Meet the engineer transforming Kuwait's understanding of climate change

Gulf nation has a long way to go to reduce emissions and achieve its Paris agreement goals

Mariam AlSaad, founder of AlManakh, at Youth4Climate event. Photo: AlManakh
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Global warming has made the summer months unbearable in many countries. But few compare to Kuwait, where mercury readings of 50°C make it one of the hottest places on the planet.

The searing heat combined with high air pollution make the months from June to September unbearable, prompting many to seek solutions to better adapt to a warmer earth and to honour Kuwait's commitment to help limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2030.

One woman tackling the problem head-on is Kuwaiti engineer Mariam AlSaad, who is raising awareness about climate change.

“Compared with the rest of the Middle East, Kuwait lags in its climate action,” said Ms AlSaad, founder of AlManakh, an organisation whose aim is to raise awareness about climate change and sustainability.

Kuwait has yet to apply sustainable practices such as reducing surface temperatures. There are few adaptation or mitigation projects.

“I started AlManakh to get communities involved and work together with multiple stakeholders, government, private sector, and non-profits to push for climate action and to work together on actual projects in Kuwait,” said Ms AlSaad.

She started AlManakh — which means climate in Arabic — two years ago. Since then it has hosted several educational events, workshops, webinars and podcasts.

The NGO works to ensure that people have accessible information in Arabic and English and that everyone is included in the narrative.

Ms AlSaad, who is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified civil and structural engineer, tries to work with government entities and civil society to achieve sustainable goals.

AlManakh and Kuwait's Gulf University for Science and Technology students worked together to come up with climate solutions. Photo: AlManakh

“It's actually the role of society to incentivise the government to take action,” Ms AlSaad said.

She works at the Ministry of Public Works in the architecture department on government building design projects.

She said she has seen how bureaucracy can delay projects and approvals.

Ms AlSaad said many projects that incorporate renewable energy only achieve the bare minimum — some of them dedicate only 10 per cent of their work to the environment.

“There are people who want to make a change, but their hands are tied because of the system,” she said. “That's not really anybody's fault, it's just the system, and that 10 per cent gets lost in the bigger picture.”

There has been a push from the government to move towards sustainability, but it needs investment.

The country is home to the world’s third-largest sovereign wealth fund, with a population of about 4.6 million and AlManakh says more money can be diverted towards projects that protect the environment.

AlManakh: The needed link

Sheikh Abdullah Al-Sabah, head of Kuwait's Environment Public Authority, said at Cop26 that his country was keen to support international initiatives to stabilise the climate.

Kuwait also pledged to adopt a “national low carbon strategy” by the middle of the century. It set out plans to be carbon neutral by 2060, but a lot of work has yet to be done, says Ms AlSaad.

“We're not even halfway through,” she said.

The goal of NGOs like AlManakh is to show that people want these projects, a better quality of life with improved urban centres, green spaces and more sustainable buildings.

AlManakh partnering with Gust University on a climate change hackathon to incentivise students to come up with climate solutions. Photo: AlManakh

AlManakh is also working with other NGOs in Kuwait and regionally and talking to municipalities and members of parliament to address time-sensitive issues such as protecting workers, commuters and vulnerable communities from heat exposure.

“I have been collaborating with NGOs in Lebanon and Chile. They have some of the same climate issues that we have — extreme heat and lack of protective structures in the streets such as shaded and cooled bus stops,” said Ms AlSaad.

With her master's degree in sustainable cities, Ms AlSaad has been trying to incorporate sustainability in the already-built environment in Kuwait.

“Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been ahead of the game with sustainable buildings for a while,” she said. “The big leaps that Saudi Arabia has been taking are really inspiring to see for nearby countries because the government is working hand-in-hand with the people and saying. 'we want your initiatives'.”

“That kind of initiative from the government is really what we're missing here — to be given the opportunity to participate in decision-making.”

Ms AlSaad said AlManakh planned and carried out a climate change hackathon with Kuwait's Gulf University for Science and Technology last month, working with students to come up with solutions.

The NGO has also conducted a research project looking into transforming Kuwait's cooling system, which is mostly dependent on fossil fuels. Indoor cooling accounts for 67-70 per cent of the total domestic electricity consumed within Kuwait and is the main cause of high electricity demand in the country.

AlManakh hopes to push for the adoption of district cooling, which has a lesser environmental impact.

With the net zero emission target announced by the international community by 2050, most countries in the Middle East are racing to install new district cooling plants to reduce their carbon emissions.

Kuwait, with the help of initiatives like AlManakh should be well on its way to following in the footsteps of its neighbours in the near future.

Updated: February 28, 2023, 5:56 AM