Senegal’s Alioune Diop University in Bambey was recently awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, scooping up a $1 million windfall in the process. Fêted for its commitment to sustainability, the building is particularly noteworthy for its innovative efforts to cool temperatures in the unforgiving Sahel region without the use of air conditioning and to employ local workers and materials. Among the creative solutions devised by Alioune Diop is a large latticework on the south façade with citronella grass planted between the inside and outside wall— allowing light and air through while drastically cutting down on heat, solar radiation, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes, all with zero energy use.
It’s hardly surprising that a Senegalese building figured among the six victors of the prestigious competition. Since first being elected in 2012, President Macky Sall has made sustainability a keystone of his administration’s policy and introduced a number of measures aimed at making Senegal a role model for other nations developing strategies to address the imminent and increasingly sizable challenges that climate change and a swelling population are sure to bring.
Dakar delivering on environmental mandate
While Senegal may boast a relatively small populace of just 15 million, it’s no stranger to the problems that ultra-rapid urbanization can bring. In 1960, 23% of Senegalese people lived in towns and cities. By 2013, that figure had almost doubled to 43%, and is projected to reach 60% by 2030. The increasingly extreme climate conditions, from high temperatures to insufficient rainfall, in the Sahel region and the steady expansion of the nearby Sahara Desert make this influx of human life into concentrated areas a difficult burden to shoulder.
President Sall is aiming to tackle these problems in a number of ways. A leading proponent of the Great Green Wall Initiative, Senegal had already planted some 12 million trees covering 150km by 2015, with a final target of 545km now in sight. The ambitious plan hopes to halt the encroaching creep of the desert through a literal wall of forested area.
Meanwhile, the Sall administration has also signed up to the Green Secondary Cities Development Program, which aims to improve 25 smaller cities across Senegal with regards to energy efficiency, urban mobility, land use, water and sanitation and solid waste. Diamniadio, Kolda and Tivaouane have already served as pilot projects and the encouraging results have caused the initiative to be expanded to ten more urban epicentres. Dakar has put special emphasis on curbing plastic pollution. As recently as 2010, Senegal was dumping 254,770 tonnes of plastic waste in the ocean, an environmental scourge which the government is now tackling by imposing hefty fines on the use of thin plastic bags and expanding restrictions on other types of plastic packaging.
Sustainable cities should not be confined to African continent
Senegal’s efforts in cleaning up its act should be commended and even copied by other heads of state – including outside of Africa. Statistics provided by the UN show that cities worldwide are already responsible for 60% of waste production and 75% of both resource consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. What’s more, rising temperatures are set to afflict us all; by 2100, experts warn that nearly half of the world’s population will face deadly climate conditions on a regular basis. At present, 354 cities suffer average summer temperatures in excess of 35°C; by 2050, that number will swell to 970, affecting 1.6 billion people.
Given that the world population is expected to approach 10 billion by 2050, and that the vast majority of those additional people will reside in cities, it’s predicted that over two-thirds of 2050 urban infrastructure is yet to be built – meaning that there is huge potential to revolutionise cities by constructing these new buildings in a sustainable way. According to the UN’s International Resource Panel, optimising the systems used within buildings and tweaking their design (both individually and collectively) could lead to reductions of 55% in both the use of resources and emissions of GHGs.
There are plenty of ways in which these changes could manifest themselves. Dispensing with or at least mitigating the use of air conditioning is a big one; demand for AC is projected to triple by 2050, while in the USA alone, it’s already present in 87% of homes and responsible for half a billion tonnes of CO2 every year. Harnessing the power of natural elements like earth, wind and water could serve as one key means of circumventing the harmful refrigerants used in AC systems, which are currently the fastest growing source of GHGs on the planet. Meanwhile, intelligent architecture similar to that used in the Alioune Diop University and advanced building techniques can accentuate the effect of these elements and bring down temperatures locally without heightening them globally.
Innovation holds the key to coping with a changing environment
If the human race is to not only survive but thrive on a planet beset by rising temperatures and extreme weather events, it will need a radically new way of organizing itself. Of course, large-scale efforts to halt and even reverse climate change should not fall by the wayside, but at the same time, we must also adapt the ways in which we live and work in order to mitigate its most harmful effects if the worst should come to pass. Indeed, in doing so, we may well avoid those worst-case scenarios altogether.
With that in mind, Senegal’s recent triumph in the Aga Khan competition should serve as inspiration for nations in both the developing and developed world. By incorporating a sustainable vision of tomorrow into every future endeavor we undertake, it’s entirely possible to cope with increasingly harsh climates and still cut both energy consumption and GHG emissions at the same time.
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