on Riyadh, threatens the city’s environmental sustainability. Choguill (2008), further adds that Riyadh suffers a limitation in water resources, a situation that also prevails in electricity. Provision of these facilities to the population of Riyadh is quite expensive. These factors, together with the massive subsidies for services, give rise to uncertainty as regards Riyadh’s economic stability. Without economic and environmental sustainability, Riyadh is at risk of social non-sustainability (Choguill, 2008).Choguill (2008) further adds that social sustainability arises from all other elements being in equilibrium. In this paper, I choose to discuss environmental and economic issues since social sustainability is a “by-product” of the two.

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Environmental Issues Challenging Riyadh’s Progress towards Sustainable Development

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia faces environmental challenges such as the decline of air quality in urban centres, scarcity of fresh water, industrial pollution, and waste management, to mention but a few (Husain & Khalil, 2013).In a workshop titled “Friendly Sustainable Environment” Ibrahim Al-Shaye listed organic waste, pollution and urban development as some of the environmental issues affecting sustainable development in Riyadh (Arab News, 2016). Also, Riyadh has an extravagantly large ecological footprint (Choguill, 2008).

Riyadh is a city in the heart of the desert (Arab News, 2016), a geographical setting with limited renewable freshwater resources (Husain & Khalil, 2013). Nevertheless, Riyadh’s population uses large quantities of water with an approximation of over 2000 litres per household in one day (Ledraa, 2012). Water resources get further depleted by the increase in agricultural and landscaping activities (Husain & Khalil, 2013). 

As the extraction of water from non-renewable resources increases, so does the use of alternative sources to sustain Riyadh’s growing population. Such sources include desalination for potable water and treatment of effluent for other purposes including recharging aquifers. As a result of the increased use of alternative methods, there ensues air pollution and, consequently, deteriorating air quality. The air quality in Riyadh is another environmental factor slowing progress towards sustainable development. Besides the desalination plants, there are also many refineries, gas/oil separation plants, and power plants in Riyadh (Husain & Khalil, 2013). These plants contribute to air pollution through the use of heavy fuel oil rich in sulphur. As a result, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulphur dioxide get released into the air. When VOCs combine with nitrogen oxides and sunlight, there is an increase in the levels of ozone in the atmosphere. According to Husain and Khalil (2013), Riyadh city ranks among the highest in the concentration of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone and inhalable particulates, elements which have adverse health effects.

As Husain and Khalil (2013) postulate, another environmental issue hindering sustainable development is waste management. The burning of heavy fuel oil for use in power plants produces lots of thick fuel oil fly ash. Even after using these by-products in the production of other products such as fertiliser, there is still about five to eight metric tons of waste residues such as phosphogypsum and red mud that requires proper disposal (Husain & Khalil, 2013). These waste materials, if not properly disposed of, can result in the release of trace elements such as sulphur and phosphorous into the environment. There is also a risk of the contamination of ground water by radioactive materials which could be hazardous for future generations.

Household consumption also contributes to environmental non-sustainability. According to Ledraa (2012), households consume sizeable amounts of energy, water, and land and dispose of massive quantities of waste. Rapid population growth, nucleation of families and the younger generations’ shift towards independence and individualism, are factors likely to increase the number of households and simultaneously, the amount of waste disposed of into the environment. More waste results in more pollution and thus poses a threat to the health of both current and future generations.

Environmental degradation can have dire socio-economic consequences, and for Riyadh to achieve sustainable development, the city will have to reduce the environmental burden. There is an incontrovertible interconnection between the environment and economic growth (Husain and Khalil, 2013). Environmental sustainability ensures that the city conserves its water resources. As a result, there will be less need to resort to alternative methods of providing freshwater. With less desalination, there is less air and industrial pollution, and consequently, waste disposal is to a minimum. The result is a sustainable city that caters for the needs of future generations. In a workshop on sustainable development(Arab News, 2016), Sara Ba’ashin emphasises the importance of building environmental preservation around the world. She suggested that progress towards environmentally friendly sustainable development begins with unified global efforts towards protecting the environment. Environmental health can be achieved through enhanced water resources, use of clean energy, improved air quality and the reduction of the effects of urban development (Arab News, 2016).

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Economic Challenges Facing Riyadh’s Progress towards Sustainable Development

According to Choguill (2008), it is possible to have a cost-effective development which neither degrades the environment nor reduces productivity. One of the economic aspects hindering progress towards sustainable development in Riyadh is the cost of development. Processes such as desalination and treatment of effluent are quite expensive. Choguill (2008) asserts that the cost of desalination is up to 5 to 10 times more than the cost of developing conventional water resources.

Further, Riyadh offers many subsidies for public services. For instance, the city provides water and electricity services to its citizens at a fraction of the productivity cost (Choguill, 2008). Though this practice is beneficial to the current generations, future generations may be adversely affected. Saudi’s oil reserves will probably serve another 60 or so years. The export of oil allows the Saudi Government the luxury of affording subsidised services to its citizens. According to Choguill, if this money gets spent elsewhere, say towards the development of substitutes to the oil-dependent economy, then this would be a positive step towards sustainable development. Availing substitutes to oil guarantees that future generations also enjoy a comfortable living. In line with this assertion, Alturki (2015)asserts that extensive subsidising can result in undervaluing of precious resources. For instance, the cost of production of water is around $1.60/m3whereas residents pay $0.04/m3. According to Alturki (2015), this system unsustainable in the long term.

Gasoline is also highly subsidised. As a result, Riyadh’s population has a propensity for luxury consumption (Choguill, 2008). This trend is evident in the rapid growth of big shopping centres and also in the increasing car ownership. According to Aldalbahi and Walker (2016), between 1968 and 1996, average car ownership per household in Riyadh increased by more than 200%.

Figure 1 Population and Car Ownership in Riyadh 1968 – 2021 (Source; Aldalbahi & Walker, 2015)

Figure 1: Population and Car Ownership in Riyadh 1968 – 2021 (Source; Aldalbahi & Walker, 2015)

As a result of excessive consumption, Riyadh has a massive ecological footprint. Choguill (2008) refers to an ecological footprint as the land requirement to sustain the urban population indeterminately. Riyadh has an environmental footprint that is more than a hundred times larger than the city itself.

Wastage also results in unnecessary costs and which threaten economic sustainability and consequently hinder the progress towards sustainable development. For example, more than 31% of Riyadh’s total water supply goes to waste (Alturki, 2015). The author further adds that wastage of water through leaks, spills, and evaporation could cost Riyadh up to $2.1 billion, in a period of twenty years. This amount of money can be helpful in developing substitutes for oil as the economy bearer. Riyadh can ease the problem of water wastage by investing in repairs. It might be costly, but it will be beneficial in the long run.

The effects of pollution also take an economic toll on Saudi’s cities. According to Alturki (2015), the cost of repairing the health, property and environmental damage done by pollution outweighs the expenses anti-pollution technology. Investing in anti-pollution technology can be a positive step towards attaining sustainable development. With anti-pollution technology, industries are more resource efficient and profitable, and the consumption of raw materials decreases, therefore promoting progress towards sustainable development.

Economic non-sustainability poses a threat to sustainable development in that cities spend lots of resources on unstable systems and projects.

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In summation, Riyadh has been growing steadily for the past few decades. However, like all developing cities, the city faces challenges in its progress towards sustainable development. Such problems include limited water resources, deteriorating air quality, wastage of resources, massive ecological footprint, and industrial pollution, among others. Environmental and economic non-sustainability can culminate in social non-sustainability and consequently, non-sustainable development.

Environmental degradation hinders the progress towards sustainable development in that it also hinders economic development. Pollution can result in disease and disability and thus, block economic development since growth requires a healthy population. Financial burden as a result of pollution-related illness also results in slow economic development. This correlation between environmental sustainability and economic growth is not only one-way. Economic development can also lead to environmental degradation. For instance, factors of economic development such as industrialisation contribute to pollution among a myriad of other factors.

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH, 2016), it is possible to have sustainable development that is both cost-effective and environmentally friendly. For example, provision of clean water and sanitation, and burning of biomass reduces the exposure of people to pollution-related illnesses. As a result, there is an alleviation in the cost of treating such diseases and also a healthy economy through a productive population.  

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  1. Aldalbahi, M., and Walker, G. (2016). Riyadh Transportation History and Developing Vision.
  2. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 216, pp.163-171.
  3. Alturki, F. (2015). Promoting Sustainable Development through Environmental Law: Prospects for Saudi Arabia. Ph. D. Pace University.
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