ABU DHABI // The Federal National Council subjected the Environment Minister to six hours of questioning yesterday, following the publication of a critical report accusing his department of a number of failures.
From 10am until 4pm, the minister, Dr Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, was put on the spot over findings by the council's foreign affairs, planning, petrol, mineral resources and fishing committee.
The report, presented to the council by Hamad Al Rahoumi (Dubai), accused the ministry of lacking proper plans for dealing with environmental disasters, such as the sinking of the White Whale, a diesel tanker that ran aground off the coast of Umm Al Quwain in October.
The incident showed that the ministry had no plan or funds to respond in a timely fashion, said the report, recommending that it urgently draw up such a strategy.
Abdulrahim Al Shahin (RAK) said the ministry's response was a "disaster". "I call it a disaster not because of the environmental damage, but because of the time it took for a response," he said.
"Four months and we only had a decision made yesterday [Monday]."
The minister said talks had been conducted in recent weeks but salvage attempts had been delayed by sea conditions.
"We want to retrieve the boat in one piece but we need four to five days of clear weather," he said.
Dr bin Fahad admitted that the ministry lacked a disaster management strategy.
"We are currently working with UAE University and conducting studies to develop the correct strategies," he said. "We have dedicated Dh4 million to resolve this".
Dr bin Fahad admitted that the ministry faced serious challenges, but said it had made great strides since its foundation in 2006.
The report accuses the ministry of failing to provide leadership on environmental issues, failing to enforce environmental laws and failing to measure the success or otherwise of its own actions.
It also complained that the ministry had refused to cooperate with its preparation of the report, which was commissioned in November.
Ali Jassim (Umm Al Quwain) called on the government to intervene to force ministries to cooperate with such inquiries.
"This should be taken up by the government," he said. "We have made numerous recommendations regarding environmental problems and none of them have been taken."
Dr bin Fahad said the ministry's doors were always open and that there must have been a miscommunication. "We are ready to cooperate with everyone," he said.
But this claim was denounced by Ahmed Al Shamsi (Ajman), a member of the committee.
He walked across the chamber to present Dr bin Fahad with his ministry's written refusal to give access to the committee.
Ahmed Al Zaabi (Sharjah) said that while there were environmental protection laws, a lack of coordination meant they were often not enforced.
"What is the ministry's role in legislation and enforcement?" he asked. "What are these enforcement officials doing about violations? We live on the eastern coast and see a lot of violations. Our fishermen are losing millions because their nets and equipment are ruined by illegally dumping."
The country now has 21 natural reserves, covering six per cent of its total land area. There are also numerous unannounced reserves, he said, "as well as breeding grounds for endangered species".
But Mr Jassim said the country was still burning too many fossil fuels.
"We have the world's second largest carbon footprint after the US, which is many times our size and power," he said.
Dr bin Fahad said this was no gauge of pollution or environmental danger.
"The carbon footprint is a representation of the consumption of natural resources per person and not a pollution gauge," he said. "According to the Yale University Environmental Protection Index (EPI), we are ranked 77 in the world, which is a great achievement."
But Mr Shaheen said: "The minister said we are ranked 77 out of 132, but failed to state that the UAE has gone down 50 places since the first EPI."
He also questioned the ministry's organisational structure.
"The minister sets the strategy and the undersecretary executes it. The fact that there is no undersecretary cannot be accepted."
Rashid Al Shuraiqi (RAK), a member of the committee that prepared the report and the director of the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority, was previously undersecretary of the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries, a precursor to the current Ministry of Environment and Water.
"Instead of telling us everything is fine, the minister should have sat with us and accepted the problems and tried to act to resolve them, instead of telling us 'inshallah' and 'it will be fixed'," said Mr Al Shuraiqi.
Dr bin Fahad said the country's biggest environmental concern was landfill dumps.
"Is there a problem regarding waste? Yes there is," he said. "Are there efforts in place? Every emirate and municipal authority is working on it. For example, in Ras Al Khaimah there are 24 dumps. We are implementing a project to close them and keep only two dumps facing [the] Gulf coast and Indian Ocean.
"However, we cannot determine how long this will take, we are working with the Ministry of Planning to finalise the plans."
There was also a complaint from Dr Abdel Rahim Shaheen (RAK) that ministry practices were driving away Emirati staff.
"If a person from Abu Dhabi is employed he would be sent to Fujairah, if someone from Ras Al Khaimah applies he would be employed in Sharjah," he said. "How many Emirati staff do you have left due to this bad policy?"
The committee's report made seven recommendations. As well as disaster planning, it called for federal environment law 24 to be amended, to take account of environmental changes occurring in the UAE. Specialised research centres should be set up, and standardised databases on environmental issues.
The ministry should also make regular reports on the country's environmental situation and implement a waste recycling project.