The Environment Society of Oman faces some real challenges. It wants to educate people in this beautiful Arabian Gulf country about the need to protect the environment, but very few people are interested in the message. It wants to encourage Omani consumers to use their marketplace clout to purchase products that have the least environmental impact, but very few products are available to buy. It wants to promote basic recycling – of plastic, paper, glass, and metal – but even if people participate, the amount of material they’d generate is almost too small to make the effort financially worthwhile. In short, it wants to create a viable environmental movement among citizens and companies alike. The question is, how?
I attempted some answers -- as the keynote speaker at the Society’s recent conference, “Environmental Challenge Oman 2008,” in Muscat, the capital city. The conference drew almost a hundred representatives from the ruling royal family, government, industry, academia, and non-governmental organizations.
The situation is pressing and time feels like it’s running out. Oman, a clean and peaceful nation that hugs the southeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula, is a naturalist’s dream. Its extraordinary coastline stretches over 1,700 kms, from the Gulf of Oman and the petroleum-important Straits of Hormuz in the North to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean in the South. Flamingoes, sea turtles, spectacular coral reefs and hundreds of species of fish inhabit its waters. Stunning mountains 6,000 feet tall rim desert canyons and oases brimming with dozens of varieties of palm trees. Bedouin tribes still ride camels in the desert and weave rugs out of the hair sheared from the goats they also raise for their milk and meat. The capital city of Muscat (below) hosts a traditional souk filled with frankincense, silver and gold jewelry, and exotic fabrics even while modern business is carried on in the surrounding office buildings and cafes.
But because Oman also has modest oil resources (the country could run out of oil in as little as 20 years, according to some estimates) land development is accelerating at a worrisome pace as businesses cultivate alternative industries, including "eco" tourism. Two major beach-front developments are underway, and more could follow. Citizens worry about gobbling up the coastline and destroying habitat for the wildlife that dwell there.
In opening the conference, Her Highness Sayyida Tania Al Said (above, holding microphone), who co-founded the Environment Society of Oman, expressed her hope that more Omanis would gain an appreciation for their unique environment. It’s not just about recycling or saving energy, she noted, though both activities are extremely important to Oman. It’s also about the life and death consequences of our environmental behavior. Her Highness Tania Al Said reminded the audience about the devastation caused by 2007’s category 5 Cyclone Gonu. Gonu was the most powerful cyclone (another word for “hurricane” that’s more common in the Middle East) the country has experienced in over 60 years, with 40-foot waves destroying buildings and roads, uprooting trees, and in some cases, ending people’s lives. As with hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the U.S., many believe there’s a direct correlation between Gonu and human-induced climate change.
Conference attendees discussed ways to educate more children about the environment while encouraging their parents to begin recycling, using reusable cloth bags instead of plastic, and installing compact fluorescent light bulbs. I encouraged participants to visit www.myfootprint.org to calculate the "footprint" they leave on the planet. But clearly, as in any country, opportunites to do more abound. There's little mass transit in the cities, no official recycling, and minimal solar energy technology - even though the country basks in over 300 days of sunlight a year.
People were too polite at the conference to suggest that His Highness Sultan Qaboos, who seems genuinely beloved by his people even after a reign that has lasted 35 years, issue a few royal edicts that would require people to trash less and conserve more. But in a nation that reveres the monarchy in general and its ruler in particular, a decree that citizens must replace plastic with cloth or install solar collectors on their very flat and exposed roofs seems like one of the most direct ways to jumpstart the burgeoning environmental movement in Oman. The United Nations has already declared Oman to be one of the cleanest and most peaceful countries in the world. Would that it would become one of the most environmentally progressive as well.