Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

A lotus in full bloom: Wasit Wetland Centre's transformation from wasteland was a visionary project

Nearly 15 years ago, Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, saw that this rubbish dump could become a showcase of environmental restoration and conservation

Over the decades that I have been an active birdwatcher in the UAE, I have enjoyed visiting all kinds of sites – mountains, deserts and islands as well as urban parks. Some have offered the delights of pristine natural habitat, others have been very much the product of a man-made environment.

Among the man-made sites, some of the best historically – for birds, at any rate – have been rubbish dumps. Pools of stagnant oily water, piles of junk and old tyres, trickles of raw sewage, foul-smelling heaps of garbage, sometimes on fire – that sort of thing. One always had to take care with the hungry feral dogs and, apart from other birdwatchers, it was rare to meet anyone else there.

But they were always interesting to visit. Some have offered some real highlights in terms of the country’s birdlife. Thirty years ago, I found the first evidence of breeding moorhen in the country at Khor Kalba in a small oily pool littered with rusting vehicles. The species is now a common breeding resident.

Most of those mucky but often delightful places have now disappeared, thanks to better sewage and garbage disposal, better sanitation and, more generally, a better infrastructure. Many of my favourite places have been filled in, with housing built on many of them. They survive only in the memory and in old records on the UAE national bird database.

But one such former rubbish dump survives on the borders of Sharjah and Ajman. The old Ramtha Tip, as we called it in the 1990s, is now reborn as a world-class nature reserve. Last week, its facilities for visitors, the Wasit Wetland Centre, won a prestigious Aga Khan Award for architecture. In July, it was formally designated under the international Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance, one of three such sites in Sharjah and 11 in the UAE as a whole.

The Aga Khan Award and the Ramsar designation are the culmination of more than 15 years of effort, initially set in motion by the vision of Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah. Those years offer some important lessons on managing our environment and wildlife.

As Sharjah began to grow in the 1970s, in the years before arrangements for garbage disposal had become as efficient as they are today, the Ramtha area, on the outskirts of the city, was selected as a place for the dumping of rubbish. A new road linking Sharjah and Ajman held back winter rainfall and seepage of groundwater that once would have flowed to the sea, so that pools of brackish water were established and vegetation began to grow.

Between 1990 and 1998, the area was further enriched, in environmental terms, by the dumping of wastewater. By 2000, more than 180 species of bird had been recorded in the area, six of which were first records for the UAE. In 2000, the dumping stopped as alternatives for waste disposal emerged. Full of rubbish, pools, vegetation and birds, Ramtha Tip was left to its own devices.

But in early 2005, Sheikh Sultan set in motion the studies of the area, renamed Wasit, that led eventually to last week’s award. An environmental baseline study was commissioned on his instructions to determine whether it could be rehabilitated and turned into a nature reserve. Along with some colleagues, I was involved in a detailed scientific survey of the site, including its birds, mammals, insects and plants.

Where, I wonder, is the next visionary project of this type?

Our results, after several days of study, proved the importance of the site. Besides birds, for example, there were numerous insect species, some never previously recorded in the Emirates, and a wide variety of flora. Following some initial remediation work on the site, we did another audit the next year, and a plan to develop the reserve was then approved by Sheikh Sultan. Renamed the Wasit Nature Reserve, it was officially declared a protected area in 2007.

Over the years, there were a few delays to the original schedule. But the reserve, complete with its prize-winning Wetland Centre, opened in 2015. It is now a popular attraction for tourists, schools and a variety of other visitors. Overseen and managed by Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Authority, it is now one of the country’s top nature reserves. It is of particular significance not just because it provides a green space in a largely urban environment but because it provides evidence of how habitat that has been highly degraded can be successfully rehabilitated.

Nearly a decade ago, I was quoted in this paper as saying that Wasit had the potential to become a nature reserve of regional importance.

It is always nice to be proven right and I am deeply proud to have had some association with the project. The credit for the achievement, though, goes to Sheikh Sultan for his initiative to establish the reserve. He recognised that the waste dump that birders like myself knew as Ramtha Tip more than a couple of decades ago had the potential to become a national showcase of environmental restoration and conservation.

Where, I wonder, is the next visionary project of this type?

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

Updated: September 3, 2019 03:15 AM

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