The month of June has been split between Thamaraipakkam, Tamil Nadu, India and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I could not have picked two places which provide a better contrast to one another. Dubai is the land of oil, gold and opulence. As a society, Dubai has set a goal to have the biggest and best of everything in the world. On the surface it seems they have achieved their goal. Dubai is home to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building as well as the Burj al Arab, the world’s most luxurious hotel hosting a seven star rating. To be in Dubai is to be in the future. The city looks as though it was modeled after a sci-fi novel. While Dubai has achieved urban planning and architectural feats most could never imagine, it is extremely lacking in the area of sustainability. The city of Dubai is a supposed emblem of man’s achievement over nature. They have turned an almost inhabitable area into a cosmopolitan megaplex. Similar to Las Vegas, NV, Dubai was built on a desert. There are no fresh water sources. The city relies on desalination plants to filter out salt from ocean water to make it drinkable. Desalination uses a significant amount more energy than fresh water filtration systems. The world’s largest desalination plant, the Jebel, is located in Dubai. Dubai has also found a solution to the exasperating heat which often climbs above one hundred degrees by eliminating any need to be outdoors and turning the air conditioning on full blast. The malls of Dubai (The Dubai Mall is the largest mall in the world) are not just malls. They serve as Dubai’s main streets. Instead of walking around town, residents of Dubai and visitors alike spend time strolling around the corridors of the malls. And why wouldn't they? The malls in Dubai have almost everything anyone could ever want. Emirates Mall even has an indoor ski resort! To further eliminate any reason to be exposed to the heat, Dubai has many roads and highways made for cars only. The city is essentially a super highway with islands of buildings in the middle. It is the least pedestrian-friendly city I have ever seen. Unsustainable city planning is just the beginning of the many eco-unfriendly aspects of golden city. Fast cars, wasteful spending and wasteful food consumption are also staples of the city.
After 10 days in Dubai, I am back in Thamaraipakkam. Saying life here is different is the understatement of the century. Rural India and Dubai sit at opposite ends of the GDP per capita scale (Dubai at $65,600 and India $4,060, Forbes), they share environmental sustainability problems of equal magnitude. From my own observations, the greatest environmental problems in India are pollution related. Noise, pollution, light pollution, air pollution, land pollution… if it’s all here. In the village where I live, the ground is covered in trash. Everywhere I look, I see trash, trash and more trash. As it turns out, public waste management systems are severely lacking in India. The government does not provide bins or collection services for proper waste disposal. Here, dumping or burning trash is a way of life. People do not know anything different. This is just one of many ways the system has failed these people. The government leaves them no option other than living, working and playing in garbage and toxic fumes. Pesticides are also a major problem in India. Farmers rely on them to grow everything. The land is so saturated that it would take three years of inactivity for land to return to a state suitable for organic farming. This is where the problems lies. Farmers cannot afford to take three days off let alone three years—they are trapped in a cycle of toxicity. In addition to environmental consequences, pesticides create many health risks. For example, women who pick jasmine buds for garlands are at increased risk for skin cancer on their hands.
Unlike Dubai, India’s environmental problems stem from poverty and lack of resources. What is consistent in both places is a complete lack of government intervention on any level and an apathy among the people towards the problems. Education might be the most powerful tool in combating these environmental crises. People need to know the consequences of these practices in order to have any incentive to change. The question then becomes: who will provide the education and how? In any case, I am thankful environmental awareness is growing in the United States. We might not be where we need to be, but at least we’re off to a decent start.