x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Protect wetlands with easier access

Paradoxically, the best way to protect wetlands may be to let in more people. Low-impact nature parks to attract visitors could provide a level of public support for keeping wetlands wet and natural, instead of allowing construction.

Anyone who has ever dipped a paddle in or rowed a boat along the nation's wetlands knows that it doesn't take much to get away from it all.

The other thing you notice: getting away on the water is becoming harder.

As The National reported yesterday, the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (Ead) has warned that the UAE's six most important wetlands, from the capital to Ras al Khaimah, are facing pressure from coastal development and overall human neglect.

Habitat loss due to dredging, reclamation and other industrial and urban activities is accelerating as well. And unless protections are enacted now, the decline of these fragile ecosystems could be irreversible.

Wetlands still provide shelter to an abundance of breeding birds, from the greater flamingo to the western reef heron. But Dr Salim Javed, the manager of biodiversity assessment and monitoring at Ead, notes that unless we make it illegal to harm mangroves and other fragile wetland areas, their decline may accelerate.

We certainly agree that protected status should be extended to critical breeding grounds. As many developed nations have shown, environmental laws go a long way to ensuring that corporate and personal stewardship extends to a nation's most valuable natural treasures.

In the UAE maintaining the quality of our coastal habitats is equally critical. Not only are these areas aesthetically important but are key to our own health. After all, we eat the Gulf's fish and drink its water.

But how to convince the general public, especially those who'd never climb into a kayak for a self-guided tour? One, perhaps counter-intuitive way, would be to make it easier to visit these hidden gems.

The construction of visitor centres, if done well in a low-impact sustainable way, could actually help raise awareness among an apathetic public. In many cases people might simply be unaware of the natural beauty in their backyard. Opening this world up with elevated walkways, say, and interpretive signs could lead to better stewardship.

Wetlands are part of the wealth of this country. Their value should not be limited to those in boats alone.