DUBAI // Cruising on an open-air boat in the sea off the iconic Palm Jumeirah, Shaun Lenehan, head of environment for the developer Nakheel, admits his job title might seem a contradiction in terms. "The main question I get," he says, "is, 'Didn't you guys wreck everything?'." But it is a question that makes him bristle. He is adamant that Nakheel's projects are both environmentally responsible and necessary in a city trying to make its mark both on the ground and in images recorded from space.
Nakheel, he says, was the first to question the possible impact of its planned development and, in 1999, commissioned an exhaustive study. A Middle East-based environmental company created a 440-point grid on the seabed off the coast of Dubai, where the Palm Jumeirah stands today. The study found that 95 per cent of those points fell on bare sand and only the occasional rock or sponge. Because the seabed is affected by annual storms and shamals, the habitat goes through a regular cycle of destruction and recovery.
"That survey said that if we built the Palm, there would be no significant impact," Mr Lenehan says. "That habitat is well represented in the Gulf." In fact, the artificial breakwater surrounding the Palm has become home to sponges, fish, barnacles and other reef life. However, environmentalists have expressed concern that the scale of such projects, combined with the new technologies required to build them, may create unforeseen environmental problems.
All major building developments release carbon dioxide into the air as building materials are shipped on site. While some environmental concerns are closer to home: residents have complained about crowded housing and a lack of roads and infrastructure, likely to worsen once the project is finished. On the other hand, the communities on the Palm are designed to limit car use and eventually a monorail will link the man-made island to the emirate's larger mass transit network.
The breakwater, built with stones the size of cars, will withstand swells of up to four and a half metres, says Mr Lenehan. It is also large enough to hold up against a small tsunami - although the nearest fault line is in Iran and the Gulf is too shallow to create a wave as significant as the one that caused thousands of deaths and widespread damage around the Indian Ocean in 2006. Nakheel continues to monitor the environment it has created. Throughout the Palm, machines detect the speed of currents lie on the ocean floor. Assessing the data, the company found it was taking ocean water 20 days to move through the man-made archipelago - a circulation time it could reduce by half by creating openings in the breakwater.
Every fortnight, the environmental team takes water quality samples in 14 locations. "The water quality is very good, if not better than it is in the rest of Dubai," says Mr Lenehan. "We don't allow anything to be discharged into the water." By contrast, in Dubai Creek the wooden dhows are a major source of pollution as untreated sewage is often dumped directly from on-board toilets. Sewage from the villas, apartments and hotels on the Palm, on the other hand, is treated in an odour-free, underground plant. Treated sewage will be used to water plants in common areas, although it will not be used on individual lawns as there would be a high risk that it would seep into the ocean and cause algal blooms.
"We use the things that live in the water as biological indicators," Mr Lenehan says. "If the fish and grasses are happy, then everything is going to be happy. We watch how their populations change over time." Electricity for Nakheel's projects is being provided by the Dubai Electricity and Water Association, which has recently announced plans to develop nuclear energy to cope with the added demand from projects such as the Palms and The World.
A desalination plant is being built on Palm Jumeirah, which will help offset the need for more potable water, but the process produces high levels of carbon dioxide. When the Palm is completed, it will house as many as 65,000 residents and hotel guests. Doubts have been raised as to whether the road that runs through the middle will be large enough to accommodate those who live there - and the waste they produce. Strained resources is a problem these mega-projects share with all of Dubai.
Mr Lenehan says the Palm is trying to offset the impact of its waste by forcing developers to sort rubbish for recycling. "Most of the waste is coming from the interior of the buildings," says Mr Lenehan, adding that interior-design products and furniture were responsible for large quantities of packaging. Habiba al Marashi, the chairman for the Emirates Environmental Group, is optimistic that the Palms can strive for environmental sustainability. Their size alone, she says, does not mean that they will never be green.
"There are small projects that have a big impact and big projects that have a little one." One of the challenges that Nakheel faces is that projects of this scale have never been attempted before and they are operating in uncharted waters. Add on to the engineering and technical demands the need to be environmentally sound, and the challenge becomes greater. "Because these kinds of projects have never been made before, they are a learning experience. Nobody says that they should be perfect from the first try," she says. "But it is important that mistakes are rectified immediately and turned into case studies."
Despite the regular testing, problems do occur. "It happens," says Mr Lenehan. "We monitor the water for increases in nitrogen and phosphorus. If we see that, then we have to understand where it's coming from. Is someone discharging illegally, or does it mean there's a leak? "If there's cloudiness in the water caused by construction nearby, we have to ask them to put up a silt curtain where they're working."
Some problems are caused by the natural cycles of nature. Every year in the Palm's lake district, for example, summer brings a mass fish kill. In the winter, the fish breed beyond the lake's capacity and, as the temperature rises, the creatures run out of air and food. "It's a typical ecological boom-and-bust cycle." Unlike the Palms, The World's self-contained islands will have no central road, which means all supplies and waste will have to be shipped in, and out, by boat - including rubbish, sewage and drinking water.
To handle these problems, Nakheel hopes to create utility hubs at various points across The World. Although some remain sceptical, Mr Lenehan insists that such mega-projects can have a nominal environmental impact "if you build them in a responsible way. If you look out for the environment, the quality of the marine life and the quality of the water". If Dubai, home of the over-the-top project, hopes to have an sustainable future, developing the skills to minimise environmental impacts will become a necessity.