Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 23 August 2019

Leaving no footprints in a fast-developing city can be a tough call

The debris in Abu Dhabi's mangroves is reflective of the delicate balance between urban planning and preserving city oases

Abu Dhabi’s mangroves. Alex Atack for The National. 
Abu Dhabi’s mangroves. Alex Atack for The National. 

Out for a walk on Saadiyat Beach the other morning, I did my usual rubbish collection, scooping up the flotsam and jetsam of modern life, the plastic bottles and chunks of styrofoam that bobbed in the shallow water. I realise I’m fighting a losing battle – there is always more plastic than I can pick up – but I tell myself that every little helps, so I keep at it.

I have since found out those who do the same have started a trend with its own moniker: plogging. It seems that the Swedish word “plocka", meaning to pick up, and "jogging" have combined to produce the term. It's inevitable such a trend would start in Sweden, where I imagine everyone is fit and eco-conscious. I’m surprised they even have enough rubbish in public places to pick up.

Maybe, though, I’m ahead of the curve because I even gather debris when I am kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, which I guess would have to be called plockayaking. One of my favourite ways to unwind from the stress of a busy week involves renting a kayak or a paddleboard to glide through Abu Dhabi's eastern mangroves and head out into the bay, with nothing but the sound of water across my paddle for company. Over time, I have become quite dexterous at plockayaking: with my paddle, I can scoop whatever I find out of the water – jellyfish-like plastic bags, water bottles, even the occasional flip-flop.

When I am out in the mangroves, I sometimes imagine I can hear the city breathing, drawing in the thick salty air and scent of fish. It’s the city's watery oasis; a world we can visit but is not ours. The other morning, I drew up close to a mudflat and watched a flock of flamingos industriously sieve the water in search of food. They paid no attention to me, nor did the crabs scuttling around in the shallow water beneath me. I tell myself on these occasions that the creatures are probably grateful for my plockayaking but somehow I think none of them have a clue.

My meditative waterborne rubbish collection was recently interrupted, however, when I almost bumped into a line of rusty pipe that stretched snake-like from a dredge parked in one of the mangrove inlets. No water moved through the pipes and no noise came from the dredge: it just sat there, its funnels poking up above the mangroves like small chimneys.

“They’re building a bridge,” the man in the kayak kiosk told me. “From Al Salam Street to Reem island.” He waved his hand at the mangroves. It seems that the legs of this bridge will march close to the mangroves while the bridge will span the marsh, creating a wide ribbon of permanent shade.

It raises the dilemma of urban planning, I thought to myself as I sorted my findings into recycling bins. On the one hand, I have spent more time than I would like to admit in the snarl of traffic on Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street at the Reem island exit. During rush hour, cars bottleneck, jockeying for position, sidling so close to one another that if the windows are down, I can sometimes smell the cologne of the guy in the car next to me. There is no doubt that having another point of access to the island will alleviate that congestion.

On the other hand, the hush of the mangroves will be lost in the sounds of traffic whizzing overhead, as will the sense of floating in an oasis at the centre of the city’s asphalt sprawl. Selfishly, I’d prefer the oasis and I’d be willing to take a longer route home (or sit in traffic), if it were up to me. But perhaps for those who live on Reem or Al Maryah islands and have no choice but to take that choked exit every day, a bridge is the better answer.

When the bridge is built, the flamingos will no doubt adapt and find themselves a new set of mudflats; the bridge pylons will become home to crabs and barnacles. And perhaps the shade cast by the bridge will be welcomed by those who forget their sunscreen before they hit the water.

Until that happens, I will keep plockayaking, combining exercise and eco-consciousness with each dip of my paddle.

Deborah Williams is an associate professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

Updated: January 21, 2019 07:15 PM

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