KHOR KHWAIR // Mrs Al Shehhi pledged she would never leave. But now when people come to her home, neighbours tell them: “She’s left. She’s escaped the dust.”
Five years ago the mother of eight would guide guests through her house in Salayia village to show them her daughter’s collection of respiratory medication and the cracks in her ceiling that dropped concrete chunks on to her couch when the quarries blasted.
She considered herself at war with the dust that filled her home. Quarries were only a few hundred metres from her front door.
Mrs Al Shehhi stayed even when the goats started to die. She stayed when the palm orchards dried up and hundreds of trees died.
In 2008, the federal Government instituted rules requiring quarries to limit dust emissions and monitor quarry blasting.
That was five years ago this week. Now, Mrs Al Shehhi is gone.
Her neighbourhood is on the move. Hundreds like her have left for more luxurious new housing in Ras Al Khaimah city, 50 kilometres from the mountainous coast.
Others are moving to a coastal extension that is still within a few hundred metres of active quarries. They refuse to go any further.
Quarries have invested hundreds of millions of dirhams in dust control. Municipalities have tightened regulations and installed monitoring systems across the country.
But the villagers still living near quarries and crushers in RAK and Fujairah say it is not enough. The palms and UAE flags of villages like Khor Khwair are still grey and caked in dust.
“No difference. It’s the same,” said Umm Adel, 50, a resident of Salayia. “You can’t breathe. Only these trees give us oxygen.
Only the trees help us people. All people here have moved to Ras Al Khaimah [city].”
Umm Adel has suffered from asthma for 15 years. Her purse is filled with medication – water drops for her eyes, pills and inhalers that she uses between her biweekly hospital visits.
Her daughter, Amna Al Chammed, 23, will raise her children in the city.
Ms Al Chammed’s mother-in-law, Haleema Saeed, was one of the women from local villages who blocked roads in protest several times before the 2008 regulations.
“But what can we do now?” asked Mrs Saeed. “There’s no point. Now there’s even more dust. The Government talk and talk and talk and don’t do a thing.
“Everything’s died from the dust. Our palms are dead, all of them. The dates are no good.”
Mrs Saeed, 50, has had asthma for five years. “Everything is dust. We’re exhausted.”
Things are little better in the interior.
“Before it was OK but now there are more diseases from the crushers,” said Moza Al Yammahi, 23, a mother from Tawaian village in Fujairah. “A lot of people have asthma, most of them children.”
Her daughter Reem has had asthma for three years. Reem is four.
“I am very angry,” said Ms Al Yammahi. “I didn’t see any change in five years. This is my childhood area. I cannot move to another place.”
But government reports indicate there is improvement.
The 2008 regulations specify limits on sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, suspended particles and breathable dust generated by quarries.
When inspections began in August 2008, a quarter of the quarries were classified as red, meaning they had no pollution controls.
Only 35 out of 100 quarries in the UAE were classified as green and 40 were amber.
Today there are just three amber quarries of the 100 licenced quarries in Ajman, RAK and Fujairah, according to the most recent available statistics, from October last year.
The rest are rated green, with 64 operational, according to the Fujairah Natural Resources Corporation, an autonomous government entity.
The corporation gradually implemented its own regulations from 2008 to last year. They require quarries to send daily reports to the emiri diwan of Fujairah.
“In 2008 it was very primitive,” said Ali Al Sharif, a geological expert at the agency.
“Close this, cover this. We didn’t go for details, we didn’t go for the minor things, but step by step we have covered them. Now we are higher than the global standard.
“In the beginning there were no laws, there were no classification for the mistake, there was no control.”
With a firm regulations list now established, the corporation will install fixed cameras in the coming weeks as an expansion of a programme started in Tawaian last year.
Repeat offenders face permanent closures and fines of up to Dh500,000. Breaches continue.
Investment is costly. Stevin Rock, a government quarry on the north-west coast, which produces more than 32 million tonnes of rock and aggregate a year, has invested about Dh120m on environmental improvements since 2003.
These include enclosures, water sprays, asphalting and planting 1,000 trees.
Cement factories have also come under environmental legislation since 2008.
Regulations issued by the Ministry of Environment and Water in 2010 and last year aim to half the industry’s emissions by 2015.
Air pollution in RAK is monitored by the emirate’s Environmental Protection and Development Authority, which declined requests to comment.
“If there’s industry there will be dust,” said Abu Mohammed Al Shehhi, 40, a Khor Khwair resident.
“I understand the Government. They have closed some companies but how can they stop the industry? The dust has decreased but the dust will never disappear.
“There are many companies now but every year the dust level goes down. There’s nothing more for the Government to do.”
Mining, quarry and manufacturing accounted for more than a third of RAK’s gross domestic product in 2011.
Quarrying accounted for 3.6 per cent that year, according to Department of Economic Development. Quarry licence fees in RAK cost between Dh500,000 and Dh1m.
“The people should understand that this is an economic resource for them,” said Mr Al Sharif. “If they don’t need it, OK, we’ll stop.”
Nearly half the population of RAK live in rural areas, many of which are beside quarries. Most villagers are large families with young children.
Doctors at Sha’am Hospital, the main unit on the north-east coast, have expressed concern over the permanent heart and lung damage caused by dust, saying children are at the highest risk.
Dr Mariam Abdullah, who has worked at the hospital for four years, treats an average of 15 to 20 adult patients a day for lung infections. She believes the number of cases are increasing.
“Whenever someone delivers their baby, one month later the baby gets asthma,” said Dr Abdullah. “For adults we see a lot of cases. Most of them are living around this area and when people move to another area they get better.”
A growing number of reports indicate the Northern Emirates population is at a high risk of respiratory problems caused by pollution.
A 2010 Zayed University survey of 35,000 people found the Northern Emirates population was more prone to respiratory problems caused by poor air quality.
Outdoor air pollution causes an estimated 600 deaths in the UAE every year, according to a 2009 study commissioned by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.
Even so, the link between dust pollution and the area’s high asthma rates remain contested.
Last year the Minister of Environment and Water said there was no conclusive scientific evidence that air pollution caused cancer and psychological disorders.
Dr Rashid bin Fahad was addressing the FNC in response to a UAE University report that linked air pollution to respiratory problems, cancer and psychological problems.
The report found 40 per cent of children and 15 per cent of the country’s population suffered from asthma caused by poor air quality. It noted the risk caused by quarries using explosives and crushing machines.
“The main work for our country is building towers,” said Abdullah Al Shehhi, a former FNC member from Khor Khwair and former director of the Ibrahim bin Hamad Obaidallah Hospital.
“The environment is the most important thing for a country. They don’t think for the people who are living near the mountains.
“My opinion is that if our area keeps its culture, the picture that God made before, money will come to people, more than by selling our mountains.
“You will find people in two minds and the Government must solve the problems for both. You will find people who say they cannot leave our great grandfather’s village.
“Even if just five or 10 families stay, the Government must solve this problem.”