Can a city relying on oil revenue and desalination really be labeled “eco”? (Image by dislona via flickr)
At first, we felt a surge of pride to learn that Muscat, Oman, is the only Middle Eastern city on Mercer’s top 50 eco-city ranking. It ranks 48, just behind Glasgow, but ahead of Frankfurt. We were prepared to toot the vuvuzela for all the world to know, to proclaim that yes! the Middle East can be green too. Alas, when a for-profit consultancy business ranks a reasonably well-off oil-based economy, with only a few cottage industries, as an eco-city, an army of red flags go up.
Founded in 1937 as the employee benefits department of Marsh & McLennan, Mercer has gone through several evolutions and mergers to become today’s “leading global provider of consulting, outsourcing, and investment services.” Hence, when Mercer calls a city eco people take note. In fact, they start packing their bags.
Living in luxury
However, these are the same people who are likely to wheel their luggage through 5 star hotel lobbies in developing countries, and hail cabs. The Mercer eco-city rubric calls for “water availability, water potability, waste removal, decent sewage treatment facilities, as well as limited air pollution and traffic congestion,” according to their 2010 eco-city news release.
[image by octal via flickr]
Muscat, Oman’s largest city and capital, lies on the Gulf of Oman, but its over all water availability is scant. Both the city and the country face a serious freshwater shortage, and like other Gulf states, will rely heavily on desalination facilities to meet its water needs.
Granted, though there is no metro or rail line to speak of, the city has a relatively small population of 1million. As a result, the city does rank well in terms of pollution and traffic: the taxis and substandard bus system have little to compete with, compared to New York, say, with its over 8 million city dwellers.
A better rubric?
Ecocity Builders is a non-profit organization that publishes a more holistic rubric for eco-cities. Theirs insists on “good quality of life and minimal use of natural resources; buildings built in consideration of sun, wind and rainfall; biodiversity; food sourced locally; within walking and cycling distance of work; good and frequent public transportation; goods produced with the purpose of reuse, re-manufacture, and recycling; and a labor intensive economy rather than a material-intensive economy.”
Meanwhile, the CIA factbook lists Oman’s agricultural labor force as non-applicable, meaning that its agriculture force — though the country has dates and limes and other goods — is negligible. On the other hand, Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) has been Muscat’s 2nd largest employer (after the government) since 1962.
Hence, it may be fair to say that Muscat’s quality of life is good, that it’s a nice place to live, but compared with real eco-cities that are genuinely poised to enhance everybody’s interaction with the natural environment, it has a long way to go.
For more on so-called eco-cities see these stories:
Re-Assessing Masdar City
Masdar City’s Dream of 100% Sustainability an Example for Other Countries
Green Office Building Takes Off In “Energy City Qatar”