Smashing the Arab world’s glass ceiling

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab women are not waiting for others to empower them, they are doing it for themselves. Over 40 are on the list of the most influential young Arabs.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Despite Arab revolutionaries’ dream of equality and empowerment for all, the cause of female emancipation has taken such a battering that the dream has turned into a nightmare for many women across the region. This is nowhere more poignantly illustrated than with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Fortunately, there is some cause for hope amid the despair. This was dramatically demonstrated this week with the release of a list of the most powerful Arabs outside of politics under the age of 40. Of these young movers and shakers, more than 40, by my count, are women.

All highly educated and ambitious, the women who appear on this league table have found success in a dizzyingly wide array of fields, including science, technology, political activism, the arts, the media, entertainment, entrepreneurship, business and finance. In a region notorious for its neglect of science and research, these high-flying women count a certified mathematical genius, IT whizzes and leading scientists in their ranks.

One interesting pattern is the large number of women from the Gulf, especially the UAE (16), who appear on the power list, though quite a number are not native to the Gulf. This conflicts with the widely held perception in the West and the traditional liberal centres of the Arab world that Gulf women are the most marginalised and disempowered in the region.

This is an encouraging sign that, despite the entrenched power of the patriarchy and regressive legislation on the Arabian peninsula, women there are fighting back and carving out a niche for themselves.

However, it would be a mistake to read this as evidence that Gulf women are necessarily the most influential in the region. Other factors play a role in their dominance of this list. One is the inevitable subjectivity of such an exercise. The league was compiled by ArabianBusiness.com, a Dubai-based financial publication. Whether intentionally or not, this is bound to introduce both geographical bias and a tendency to skew the list more towards business and finance, where the Gulf has a huge advantage.

This would explain some of the unclear choices, such as Nayla Al Khaja. Though as the UAE’s first female film producer and director, she is undoubtedly a trailblazer and pioneer, that is not the same as being influential. What about those legion female directors from the Arab world’s more-established cinematic centre who make ground-breaking films which reach wider audiences?

Regardless of where they come from, the prominence and sheer number of these successful and influential young women seem to stand at odds with the image of the Arab woman as oppressed and repressed.

Part of the reason is the warping effect of the media and public consciousness, where those who scream the loudest or commit the worst atrocities capture the most attention, while those who quietly get on with the business of life only receive footnote-sized attention.

"I believe that women have always been powerful." - Reem Khouri

“I believe women have always been powerful.” – Reem Khouri

“I believe women have always been powerful, but today they have a better chance to be recognised for their amazing work,” says Palestinian-Jordanian social entrepreneur Reem Khouri, citing the example of her Palestinian great-grandmother who bucked social convention in the 1920s to send her daughter to school.

And, indeed, Arab history is replete with powerful and successful women. “The fact that we, as the rest of society, have failed to see that is our shortcoming, not theirs,” contends Mohamed El Dahshan, a young Egyptian economist and activist who also made the list.

Beyond this, and counterintuitive as it may sound, there is actually a quiet social revolution taking place largely under the radar in which women, tired of waiting to be granted their own rights, have taken their causes into their own hands, in a phenomenon I call the “underground sisterhood”.

“I think that women aren’t waiting for someone to give them their rights to dream and achieve, rather they are doing it,” Khouri told me.

This is reflected in, for instance, how many of the women on the list achieved their success against the odds, in spite of, not thanks to, the prevalent order. “I owe this to my mother,” Afrah Nasser, the prominent young Yemeni journalist and blogger, admitted to me with disarming simplicity. “[She] managed to fight an abusive husband, fight a patriarchal Yemeni society which did not accept her as a divorced woman, and struggle financially to feed her two daughters.”

“I owe this to my mother. [She] managed to fight an abusive husband, fight a patriarchal Yemeni society which did not accept her as a divorced woman, and struggle financially to feed her two daughters.”  - Afrah Naser

“I owe this to my mother. [She] managed to fight an abusive husband, fight a patriarchal Yemeni society which did not accept her as a divorced woman, and struggle financially to feed her two daughters.” – Afrah Naser

As someone raised by a tough, dedicated, no-nonsense and selfless Arab mother, I totally appreciate what Nasser means.

But it would be a mistake to believe that it is only women who stand by women in their pursuit of success and equality, many fathers and brothers do too – what you can call the “new” Arab man, who is actually not new at all.

In addition, in Arab societies, where family is a mighty force, open-minded families are a great help in creating a conducive environment for women’s success. “I was brought up by parents who never differentiated between my brother and I and who continuously supported me in anything I wanted to pursue,” admits Khouri.

The fact that two-fifths of the 100 most influential under-40s are women is also a sign of a generational shift in gender attitudes among millions of young Arabs. One important factor in this regard is the emerging importance of meritocracy in many Arab circles, according to El Dahshan. “And a meritocracy, conceptually, is gender-blind,” he explains.

Beyond that, though sidelined by the established order, the youth who propelled the Arab revolutions also tend to believe in gender-blind meritocracy.

And, in part, the counterrevolutions and Islamist insurgencies gripping the region are a backlash against the equalising power of the region’s youth. The regime and jihadist violence we are witnessing, especially against women, is not a sign of the strong flexing their muscles but of the weak lashing out in panic as their bankrupt ideologies and political experiments fail the test of reality.

But as the largest and youngest demographic group in Arab society, the young have time and numbers on their side.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 April 2015.

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Dispelling the curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Conflict between Nile basin countries has been averted. But unless effective action is taken, a water war remains a distinct future possibility.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

War has been avoided. As Yemen becomes the latest battleground in what future historians might call the Middle East’s “World War”, news like this is welcome indeed.

The averted casus belli was the Grand Renaissance Dam – slated to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa – which Ethiopia began constructing in 2011 at the source of the Blue Nile, which supplies some 60% of the great river’s water.

This move made Egypt very nervous and angered decision-makers in Cairo. This was owing to fears that the new barrier would adversely affect the flow of water downstream, bringing potential drought and turning Egypt from the “gift of the Nile” into its curse.

Once completed, the dam will actually have a negligible impact on river flow to Sudan and Egypt, unless Ethiopia decides to divert its waters to irrigation projects elsewhere. Ethiopia even claims it will increase water to Egypt because of the lower evaporation levels in its temperate highlands.

However, the 65.5 billion cubic meters –the equivalent of about one year’s flow to Egypt – required to fill the Great Renaissance’s reservoir troubled Cairo because it could potentially affect millions of farmers and harm the country’s electricity-generating capacity.

These fears – both real and exaggerated – prompted Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, to engage in some poetic sabre-rattling. “We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary,” he threatened in 2013.

And his government considered moving beyond semantics. A closed cabinet meeting which was accidentally and embarrassingly broadcast live on air showed ministers brainstorming ideas for spreading disinformation, dispatching special forces and backing rebels in Ethiopia.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Morsi-appointed defence minister who ousted his patron following mass protests, began by pursuing a similarly inflexible position, with Egypt lobbying the international community to halt the project.

Despite al-Sisi’s reckless willingness to go to war in Yemen and his brutal and violent repression of opposition, he wisely decided that diplomacy was more effective than force with Ethiopia. “We have chosen co-operation, and to trust one another for the sake of development,” al-Sisi said on the occasion of the inking of a declaration of principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

“I confirm the construction of the Renaissance Dam will not cause any damage to our three states and especially to the Egyptian people,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn reassured.

But despite this landmark deal, we are not out of the woods yet. The three countries still need to agree on the pace at which the new dam’s reservoir will be filled – which could prove to be a difficult barrier to cross.

More fundamentally, the longstanding dispute over the allocation of the Nile’s water resources is the greatest potential flashpoint. This could escalate the proxy conflicts between Cairo and Addis Ababa into the kind of full-fledged “water war” which experts have been warning about for decades.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan, leaving Ethiopia high and dry. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic meters, the country is struggling against water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

In such circumstances, it is understandable that Egyptians regard any reduction in flow as an “existential threat” and a national security issue of the first degree.

But Ethiopia and the other upstream countries are also completely justified in being vexed at this unfair distribution. When they were not in a position to make use of the Nile’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue.

However, this situation has changed radically. Ethiopia is developing rapidly and its population is exploding, reaching over 96 million in 2014, which is larger than Egypt’s. Addis Ababa understandably wishes to exploit more of the rains which fall on its territory.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism regarding quotas, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in 2010 seeking to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan.

But the reality is that redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt, as it can actually get by on considerably less water.

For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

Above all, Egypt needs to save its arable land, perhaps the most fertile in the world, which is under threat from rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation. Rising sea levels and the Aswan High Dam’s retention of the silt which used to regenerate the Nile Delta have placed Egypt’s bread basket under severe threat of collapse. This environmental-catastrophe-in-the-making must be addressed urgently.

With the right investment, innovation and planning, the curse of the Nile can be averted and it can continue to be a gift, not just to Egypt, but all the countries through which it flows.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 April 2015.

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Bush, Blair en de blitzkrieg in Irak

 
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Door Khaled Diab

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie van Irak, laten we het idee om Bush en Blair voor het gerecht te brengen nieuw leven inblazen.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Dinsdag 17 juni 2014

Hoe je er ook naar kijkt, de gebeurtenissen hebben een spectaculaire wending genomen. De Islamitische Staat in Irak en de Levant (ISIS), in Syrië in het gedrang gekomen door een offensief van Syrische opstandelingen, heeft sinds begin dit jaar, na de grens met Irak te zijn overgestoken, het noordwesten van dit land stukje bij beetje in handen gekregen.

Deze week is de campagne van ISIS in een stroomversnelling geraakt, waarbij de groepering de tweede stad van Irak, Mosoel, heeft
ingenomen, evenals Tikrit, de geboorteplaats van de voormalige Iraakse dictator Saddam Hoessein al-Tikriti, op een afstand van slechts 140 kilometer van de hoofdstad Bagdad.

Naar verluidt hebben de militanten de grensposten tussen Syrië en Irak uit de weg geruimd, wat van symbolische betekenis is, maar ook kan worden gezien als een teken dat de jihadistische beweging haar doel naderbij ziet komen van de vestiging van een islamitische staat in beide landen.

Als gevolg van het offensief van ISIS zijn honderdduizenden Irakezen, die al lang lijden onder alle gevechten, op de vlucht geslagen.
Het meest alarmerend is wellicht dat ISIS, in het Arabisch bekend onder de naam al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, erin geslaagd is deze snelle verovering van noordwest-Irak te verwezenlijken met een krakkemikkige multinationale troepenmacht van slechts drie- tot vijfduizend strijders.

Hoe is dit kunnen gebeuren?

Als New York Times-columnist Thomas Friedman mag worden geloofd, lijkt dit het gevolg van een ideologische strijd tussen islamisten en milieuactivisten: “De echte ideeënstrijd… is de strijd die woedt tussen religieuze extremisten (soennieten zowel als sjiieten) en overtuigde milieuactivisten”, schreef hij.

Het verhaal dat ecostrijders in oorlog zijn met de zelfbenoemde soldaten van God is voor iedereen in het Midden-Oosten groot nieuws.

Het is waar dat het milieu in de regionale conflicten van hetomwater schreeuwende Midden-Oosten een steeds belangrijker onderwerp is en dat veel deskundigen voor de komende decennia ‘wateroorlogen’ voorspellen. Maar een andere vloeistof speelt de hoofdrol in de huidige problemen van Irak: olie.

Het zou makkelijk zijn Friedman, ooit een gevierd oorlogscorrespondent, af te doen als een excentriekeling op leeftijd die zijn realiteitszin volledig is kwijtgeraakt, maar zijn holle frasen zijn niet ongevaarlijk. Als invloedrijke ‘cheerleader’ – die in een beroemde uitspraak de Irakezen “suck on this” heeft voorgehouden – heeft hij publieke steun kunnen werven voor de
invasie en bezetting van Irak.

Maar wat deze jongste episode in een lange reeks van rampen duidelijk laat zien, is dat de Amerikaanse interventie in Irak een totale catastrofe is geweest, die zich sinds de plundering van Bagdad door de Mogollegers in 1258 niet meer op deze schaal heeft voorgedaan.

De grootschalige verwoesting van het land, de ontmanteling van het leger en de ineenstorting van het Baathregime hebben zo’n leemte achtergelaten dat het land is geïmplodeerd en er een burgeroorlog is uitgebroken, waardoor het terrein rijp is gemaakt voor radicale groeperingen die wilden profiteren van de chaos.

Het idee dat Amerika Irak er met overmacht toe zou kunnen dwingen een liberale en welvarende democratie te worden bleek net zo denkbeeldig als de niet-bestaande massavernietigingswapens die Saddam Hoessein volgens Washington in zijn bezit had.

Hoewel Irak onder Saddam Hoessein een onderdrukkend dystopia was dat behoefte had aan radicale veranderingen, kunnen zulke veranderingen niet van buitenaf worden opgelegd, en al helemaal niet met het geweer in de aanslag, door een eigengereide supermacht zonder vervolgscenario.

Het was de erkenning van de misleidende aard van deze misdadig roekeloze onderneming die in 2003 tientallen miljoenen bezorgde burgers over de hele wereld ertoe heeft gebracht de straat op te gaanomte betogen tegen de voorgenomen invasie. Deze leidde ook tot de ernstigste trans-Atlantische vertrouwenscrisis uit de recente geschiedenis, toen Washington België en andere kritische Europese landen de ‘As van de Wezels’ noemde.

Toch zette Washington destijds zijn zin door. Waarom?

Het korte antwoord luidt dat de oorlog nooit over vrijheid of democratie is gegaan – dat was slechts een marketingslogan. Het gingomhet kanaliseren van de Amerikaanse angst en woede na 9/11, teneinde de controle in handen te krijgen over de op één na grootste oliereserves in de wereld en bepaalde bedrijven te verrijken, op kosten van de belastingbetaler.

Als u ook maar enige twijfel koestert over deze realiteit, kijk dan eens naar de saai klinkende maar zeer belangrijke Executive Order
13303, die Amerikaanse firma’s feitelijk carte blanche geeftomin Irak ongestraft te doen wat ze willen.

Gezien de verreikende gevolgen van de Amerikaanse invasie en bezetting denk ik dat het belangrijk is het idee nieuw leven in te blazenomde verantwoordelijken – vooral George W. Bush en Tony Blair – voor het gerecht te brengen. Hoewel de schade hierdoor nooit ongedaan zal kunnen worden gemaakt, zou het de Irakezen niettemin enige genoegdoening bieden voor de verwoesting die de Brits-Amerikaanse invasie in hun land heeft aangericht.

Het zal ook een duidelijk signaal doen uitgaan dat dit soort gedrag niet thuishoort in een wereld die op zoek is naar orde, recht en stabiliteit.

Ik moet bekennen dat ik niet weetwat er tegen de ISIS kanworden ondernomen enwat er kanworden gedaanomde desintegratie van Irak te repareren. Ik weet alleen dat welke koers de buitenwereld ook zal volgen, een militaire interventie gepaard moet gaan met een internationaal mandaat en een helder plan voorwat er moet gebeuren als de “missie is volbracht”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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Criminally reckless in Iraq

 
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By Khaled Diab

The US invasion and occupation caused Iraq to implode into anarchy and then explode into civil war. For that reason, its architects must be prosecuted.

Iraq_Tikrit_2942924b

Monday 16 June 2014

It is a spectacular turn of events by any measure. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/S), on the back foot in Syria following offensives by Syrian rebel groups, has, since the beginning of this year, stolen back across the border into Iraq, conquering the northeast of the country one piece at a time.

Last week, ISIS’s campaign went into overdrive, with the group conquering Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, which lies just 140km away from the capital, Baghdad. No long after, ISIS entered Diyala province, positioning itself less than 100km from the capital, with Nuri al-Maliki’s government launching a panicked counter-offensive.

Of symbolic significance and as a sign that the Jihadist movement is approaching its goal of establishing an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, militants reportedly bulldozed the border between the two countries.

In the wake of ISIS’s thrust, hundreds of thousands of long-suffering Iraqis have taken flight – and for good reason, in light of the videos posted by the Islamist forces which apparently show the gruesome executions of hundreds of captured Iraqi soldiers.

Most alarmingly perhaps is that ISIS, known in Arabic as al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fīl-Iraq weh al-Sham, has managed to achieve this rapid takeover of northeastern Iraq wih a ramshackle multinational militant force of just 3,000-5,000 fighters, not to mention collaborators from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army and Sunni tribal leaders.

How was this possible?

Well, if Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is to be believed, it is down to an ideological battle between Islamists and environmentalists, of all people. “The real of war of ideas… is the one between the religious extremists (Sunni and Shiite) and the committed environmentalists,” he wrote, shortly after Mosul had been taken.

The novel notion that eco-warriors are doing battle with the self-appointed soldiers of God would be news to just about everyone in the Middle East.

It is true that the environment in the water-stressed Middle East is an ingredient of growing importance in regional conflicts, and many experts foresee water wars in the decades to come. However, it is another fluid that is at the heart of the dire situation in Iraq today: oil.

It would be easy to dismiss Friedman, once a celebrated war correspondent, as an ageing eccentric who has lost complete touch with reality, but his rantings are not harmless. As an influential, pro-invasion cheerleader – who famously told Iraqis to “suck on this” – he managed to rally public support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Today, the mainstream US media is falling into a similar trap as during the build-up to the invasion in 2003 by misdiagnosing the problem – blaming Barack Obama^s foreign policy, rather than the true villain of this piece.

What this latest episode in a long string of disasters clearly demonstrates is that the US intervention in Iraq has been a total catastrophe unseen in Mesopotamia since the Mogul sacking of Baghdad in 1258.

The wholesale destruction of the country, the disbanding of the army, and the collapse of the Baathist regime left behind such a vacuum that the country first imploded into anarchy and then exploded into a continuous cycle of civil war, creating fertile ground for radical groups to take advantage of the chaos.

The idea that America could “shock and awe” Iraq into becoming a liberal and prosperous democracy was as illusionary as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction Washington claimed Saddam Hussein possessed.

Although Iraq was an oppressive dystopia under Saddam Hussein and required radical change, such change cannot be imposed from abroad, and especially not at gunpoint by a self-interested superpower with no game-plan.

And it was recognition of the delusional nature of this criminally reckless enterprise that led tens of millions of concerned citizens around the world to pour out onto the streets to oppose the planned invasion in 2003. It also caused the worst transatlantic rift in living memory, with Washington dismissing Belgium and other European critics as the “Axis of Weasels”.

Despite this, Washington went ahead. Why?

The short answer was that the war was never about freedom or democracy – that was just a marketing ploy. It was about channeling post-9/11 American fear and anger to gain control of the world’s second-largest oil reserves and enrich certain corporations at the American taxpayer’s expense.

If you are in any doubt about this reality, consider the dull-sounding but highly significant Executive Order 13303, which basically gives American corporations carte blanche to do what they please in Iraq with impunity.

Given the far-reaching consequences of the US invasion and occupation, I believe it is important to revive the idea of bringing those responsible for it – mainly George W Bush and Tony Blair – to justices.

Although this will not help to undo the damage, it will at least bring some redress to Iraqis for the devastation the Anglo-American invasion visited on their country. It will also send a clear signal that this kind of behavior does not belong in a world seeking law, order, stability and justice.

As for what can be done about ISIS and to repair the disintegration of Iraq, I must confess I do not know. All I know is that whatever course is pursued by the outside world, military intervention must come with an international mandate and there has to be a clear vision and plan for what comes after “mission accomplished”.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first in Dutch in De Morgen on 13 June 2014.

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The curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt is certainly the gift of the Nile, but the great river could become east Africa’s curse. What are the chances of a future ‘water war’?

14 December 2010

The Nile - ©Khaled Diab

The Nile when it arrives in Cairo. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

With the world’s attention distracted by the latest WikiLeaks revelations, Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi did not need a whistleblower to cause his country diplomatic embarrassment: he proved more than capable of doing that all by himself.

Zenawi accused Egypt of backing anti-government rebels in his country and warned that Egypt would be defeated if it tried to invade Ethiopia. “Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story,” he boasted, rather inaccurately. But why would Zenawi, a presumably seasoned politician who has led his country for almost two decades, make such wild allegations without supplying a shred of evidence to back them up, and why now?

Sceptics may conclude that fomenting a manufactured foreign crisis is a classic tactic to divert attention away from the questionable elections earlier this year, which helped Zenawi retain his grip on power and gave his party all but two seats in the parliament. And Zenawi, despite defeating Ethiopia’s “red terror” when he himself was a rebel leader, has largely worn out his welcome with millions of Ethiopians, particularly those living in the cities, as I witnessed first hand while travelling in the country at the time of the 2005 elections.

Zenawi’s political offensive seems to have caught Egypt unawares, with the ageing and increasingly frail-looking President Hosni Mubarak appearing miffed by Ethiopia’s posturing when asked about it by al-Jazeera last week. Nevertheless, like its counterpart in Addis Ababa, the Cairo regime could find a foreign distraction convenient, embroiled as it also is in allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation during last month’s parliamentary elections.

But are there any reasonable grounds for Zenawi’s allegations? Whether or not Egypt is actually backing rebels in Ethiopia, many Ethiopians may be inclined to believe the claim, simply because Egypt has previous form when it comes to meddling in Ethiopia’s affairs.

After Egypt conquered Sudan in the 19th-century, it launched a further campaign to invade Ethiopia, which ended in failure in 1875. In the aftermath of the second world war, Egypt made a cheeky claim for Eritrea at the Paris peace conference, which undoubtedly incensed the Ethiopians. In more recent times, Egypt and other Arab countries provided support to the Eritrean independence movement, in a kind of proxy Arab-Israeli war. However, for all his other failings, President Mubarak has taken a far more nuanced and conciliatory approach than his predecessors towards relations with Ethiopia.

But why this animosity between two countries who – beyond sporadic trading missions that stretch back to ancient times, and the religious link between the Egyptian and Ethiopian Coptic churches – have actually had limited contact and interest in each other’s affairs over the centuries?

Well, one issue above all else has been clouding the waters: the Nile. It is only fairly recently that the discovery was made that some 85% of the Nile’s waters originate in the Ethiopian highlands. Five years ago, when I sat in a boat on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, it was somewhat overwhelming to reflect that here I was many thousands of miles away, floating on Egypt’s life-support system.

Herodcreating sotus once said that Egypt was the gift of the Nile but, in a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for the “eternal river”, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt, one of the driest places on earth, would be little more than a barren desert dotted by occasional oases.

Given Egypt’s almost complete dependence on water from outside its own borders, the Nile is viewed as a major “national security” issue – and one whose importance is growing. To secure its supply, Egypt signed an agreement with Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1929 which gave Egypt 48bn cubic metres of the Nile’s total flow of an average 88bn cubic metres. Following independence, Sudan upped its share to 18.5bn cubic metres and Egypt got 55.5bn.

When the other Nile basin countries were not in a position to make use of the river’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue. However, in recent years they have pursued a drive for more equitable redistribution of the Nile’s resources through the Nile Basin Initiative.

Ethiopia understandably wishes to exploit the rains that fall on its territory to develop its agricultural sector, to stave off starvation, to generate electricity and to stimulate development. Towards that end, it has constructed a number of dams in recent years, including a mega dam.

Despite Egypt’s expressed commitment to sharing the river, the country can barely make ends meet with its current mega quota of Nile water. And, with a burgeoning population and an even drier climate thanks to global warming, Egypt will need even more water in the future. That is why it has been blocking moves to change quotas.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in May to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan. So, could this impasse eventually lead to a water war on the Nile? The idea is not far-fetched, as a number of conflicts already partly revolve around water, including Darfur and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In 1999, the UN, predicting that water would be the main cause of conflict in Africa over the following 25 years, identified the Nile basin as a major flashpoint.

Averting this looming catastrophe involves careful diplomacy, the development of appropriate alternative sources of water (including desalination) and, perhaps above all, urgent population control.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 5 December 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Just say moo

 
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By Osama Diab

Animal rights activists are calling for global vegetarianism, but the Middle East is not ready to sacrifice its meat-eating lifestyle.

9 November 2010

As you sit down at the iftar table, you sneak a glance at the chicken, bulti and mouza (beef shank) fattah on your family’s plates. And then you load your dish up with koshari, tomato and cucumber salad, and as a special treat, meatless mahshi (stuffed vegetables).

Hard to imagine? The idea of choosing to follow a vegetarian diet isn’t new to the Western world, but in the Middle East, the notion is still novel. The American animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is trying to change that. PETA has recently become active in the region, but the organisation — which works to stop the use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and scientific experiments — is facing an uphill battle.

However, that hasn’t stopped PETA from trying to promote vegetarianism in the region through several characteristically quirky initiatives.

In Amman in July, a Jordanian PETA activist wearing a green ankle-length gown covered in lettuce was arrested for trying to conduct what police said was an “unauthorised” one-woman demonstration; she was carrying a sign urging “Let vegetarianism grow on you” in Arabic. At least the police had a sense of humour about the incident: according a 25 July AFP report, the woman was escorted to a restaurant to change her outfit before heading to the police station.

July was a busy month for PETA. Here at home, PETA recruited two women in tight white t-shirts, black mini-skirts and red leggings to dump a large mound of red chili peppers on one of Mohandiseen’s main streets and wave placards with “Spice up your life, go vegetarian.” As Daily News Egypt reported on 18 July, the move backfired: people rushed to collect as many free peppers as they could, with two women even coming to blows over the coveted chilis, which sell for as high as LE 10 per kilogram on the local market.

“Of course, I will not stop eating meat, however expensive it may be,” restaurant owner Mohamed Hassan told the Daily News Egypt. “But now I have a whole lot of peppers, which should last me at least three days.”

Suffice it to say that the Middle East isn’t exactly fertile ground for promoting a lifestyle free of animal products.

A Western lecture
Due to a long history of Western imperialism and foreign intervention in the region, many Egyptians are sensitive to and sceptical about anything that seems to be handed down from on high by the West, especially the United States. There must be some hidden agenda behind it, the argument goes.

Manar Ammar, a local PETA volunteer and animal rights activist, disagrees that a vegetarian lifestyle is too foreign a concept to catch on here. Ammar is a vegan, meaning she does not eat any meat, eggs, dairy and any food prepared or processed with any type of animal product. In support of this philosophy, she cites Surat al-Anaam (Livestock), verse 38 from the Qur’an: “There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.”

“Ali Ibn Abi Taleb [son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)] said ‘Do not make your stomachs become the graveyard of animals’ long before PETA ever existed,” she adds.

She argues that the notion that vegetarianism is a form of cultural imperialism is wrong. “However, the true cultural imperialism is adopting factory farming from the West and applying it here,” she says.

Even without a hidden agenda, PETA’s push for vegetarianism seems culturally clueless in countries where the charitable distribution of meat is an integral part of Islam and common social customs.

Muslims believe that after Prophet Abraham proved his obedience to God by agreeing to sacrifice his son Ismail, God stayed the prophet’s hand and sent a sheep to be sacrificed in the boy’s stead. On Eid el-Adha, every Muslim able to afford it sacrifices an animal as a symbol of Abraham’s devotion to God, and distributes the meat among family members and the poor. The nation’s poor already follow a vegetarian diet based on fuul and taamiya out of necessity, and for many this is the one time of year when they get meat.

While distributing molokheyya and mahshi might be equally appreciated, the religious symbolism of the holiday would be seriously watered down.

Distributing meat is not just a religious duty, but a sign of social status, wealth and generosity. As such, an ‘ordehi‘ (meatless) meal has a negative connotation for many of us, and is considered a gift of lesser quality. It is hard to imagine that celebrations, such as births, weddings and Ramadan iftars without meat or even our beloved Sham al-Neseem holiday without fish and eggs.

Egypt flirted briefly with vegetarianism as a public policy, but had to abandon the effort. In the 1970s, with the price of meat skyrocketing, the government attempted to promote a vegetarian diet for economic reasons. The campaign tried to convince people that plant-based food, such as protein-rich fuul, was a healthier option than our four-footed brethren.

In response, satirical poet Ahmed Fouad Negm wrote one of his most famous poems, Il Fuul wil Lahma (The beans and the meat), with tongue-in-cheek verses announcing that the writer would rather die eating meat than live eating beans.

It’s a sentiment many of us seem to share. “I can’t imagine Egyptians giving up meat,” says Abdulrahman Sherif, a businessman. “Rich Egyptians just can’t live without meat, while poor Egyptians can’t live without at least looking forward to it.”

Saving the world with veggies

Activists like Ammar are hopeful that this climate can change if people understand the economic, health and environmental repercussions of eating meat.

“Poor people will not be giving up meat for animals rights but rather for human rights, for their own right to be fed all year round instead of one day each year,” the PETA volunteer says. She claims that to produce one kilo of meat, 16 kilos of feed are required. “Now imagine if all that land is used to grow vegetables, grains and fruits instead of feed, every one will be fed.”

While reallocating resources away from meat production may yield more food, it ignores the fact that there is already enough food to begin with. On the Frequently Asked Questions webpage, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) notes there is “enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life”. According to the WFP, “the key causes of hunger are natural disasters, conflict, poverty, poor agricultural infrastructure and over-exploitation of the environment,” along with recent financial hardship that have hit families in recent years.

Ammar believes that Islam glorifies humbleness, compassion and looking after one’s health more than it promotes meat. “The Prophet (PBUH) was a semi vegetarian according to many trusted sources. He ate meat rarely and even washed up after eating camel meat. Islam calls for sustainable ways of living in harmony with the planet and its creatures. Throughout the Qur’an, the miracle of creation and animal diversity is very obvious and repeated.”

While vegetarianism (at least by choice) is currently practised by a handful of the nation’s educated elite who might perceive it as the cool thing to do, Ammar is confident that when people are educated about the lifestyle, they will adopt it as a way of healthier living that can save the environment and spread compassion.

It is possible that people will adopt a more healthy and environmentally friendly life when they are educated about it. But there are many other things this nation needs to learn first, such as skills to support themselves and their families. One-third of the country’s population is illiterate and almost half live on less than two dollars a day. Many unprivileged Egyptians struggle to put food on the table – any food, and they have more pressing issues than to watch what they eat.

That said, the way in which meat is produced remains a significant problem and one that should be addressed. A 2006 United Nations study titled Livestock’s long shadow — environmental issues and options states that “[Animal agriculture] should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale.”

Air pollution, water shortages, climate change and land degradation are all issues of critical concerns to us as a nation, and they have more complex causes than just simply global meat production. Some sort of action is certainly needed, but convincing people one by one to give up meat may not be the quickest or most effective way to solve these problems.

Vegetarians are confident that what they’re preaching will certainly lead to results. Given the cultural climate and PETA’s oddball attempts thus far to change hearts and minds, however, don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, pass the shawerma.
This article first appeared in the September 2010 issue of Egypt Today. Republished here with the author’s consent. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved

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When the skies fell silent

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Silent nights, genuinely clear blue skies and the sense that nature is finally fighting back… Am I the only one who enjoyed Iceland’s volcanic eruptions of late?

28 April 2010

Humanity’s obsession is to create order in a world that is essentially chaotic. Earthquakes, tidal waves and now volcanic eruptions are, and have always been, just round the corner. And yet, the master species – as I’m sure we’d like to be recognised – thinks it can create laws, charters and ideas to govern what is essentially ungovernable… nature.

Attempts to mitigate such disasters are always well intended but usually turn out to be pretty pointless. People still die, planes get grounded, businesses go broke, and politicians and leaders make ever-more grand statements on how it will be prevented next time. If it weren’t so tragic it would definitely be comical.

Especially when you think that seemingly our most successful effort to have a real, discernible impact on the planet so far has been to bugger it up with greenhouse gases causing what most people now believe to be man-made climate change.

And this is where Iceland’s volcanic plumes come in, adding a somewhat ironic twist to this ill-feted human desire to control everything, to shape everything in our own image, if you will. The days the planes were silent left Europe’s skies clearer than I can recall in 20 years, free of the lattice of contrails (those puffy trails that follow an aircraft) that disperse and create a haze that blights the sky.

What’s more, the early morning and night flights that have become a part of my usual sleep-deprived existence, living not far from Belgium’s busiest airport, also fell blissfully silent. Again, I’m looking for the downside to this eruption.

Sure, it left people all over the world stuck wondering if they would ever see their loved ones again – the last time the vocano Eyjafjallajökull fired up in 1821 it apparently lasted over a year. It even affected a colleague who was covering a conference I should have attended in Valencia on the Thursday and Friday when it first erupted. He e-mailed me with the subject line “stuck in Valencia”.

My first thought was that my Manchester-based colleague could do worse than being stuck in sunny Spain for the weekend, but when the story started to develop it really did look like he could be there for untold days… and on my payroll!

Anyway, long-story-short, he jumped a bus on Friday night to Lyon, a TGV to Paris, the Eurostar to London, a train to Derby and his wife drove down and picked him up in the early hours of Sunday morning. I’ve since learned that, compared to tens of thousands of stranded travellers, he (and as it happens my budget) got off quite lightly.

So despite this little personal hick-up, I have to say I’ve enjoyed the volcanic fallout. Alas, as I write this just days after the all-clear was given, plane after plane thunders overhead as arilines desperately try to clear the backlog of airmail, perishable tropical fruit and passengers.

Still, I wonder if this little taste of ‘quiet Earth’ might leave a fallout of another kind: we’ve now seen that perhaps we can do without long weekends in Egypt, business confabs in California and New Zealand lamb.

Yes, the skies were silent but I could hear the faintest sound of a wind change.

Published with the author’s permission. © Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Trashy fascism

 
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By Christian Nielsen

I spend so much time sorting my rubbish that I’m thinking of putting it on my CV as a skill or taking it up as a profession.

1 April 2010

I’m serious about this. The yearly calendar issued by the local council in the Belgian town where I live is colour-coded to help hapless citizens know which sort of rubbish goes out each week – recyclables, organic and garden waste, ‘big rubbish’, clothes, cartons, Christmas trees… Apparently, it all gets ferried off to a giant sorting centre and eventually repurposed into children’s playgrounds, or something more useful than ground fill and high-temperature incineration.

[I’m not going to get into the rumours that it actually just gets piled up somewhere hidden and eventually incinerated or shipped to Africa. That would be too cynical.]

All I know is if you get this recycling and sorting business wrong, there will be consequences. You come home from work to find your blue recycling bag has been left in front of your house for all to see what a ‘recycling twit’ you are – a large red sticker with some sort of insignia, maybe a middle finger, leaving no doubt you have been punished. You drag the thing back through the house again, dripping a trail of sour yoghurt, and sift through the contents to see what offensive material you have dared to try to throw out – sorry, I mean save the planet with.

So now, I wash out milk cartons before putting them in the blue bag, hold up washing liquid containers to the pictograph guides to see if they’re ‘acceptable rubbish’, consult the website when new yoghurt packages come on the market to see if they’re to be included.

As I pass the environmental ‘black houses’, those who bear the shame of ‘fout’ sticker on their garbage, I feel something akin to self-righteous anger. I now put in the time, do the homework and the sorting groundwork during the week, so why can’t they do it?

And this is how it starts. Maybe I’ll join a citizen’s movement and we‘ll mete out some rough justice, a scalable set of punishments for anti-green garbage behaviour. Or I’ll start a vigilante group scouting the nearby forest for illegal rubbish dumpers, the ones who don’t want to pay the whopping sum for ‘general rubbish’ bags – containing everything you’re too lazy to sort. This is the government’s very own punitive measure to make sure citizens use the recycling bags or facilities, which are naturally cheaper.

In this scenario, the garbage Gestapo put dumpers on the lowest wrung of the social ladder. They would be made to wear the red fout stickers as an arm band. Repeat offences could even lead to banishment, some sort of Gitmo for environmental antisocialists. The climate change sceptics could also go there, along with smokers, frequent flyers, and people who have too many children, drive big cars and have dogs and cats (apparently they have a big CO2 footprint, what with all that meaty food, pampering and shit) – not necessarily in that order.

I’d love to go on and create a whole fantastic new ‘garbage’ world order, but it’s Wednesday night – rubbish night, as it happens – so I don’t have any time to waste. I wouldn’t want to get it wrong this week.

Published with the author’s permission. © Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Climate change in Camelot

 
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By Robert Adler

In South Dakota, everyone knows that the climate is just right – and that global warming is just the hot air of science.

Monday 15 March 2010

“It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.

The climate must be perfect all the year.

A law was made a distant moon ago here:

July and August cannot be too hot.

And there’s a legal limit to the snow here

In Camelot.”

– Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederic Loewe

 The legislature of the State of South Dakota distinguished itself by passing an anti-climate change resolution – House Concurrent Resolution No. 1009 – in February.

 No, the legislature did not follow King Arthur’s lead by attempting to stabilise the state’s climate by decree. Instead, it called for “the balanced teaching of global warming” in South Dakota’s public schools, borrowing the language and tactics of the ongoing campaign to force the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in America’s schools.

On a 36 to 20 vote, South Dakota’s House of Representatives urged the state’s schools to teach that global warming is a theory rather than a proven fact. Teachers are to impress on students that the significance and “interrelativity” of the “variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological [sic], thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics” that determine global weather patterns are “largely speculative”, and that the scientific investigation of global warming has been “complicated and prejudiced” by “political and philosophical viewpoints.”

The resolution concludes with a seemingly innocent statement urging that “all instruction on the theory of global warming be appropriate to the age and academic development of the student and to the prevailing classroom circumstances”.

The phrase I’ve italicised is a coded way of warning teachers not to present climate change in a way that might anger students or parents who believe that climate change is a hoax hatched by the UN to frighten ordinary citizens, justify draconian laws and enrich greedy scientists. It’s similar to language advocated by the right-wing group Students for Academic Freedom in its ‘Academic Bill of Rights’, which has been used to attack and even sue college professors whose teaching goes against the beliefs of conservative students.

 It’s all too easy to trivialise the South Dakota House Resolution and poke holes in the facts and reasoning advanced to support it. The resolution’s use of “astrological” instead of “astronomical”, the flawed list of anti-climate-change evidence it presents – that the earth has been cooling for the last eight years, that there is no evidence of warming in the troposphere, that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but “the gas of life” – and the argument that the existence of naturally driven climate change in the past rules out human-caused climate change today, makes for a document that’s hard to take seriously.

 Even South Dakota’s senate seems to agree. They stripped out the most embarrassing verbiage before passing their own version of the resolution on 24 February.

 I suppose that, from a European perspective, the whole issue may seem quaint and laughable – just another example of America’s amusing lack of sophistication.

 Unfortunately, the resolution has to be taken seriously. It stands as the latest – but by no means the last – skirmish in a long and continuing battle for the minds, as well as the hearts, of America’s children. As reported by New Scientist, the Texas school board – whose annual purchase of some 48 million textbooks allows it to determine what most of the nation’s children study – voted last March to require textbooks to question the existence of global warming, and, in an astonishing kowtow to “young-earth creationists”, deleted the 14-billion-year age of the universe from the science curriculum.

 It’s not just climate change, evolution, or the age of the earth which are in the crosshairs in this battle, but science as a whole. The religious-conservative movement that helps elect creationist school board members across the country, state legislators like Resolution 1009’s author, Don Kopp, the 110 members of the United States Congress who win perfect ratings from ultraconservative groups, or Senator James Inhofe who now wants to file criminal charges against US and British climate scientists, has a far more ambitious agenda – nothing less than to replace the pluralistic secular humanism that most people think has defined the United States since its inception with religious fundamentalism.

 The movement dates at least to the 1980s, when the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition with the stated goal of advancing a Christian agenda nationwide through grassroots activism. This still-growing movement has made it clear that it is determined to redefine America in the light of the “truth” that the nation was founded not on the basis of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but on fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They see the Bible as true and the Constitutional wall separating church and state as a dangerous myth. Be it evolution, global climate change, or embryonic stem cell research, when science gets in the way, it will be attacked.

 As reported in the New York Times, attacking climate change along with evolution may be a way to get around court rulings that so far have found that singling out evolution for so-called balanced presentation in textbooks and classes is clearly religiously motivated and violates the separation of church and state. By also targeting global warming, the age of the universe, or the origin of life, anti-evolutionists can claim that they are merely advocating academic freedom and fair play.

 And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that the same politicians who depend on the votes of true believers also depend on campaign contributions by corporations that are strongly motivated to keep pumping crude oil, mining coal, and pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

 At least in the United States, this is not a challenge to which scientists and those who recognise that science can only thrive in an environment that values facts and reason over Bible-based belief and God-given truth can remain indifferent or uninvolved. A war has been declared, and scientists and their supporters can no more wish it away than South Dakota’s legislators can resolve away global climate change.

Published with the author’s permission. ©Robert Adler. All rights reserved.

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Green motoring in bloom

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Lean, green commuting machines will be the new black for Belgian fleet car managers this year.

29 January 2010

“Go, greased lightning, you’re burning up the quarter mile. Greased lightning, go greased lightning […] You are supreme, uh ah, the chicks’ll cream, uh ah, for greased lightning.”

It’s hard to forget this iconic song from the movie Grease. For a few too many of us, this era of gas-guzzling sports cars still resonates. But with an environmental crisis looming and an economic one still in play, the fast and flash cars that used to turn heads in admiration could soon turn them downward in shame.

Every day, a growing number of the 5 million cars in Belgium crawls into Brussels – most of them still running on fossil fuels. It’s a daily ritual repeated in cities across the European Union – so it’s no surprise that around 12% of EU carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions can be traced back to cars.

The world’s leaders are not blind to this environmental failure. They responded more than a decade ago with the Kyoto Protocol to pressure nations into cutting greenhouse gas emissions, largely blamed for global warming and climate change problems. A raft of national and EU regulations targeting industrial and transport-related pollution then followed.

Despite the lacklustre outcome at the Copenhagen Summit (COP15) in December, the trend towards greener life decisions will continue to gather momentum. More fuel-efficient petrol cars will gradually yield to hybrid electric-petrol cars which will probably be overtaken by next-generation electric cars once the scientists perfect the battery technology and better infrastructure is in place for recharging.

Change you can feel

Belgium is also joining the green car chorus with surprising gusto. For instance, if you drive a low CO2 emitting car, the banking and insurance group Ethias will give you a 10% reduction on the premium. And the Belgian government will pat you on the back as well. As from 1 January this year, it is offering tax concession on personal use of company cars which emit less carbon dioxide (see box).

“We are in favour of modifying the existing fiscal system for business car use,” says Danny Smagghe, spokesperson for Belgium’s automobile club Touring, “providing it doesn’t cost drivers more!”

Touring makes no distinction between hybrids and ordinary vehicles in its service offering, Smagghe says. Its breakdown crews are already well-trained to deal with what he calls “cars of the future”.

Positive signs of change all round, then? Well, not exactly.

It’s a fair bet that diesel fans and petrol-heads would rather have an amputation than be seen driving an electric car, which to them has more in common with a sewing machine than a racing machine. But the way the GPS is heading, these diehards are going to be driven off the road by a combination of spiralling costs and onerous regulation.

So, could hybrids offer a gentle introduction to greener motoring for these holdouts? Hybrids could cruise the highways using their combustion engine and buzz along the byways on electric power.

Prius and proud

It also helps that the hybrid technology is now proven and well-respected. Toyota’s Prius is the hybrid market leader worldwide, but Honda’s Insight will quickly gain ground. European and US carmakers are having to play catch-up, as another Japanese manufacturer Nissan is preparing its 2010 European launch of the zero-emission, fully electric Leaf. Unlike its electric forefathers, the Leaf has power and stamina enough for commuting and longer excursions.

Hybrid owners show consistent loyalty to the technology. Nearly one in three Prius owners buys another one, according to US analysts R.L. Polk & Company. On average, one in five hybrid owners buys the same model again.

Hybrids buck other trends, too. Forecasts by Polk before the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 indicated continued growth in hybrid sales – clearly helped by higher fuel costs and environmental pressures around the world. Western Europe, the study suggests, will see significant sales growth, from less than 1% market share in 2008 up to 5% in 2012.

“You have a lot more environmental and political discussions throughout the EU and a much higher sensitivity [about] CO2 emissions,” notes Lonnie Miller, director of automotive studies at Polk, in an interview on HybridCars.com.

Petrol today, electric tomorrow… where to from there?

In response to demand and with some coaxing by EU laws, carmakers are building more efficient, lower emission vehicles. European motorists are also improving as awareness grows about such things as car-pooling and the links between driving habits and higher emissions.

Meanwhile, scientists are continuing to dream up new fuels, novel energy sources and more efficient engines, in many cases with the help of generous national and EU research funding.

But what happens if these innovations have their own unwanted side-effects?

Battery-powered cars seem like the dream-driving scenario today but soon enough we may discover producing electricity to keep all these vehicles charged could be worse for the environment. Just as questions are being asked today why we are diverting land and water away from food crops to produce ethanol.

(That so many of the world’s population is undernourished and huge tracts of carbon-absorbing rain forest are being cleared to grow such biofuel crops appears to be a secondary matter.)

Where is the logic in all this?

These are pretty big questions and this is a pretty small story about trends in green motoring. All we know for sure is that “grease lightening” is dying, if not dead – and in their love affair with the oil producers, the world’s major carmakers have ignored this truth at their peril.

However, under pressure to remain competitive and to stanch the bankruptcies, the carmakers’ new business mantra will surely be “change we finally believe in”. The sort of change that will drive investment in cleaner fuel sources like hydrogen, new engine designs, and perhaps a whole new way of thinking about the transport mix.

There’s no green bullet to fix the environment and keep economies ticking over at the same time. The reality in Belgium and other densely populated European countries will remain one of traffic jams, noise and plumes of fumes spewing from exhaust pipes for some time to come.

But as the Australian folk singer Paul Kelly once wrote, “from little things big things grow”.

Greening up the commute

The Belgian government has changed the way it calculates tax on company vehicle use away from engine size in favour of cars with lower CO2 emissions.

The new coefficient is based on:

  • 0 .00210 euro per gram of CO2 for petrol, LPG and natural gas-fuelled cars
  • 0.00230 euro per gram of CO2 for diesel cars

So, the tax on a diesel car with CO2 emissions of 129grams/km travelling 20km to work each day would come to 1,484 euros per year (129 x 0.00230 x 5000).

The incentive: the more fuel efficient the vehicle, the greater the tax benefit.

EcoTest your next car

The good news is cars in Europe are getting cleaner, according to EcoTest‘s latest results. Over half of the 900 vehicles tested[1] scored 4 out of 5 stars for low emissions and pollutant levels, up from only 14 percent six years ago. But there is still room for improvement as only three models – the VW Passat TSI 1.4 Ecofuel, Toyota 1.8 Hybrid and Honda Insight – have so far earned a 5-star rating. EcoTest warns consumers not to be duped by branding – having “eco” in the model name does not always mean it’s environmentally friendly!


[1] by German Automobile Club (ADAC) and the International Auto Federation (FIA)

This article first appeared in (A)way magazine. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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