A New Fuel in the Middle East

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, March 1994 | Go to article overview
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A New Fuel in the Middle East


Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review


THE prospect of substantial natural gas discoveries around the Red Sea is about to bring together the governments of the area -- some of them hostile neighbours -- in a co-ordinated effort to safeguard their common environment. They are drafting a new regional management plan to promote development while protecting the coastline's intricate coral reefs, endemic island wildlife and marine biodiversity.

The Red Sea is still relatively untouched but may soon be affected by very large scale industrial investment. Huge natural gas reserves are believed to lie beneath the desert adjacent to the coastlines and perhaps also beneath the seabed. An environment-oriented common development plan would limit the inevitable damage by introducing legislative and administrative safeguards designed to balance the many conflicting long-term interests of the region.

The project is vigorously being promoted by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and other international agencies concerned with the energy industry as well as finance and the environment.

All the governments of the region are responding positively. The most enthusiastic among them is Egypt which has already introduced a national strategy for the conversion of all of its electricity generating plants to burn gas -- the most benign among the fossil fuels -- in order to reduce local carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

EGYPT ECONOMIC INDICATORS

GNP per capita                         $660
External debt.                    $40.6 bn.
Growth rate             1.6 per cent (1991)
Inflation rate         9.15 per cent (1992)
Exports                            $4.7 bn.
Imports                            $9.0 bn.

Main Trade Partners     Exports     Imports
(per cent)

USA                       7.6        16.1
Germany                   3.7        10.4
France                    5.9         6.9
Italy                    14.8         6.8
Saudi Arabia              3.1         1.7
EEC                      28.3        27.6
Eastern Europe           12.3        21.4
Japan                     5.0         3.0
Other Arab States         3.8         3.0

Sources: Egyptian government and UNEP

Egypt is launching a new coastal management project with the help of a $4.75m grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a fund run by several UN agencies. The project will help the government to assess the environmental impact of gas exploration along the coastline, improve the enforcement of environmental rules and the management of coral reef habitats and to set aside valuable or vulnerable marine zones for protection.

The programme will provide the under-funded national specialist agencies with training and money as well as a clear mandate for future environmental protection and management.

GEF provides grants to fund projects that address environmental issues affecting more than one country. Its Egyptian project fits in well with other efforts to protect the Red Sea from industrial degradation, pollution and uncontrolled development.

The Yemen government at the southern tip of the Red Sea is currently working on oil pollution issues on the coastline with help from the fund. GEF is also at work on the development of a broader Red Sea regional framework plan aimed at co-ordinating environmental activities in the area.

If successful, the Egyptian GEF plan could set a model for future collaboration involving the countries surrounding the Red Sea. Indeed, talks have recently taken place between Egypt and Sudan and between Saudi Arabia and Yemen to settle conflicts in their border areas.

A specialist spokesman for GEF observes: 'The Red Sea projects reflect a growing awareness that future development will affect the well-being of peoples living in the countries that claim shores on that rich body of water'.

The semi-enclosed Red Sea is the world's most saline body of water connected to the oceans, touching the Mediterranean in the north through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean in the south through the shallow Bab el Mandab strait.

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