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The cost of spinning sand into gold

A ship that hauled sand from the ocean bottom 40 miles away, shoots it to create part of The World -- a collection of man-made islands for the very rich in Dubai.

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KAI RYSSDAL: For every headline announcing the tallest, biggest, most expensive thing on the planet that's being built here, there is a backstory -- the deep environmental cost of Dubai's building frenzy. Consider for a second that this is the land of indoor skiing and Olympic-sized swimming pools in the desert. It's where gas sells for a subsidized $1.70 a gallon. Ambition might be this city's most obvious attribute, but there aren't really the natural resources to back it up.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.


SAM EATON: Someone I met in Dubai put it this way. He said living here is like living in a place that hasn't yet had its official ribbon-cutting ceremony. Tens of thousands of construction cranes fill the Dubai skyline. They're building things at a dizzying pace. Really, really big things: the tallest skyscraper, a theme park twice the size of Disney World, but to see the most ambitious of these mega-developments, you have to get in a boat and head about a mile out to sea.

ADNAN DAWOOD: This ship has brought a lot of sand from 40 kilometers north of Dubai, and it brings in all this sand in its hull, processes it and throws it out here. What you're seeing over here is literally creating an island.

The development's marketing director, Adnan Dawood, calls it a $40 million patch of branded sand. It's one of 300 manmade islands that make up "The World," an exclusive mega-development for the rich, shaped like the world map. This, and the nearby Palm Islands, have expanded Dubai's waterfront by nearly 600 miles.

DAWOOD: To Dubai this is as grand as the pyramids were to Egyptians or the Taj Mahal was to Indians. This is Dubai's legacy.

A legacy developers hope will put Dubai on the map as the world's premier tourism destination, but legacies can be a mixed blessing.

RAZAN AL MUBARAK: Unfortunately, the fast-pace development has not come at zero environmental costs.

Razan Al Mubarak directs the environmental group Emirates Wildlife Society.

AL MUBARAK: With the development was a lot of habitat loss. With development that are energy-hungry, there's been a increase in energy use. With this type of development, in a water-hungry part of the world, there's been an excess usage of water.

Thanks to oil, Dubai and its neighbor, Abu Dhabi, are the two richest states in the United Arab Emirates. They also have the biggest ecological footprint, according to the World Wildlife Fund. People who live here consume more stuff and generate more trash than anywhere else on the planet. Even the United States comes in second. Water and power utilities are having a hard time keeping up. Khaled Awad heads the property development arm of the government-owned Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company.

KHALED AWAD: There is a trend here for developments to consider that utilities are ready for them. Whenever they come up they provide them with electricity and water, as much as they want, and if you think of it, not only from environmental responsibility, from a basic sustainability point of view and from a general sense of growth point of view, this is not possible.

Especially with an estimated $2 trillion worth of real estate developments expected to come online within the next 10 to 15 years, but there is an alternative.

MASDAR VIDEO: Imagine a place where the challenge of living in an extreme climate is overcome at no cost to the environment.

An hour's drive down the coast from Dubai, the Abu Dhabi government is pouring $22 billion into the world's first zero-carbon city. It's called Masdar, or "the source" in Arabic. Once completed, this car-free city of 50,000 people will generate all of its energy needs from the sun, saving about $2 billion in oil costs over the next few decades. Sameer Abu Zaid is the city's project manager.

SAMEER ABU ZAID: This is certainly going to set the example, and this example inshallah will be successful. It will be copied elsewhere, whether it's in the UAE or around the world.

That may be, but so far the green movement has been slow to take off. Changing hearts and minds isn't easy in a country where you can still gas up a Hummer for under $40.

In the United Arab Emirates, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

KAI RYSSDAL: Those islands being developed off the coast of Dubai, The Palm, there are going to be three of them, and The World, have to be seen to be believed.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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