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Time to dig a little deeper into the nation's quarrying industry

The costs in terms of human health are reason enough for closer regulation on a destructive, but necessary, industry.

Last week, the Ministry of Environment and Water, in consultation with local authorities, shut down a quarry in the Tawiyeen area for breaches of regulations. It's the fourteenth quarry so far this year to have its licence suspended.

The news story announcing the closure didn't specify which regulations had been broken, nor did it identify the company concerned. That's a pity: in such cases, the mass media, in my view, should be encouraged to "name and shame", so that the public knows who they are, even more so if the company concerned is a repeat offender.

It's a reasonable assumption, though, that the decision was related, at least partly, to the effect of its operations on the surrounding area. Visually, the process of quarrying is extraordinarily ugly, as can be seen near Shawkah, where the new highway to Fujairah runs adjacent to quarries that have gobbled up whole mountains. A quick glance at Google Earth shows large areas that have been devastated by quarrying operations. I have yet to find any decent study of the impact on local wildlife or on the scant supplies of fresh water in the wadis, but it must be quite substantial. Numerous archaeological sites have certainly been destroyed too.

Beyond its direct impact on - or destruction of - the immediate environment, there is much more besides - in particular the way it affects the lives of those living in the vicinity. The noise of blasting can be an irritation; hundreds of lorries damage the roads, cause traffic problems and pollute the atmosphere.

Most important, though, is the all-pervasive dust that spreads not only around the quarry itself, but also throughout the area.

It lies like a thick grey blanket, waiting to be blown around by the wind, coating rocks and vegetation, forming a grimy film on the surface of any pools of water in nearby wadis - and, one assumes - affecting local flora and fauna. However tightly the doors and windows of houses in nearby villages are closed, it penetrates everywhere. Those who live near major quarries have been complaining for years about the effect of the dust on their health. It gets into the ears, into the nose, into the mouth and, most seriously of all, into the lungs, often causing permanent damage. Problems with breathing often occur while it's been suggested that in some cases premature deaths have ensued, not that you'll find any of the quarrying companies admitting that.

There has been plenty of publicity about the complaints from villagers and about their gripes that government authorities often respond very slowly, if at all, to their valid concerns about their health and that of their children. That seems to be changing. A couple of years ago, for example, Fujairah's Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al Sharqi, said that he intended to crack down on quarrying companies that failed to pay proper attention to environmental issues. Perhaps this latest closure is another result of that tougher approach.

I recognise the need for the quarrying to take place. From the rocks come much of the raw material for the country's cement industry and, of course, the millions of tonnes of stone needed for the construction of dams, breakwaters and islands. Crushed into aggregate, it's also an important export. In some areas, there are also good reasons for removing part of the mountains anyway - expansion of the city of Fujairah and its adjacent oil industry zone, for example, is severely constrained by the restricted area of the coastal strip. Removal of some of the mountains not only creates more flat land onshore, but also allows for reclamation of formerly unusable inter-tidal and near-shore areas.

I would like to hear more about what plans are being drawn up to rehabilitate the quarry areas, once extraction has been completed. They can never be hidden, of course, and the scars they have left on the mountains will be visible for centuries. In an arid country like the UAE, they cannot be screened by planting trees, although, over time, some vegetation will take root. I hope that the Ministry of Environment and Water requires the quarrying companies to come up with some coherent and practical proposals.

In the meantime, perhaps this latest move by the ministry will help to get the message across. We need the quarrying - despite its adverse impact on the natural environment - but it cannot be allowed to continue at the expense of the health of those living nearby.

 

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

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