ABU DHABI // The completion of a Dh1.5 billion, 53km long channel announced yesterday will allow larger carriers to access Musaffah Industrial Area from the Arabian Sea, boosting shipping capabilities.
"This project is a quantum leap for the economy of the country," said Dr Sultan al Jaber, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Ports Company.
The waterway was initially commissioned by the Urban Planning Council (UPC) and handed over to the ports company yesterday.
Construction by the National Marine Dredging Company started in June 2008 and involved digging up 65 million cubic metres of sand to the west of the industrial area heading out to open sea.
The resulting waterway is nine metres deep at low tide with a 200 metre width that allows for two-way boat traffic. Large bulk carriers heading to Musaffah will soon be directed to the new channel, with only smaller boats allowed to use the existing channel. Officials did not provide numbers for what kind of vessel traffic they expect on the channel.
The project has met with some controversy from environmentalists who say the channel, which crosses the Bul Sayeef Marine Protected Area, a habitat for thousands of wading birds, as well as dolphins and sea turtles, may have come with a notable environmental impact.
The protected area has one of the richest inter-tidal habitats in Abu Dhabi. Its extensive sea grass beds are used by green turtles to forage. The salt marshes and mangrove areas are an important source of food for more than 50 bird species, which are commonly seen in and around the area at any given time. It is particularly important for wintering birds which use it to rest and feed while migrating from Europe to Africa. In winter, up to 15,000 birds can be seen in the area, many of them endangered species. The area is also home to large numbers of flamingos with a colony of 18,000 birds discovered in 2009.
Officials at the UPC said that out of a sea grass area of more than 41 million square metres in the protected area, little over than 1.8 million sq metres had been disturbed by the dredging works. They also used methods designed to reduce the negative impact of the dredging process.
"Contrary to the perception of the impact of heavy construction works on the environment, in 2009, flamingos bred in the Bul Sayeef Area for the first time since 1998/99," said the UPC in an email.
"Hundreds of flamingos were spotted eating daily at the reclamation discharge points, taking advantage of the continual source of tiny organisms brought to the surface with the dredging operation. With an unlimited food supply provided on a daily basis, it was certainly a contributing factor in their choice as a breeding ground."
In an attempt to mitigate damage done to the area, the developers constructed an artificial land mass. "In terms of mitigation, we have created 'Habitat Island', which is to replace the lost habitat areas with new ones," said Mr Douglas.
The island, said Amer al Hammadi, regional planning manager at the UPC, is 3sq km in size. Among its features is a lagoon shaped like a heart. An area of 480,000sq metres has been set aside for seagrass compensation, mangroves are being planned to encourage birds and other wildlife and a series of artificial reefs are being installed to promote growth of coral reefs.
However, some environmentalists have questioned the mitigation efforts. A source close to the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the biggest impact of the project would be on flamingos and wading birds. The lost intertidal area, he said, "is a regular feeding place for flamingos and a lot of the habitat was lost".
He said the design of Habitat Island would need to improve. For example, the design does not allow for enough flushing of sea water. "The lagoon it encloses will be extremely stagnant. But the island's potential could be improved," he said.