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SAUDI ARABIA - Green Economy

Dr. Khaled Alabdulkader

CEO, National Center for Vegetation Cover and Combating Desertification (NCVC)

Bio

Dr. Khaled Alabdulkader is the CEO of the National Center for Vegetation Cover and Combating Desertification (NCVC) since 2019. Prior to joining the NCVC he served as senior environmental advisor and head of environmental conservation program at Saudi Aramco. He has held a professorship in the Department of Geosciences at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM). He has also served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Saudi Wildlife Authority. Dr Khaled holds a Ph.D. and a Masters from Texas A&M University in the USA and Bachelors in Agriculture from King Faisal University.

"We have developed long term strategies, plans, projects and programs to increase vegetation cover and combat desertification, to conserve natural resources and biodiversity, to preserve plant genetic resources, and to find innovative solutions to respond to our environmental challenges and opportunities."
Can you provide an overview of NCVC and Combating Desertification and its key objectives?

The National Center for Vegetation Cover Development and Combating Desertification (NCVC) was established in 2019 with the goal of increasing green areas to combat desertification and rehabilitating degraded ecosystems. We are responsible for the management of vegetation that exists on rangelands; forest areas in mountains, valleys and mangroves; and natural habitat in National Park. We work actively to involve the public, private sectors and individuals in the development of vegetation cover and combating desertification. We have developed long term strategies, plans, projects and programs to increase vegetation cover and combat desertification, to conserve natural resources and biodiversity, to preserve plant genetic resources, and to find innovative solutions to respond to our environmental challenges and opportunities.

Can you discuss any specific projects or programs that have had a significant impact on combating desertification and improving the quality of life for communities in Saudi Arabia?

The biggest project we are working on now is the 10 Billion Trees project under the Saudi Green Initiative (SGI). The SGI is an ambitious national initiative that is focused on combating climate change, improving quality of life, and protecting the environment for future generations. At the NCVC we have developed a Masterplan to plant and naturally regenerate 10 Billion trees which will be equivalent to rehabilitating 40 million hectares of land over several decades. This Masterplan targets greening every area of the Kingdom including cities and towns. Greening urban areas is essential for improving quality of life because we know that 85% of people in Saudi Arabia live in urban communities. We have a comprehensive plan to increase tree canopy cover across all Saudi cities. We believe increasing the canopy cover will bring about localized cooling in the cities as well as reducing the air pollution. In addition to this, we plan to increase the green spaces and parks within cities, so that all residents are within a reasonable walking distance to a high-quality green space. This will promote active recreation which will improve the health and wellbeing of citizens. We also plan to develop Greenbelts to protect over 400 communities at risk of sand encroachment. Greenbelts act as windbreaks, slowing down the wind and preventing it from picking up sand and dust. They also improve soil fertility by adding organic matter to the soil which in turn reduces soil erosion and makes land less susceptible to desertification. When it rains, greenbelts help to increase water infiltration and retention in the soil which improves resilience against desertification. A core focus of the Greenbelts Strategy will be to leverage renewable treated water from available nearby water treatment plants in order to foster and sustain functional plantations to limit sand movement.

In what ways does the center raise awareness about desertification and promote positive vegetation practices within local communities?

For three years the NCVC has organized and delivered the “Let’s Make It Green” afforestation campaign. This six-month campaign focuses on encouraging local communities to contribute to afforestation in vegetation sites and national parks. The “Let’s Make It Green” campaigns have resulted in the planting of over 40 million trees in more than 500 sites across the Kingdom, with the participation of several government, private sectors, the non-profit sector and more than 170,000 volunteers. We have also initiated the process to prepare a comprehensive plan to actively engaging Non Profit Organizations to overcome land degradation and desertification. The capacities of such organizations will be strengthened to encouraged to work closely with local communities.

Are there any partnerships or collaborations with governmental or non-governmental organizations, both nationally and internationally, that have enhanced the center’s efforts?

Partnerships and collaborations are essential for effectively delivering on the goals of the NCVC and to that extent we have many active partnerships with a range of agencies. For example, we regularly collaborate with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO). Last year worked together to strengthen the Centre’s capacities for effective involvement in climate related conventions and initiatives and delivered a training session together for this purpose. In March this year, the NCVC collaborated with the UN FAO, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the G20 Global Land Initiative (UNCCD-G20 GLI) and the World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies (WOCAT) to jointly organize a training workshop for the staff of NCVC and Ministry of Environment Water and Agriculture (MEWA) focused on strengthening communication with the UNCCD in carrying out tasks in the field of assessment, monitoring and reporting of desertification and land degradation for sustainable management of land in Saudi Arabia. NCVC has developed linkages with different government entities in China, UK, Australia, Pakistan, Thailand, Jordon, Morocco and other international agencies for knowledge sharing and learning best practices related to vegetation cover improvement and overcoming land degradation, conserving plant diversity. We hope to extend our range of partnerships to the private sector as we begin implementation of the 10 Billion Trees Program. There is an enormous opportunity for both Saudi and international businesses to get involved and invest in this decades long program which will transform the Kingdom.

Could you share information about any innovative technologies or research projects the center is involved in to combat desertification and promote vegetation development?

We are currently undertaking a new collaboration with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to support a genome mapping project to preserve, re-propagate and cultivate endangered plants in the Kingdom. Genome mapping is important for trees for a number of reasons. It can help us better understand the genetic diversity of trees which is important for conservation efforts and developing resilience to climate change impacts. A comprehensive vegetation cover survey is being conducted of the country to assess the changes taking place due to environmental and socio-economic factors.

How does the center incorporate advancements in agriculture, water conservation, or sustainable energy into its initiatives?

Under the SGI 10 Billion Trees Masterplan we have developed strategies for agriculture, water conservation and sustainability. For example, rangelands (including protected areas) constitute approximately 70% of our territory in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, livestock growth and traditional practices have led to a significant loss of vegetation cover in these areas. To restore the rangelands, we will work to educate farmers and local communities in modern livestock management practices while exploring alternative sources of livelihood, reducing the pressure on the land. I’ve outlined plans for the cities already, but it should be noted that sustainable irrigation will be introduced in cities by reusing TSE water and by introducing greywater harvesting where appropriate in new developments. But of course, irrigation systems that are introduced need to be energy efficient. Using efficient irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation, can help to reduce energy consumption and water use.

Are there specific regions in Saudi Arabia that pose unique challenges in terms of desertification and vegetation development? How is the center addressing these regional disparities?

Rather than regional disparities, I like to think of our natural diversity. Saudi Arabia’s diverse landscapes are a testament to the country’s rich natural heritage – we have vast rangelands, verdant mountains, thriving cities, multiple beaches and mangroves. And then, of course, we have varying rainfall and humidity levels across the country. Through the SGI 10 Billion Trees Masterplan we have developed tailored greening strategies to respond to this diversity. Accordingly, the whole country greening initiative was divided into five domains and correspondingly 12 action zones to respond to challenges due to regional diversity. Each Action Zone has its own set of strategic initiatives to match the local conditions that was based on detailed geospatial site suitability analysis.

In what ways do you foresee the quality of life in Saudi Arabian communities improving as a result of the center’s efforts in the coming years?

One of the major benefits expected from Ten Billion Trees project is restoration of degraded land. Local communities will be in a position to generate income resources through improved forest and rangeland resources. Promotion of local level recreation for public will become available in national parks through improvement in habitats. I’ve mentioned the planned greening of our cities through the SGI 10 Billion Trees Masterplan. Greening cities has multiple benefits. Trees reduce air pollution which in turn can deliver a significant reduction respiratory illnesses. New green spaces for active recreation will reduce the incidence of non-communicable diseases. These are just a sample of the health benefits for people. Its also important to acknowledge that implementing the Masterplan will create jobs and boost local economies.

How does the center work with policymakers and government agencies to influence policies related to vegetation development and desertification prevention?

We are in the process of developing strategies and action plans on forest, rangelands, desertification, drought, sand and dust storms by involving all stakeholders and policy makers. We regularly conduct training sessions and collaborative workshops. For example, for the SGI 10 Billion Trees Masterplan we convened 50 workshops for more than 40 government agencies. Alignment on policy and strategy is important, because at the end of the day we are all working for the same goal of supporting and delivering on the Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia.

Can you share any success stories or case studies that highlight the positive outcomes of the center’s work in combating desertification and improving vegetation quality?

This year the NCVC planted more than 6 million mangrove seedlings on the coasts of Red Sea, and the Arab Gulf. The mangrove trees are of great environmental and economic importance. They are highly effective in sequestering carbon, they provide a natural habitat for migratory birds and they provide food security by maximizing fish abundance. They also protect our coastlines and help manage pollution. Besides restoration of rangelands has started due to improved grazing management under a long term action plan. Furthermore, turnover of visitors to National Parks has improved after restoration of natural flora and fauna.

What are your main objectives and priorities set in your yearly agenda for 2024?

Collaborating with the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture to support the delivery of the UNCCD COP16 in December 2024 will be a priority. We really want to accelerate action on land degradation neutrality and to strengthen partnerships to tackle drought and land degradation. I’ve mentioned the SGI 10 Billion Trees Masterplan many times. Overseeing the smooth implementation of this Masterplan will obviously be a core focus in 2024. Particularly working with the private sector in Saudi Arabia and internationally to catalyze investment opportunities for this decades long program.

 

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