x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Having relied on nature for years, it now counts on us

The natural world is dynamic, always changing, and constantly in flux. We only need to jump on board and get involved.

The rapid development of the UAE, with all of its cultural and commercial changes, has also had a visible effect on the country's environment. We have watched buildings seemingly grow out of the ground and have witnessed the coast reshaped as if it were made out of clay. We have the world's tallest building; we have created waterways and motorways; we have even managed to create islands where before there was nothing but water. But, the question lingers: At what cost?

Environmental conservation and the search for alternative energy sources are big initiatives the world over, and here too, in the UAE, we have begun to get involved, integrating questions of sustainability in construction projects and urging companies to seek greener ways to run their enterprises.

But the question is why? Why do we, as Emiratis, care so much about the environment? One answer, by a local student to a question posed recently by a professor of environmental science at a local university was: "Because you care so much, we also care."

As beguiling and innocent as this answer is, it also highlights that many of us know that environmental conservation is the right thing to do, we just don't know why. This is where I hope to present a few good reasons why each and every one of us should work to protect the environment - why we should try to live consciously and work together to ensure our environmental impact is as little as possible.

To begin with, it is part of the economy. A 2007 study forecast that Dubai would expect a staggering 15 million tourists in 2015. While this number may or may not change with current financial climes, reports from 2010 claim that there are over 32,000 hotel rooms in the pipeline in the nation's capital, with over 55,000 planned for Dubai. That is still a lot of tourists. As we know, tourism is a big market here, with the UAE promoted as the tourist destination of the new millennium. (And being on the world stage, we are also at the mercy of the world press, which affects our tourism industry; we have already had our fair share of criticism and naysayers.)

Our tourism industry has also received comments such as: "The UAE was nice, but I want to see more than just hotels." We have, in truth, one of the most beautiful ecosystems in the world, as well as a diverse aquatic environment. A large part of tourism involves getting people out of their hectic city lives and into the natural world, closer to the serenity of untouched spaces.

So if we hope to protect our tourist industry, we need to protect the one asset that we cannot build or replicate: the natural environment. Deserts, wadis and mangroves are all special biotopes, home to distinctive plants and animals and a part of what makes the UAE so exceptional: What about the dugong? The Arabian leopard? The houbara?

The environment is also our heritage. It has played a big role in shaping who we are, as Emiratis, both directly as individuals, and also as a society as a whole. The heritage and culture of the UAE is a direct product of the environment. We are a coastal people who traditionally gathered food, tools and other resources from what was available around us: fish and pearls from the sea, building materials as well as food from date palms. Meanwhile, camels and goats provided transport as well as a source of milk and meat. We even harnessed the weather in the form of wind to help cool us against the heat of the day, in what is now a signature form of architecture in this region. The environment is the very cradle of who we are as a people and a culture. Taking care of the environment is taking care of our heritage.

The resource that is our natural environment is a rich source of scientific and habitat study, and one we should not ignore. Research has yet to make a dent into the many different plants and animals in the Middle East, and the special abilities they possess, from the beneficial properties of camel milk to the herbs our grandparents used to treat ailments.

We also have animals in our ecosystem that represent the last of their kind, many facing extinction. The only way to ensure we have any living specimens, and more importantly, for our children and grandchildren to be able to see these magnificent animals, is to ensure they have a place to live without competition from us.

One of my favourite things about the environment is that it is a silent teacher. Nature has an uncanny way of making many beautiful things that also serve a function. I was reminded of this as I was visiting the exhibition for the Guggenheim and Louvre museums at the Emirates Palace hotel. The famous Zaha Hadid is designing the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre and with it the study she conducted on the inspiration for her design. The centre draws heavily on the curving, organic forms of the plant world. This is not the only example, of course, as engineers, architects, scientists, artists, sociologists and even musicians all turn to the environment to inspire them as well as solve problems of design or application. And how big do you think we can go with ideas like this?

The truth of the matter is, we, like all creatures of Allah's creation, have a symbiotic relationship with our environment. Sadly, for the most part, we have managed to forget that it is a relationship of mutual benefit as well as respect.

We are still more than capable of tipping the scales back to balance; it is a matter of getting up and doing something about it. The natural world is dynamic, always changing, and constantly in flux. We only need to jump on board and get involved. I hope that the next time you are asked why you care, or why we should actively be protecting the environment, your answer is something closer to your heart, and that you pass on these ideas, because only together can we make a difference, and making a difference means making a move.


Majid Al Qassimi is a veterinarian who is also involved in raising awareness on environmental conservation and education in the biological sciences