x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Summit is one step in a long process

Plans for a new international water summit are a sign of innovative thinking. But success in environment policy will also demand follow-through and attention to detail.

For a country on the parched Arabian Peninsula, there are few resources as valuable as water. This week, Abu Dhabi demonstrated a commitment to protecting this valuable - and vulnerable - commodity by announcing plans to host the inaugural International Water Summit next year.

It is forums such as this - and the just-concluded World Future Energy Summit - that position the capital as a leader in green innovation. From Masdar to the International Renewable Energy Agency, one of the planet's largest oil producers is also among its most environmentally active.

There is, however, much work to do.

As The National reported yesterday, leading experts on water and environmental protection are calling on countries of the Gulf, including the UAE, to refocus environmental attention at home, where coastal and marine habitats continue to be neglected.

At present, the rapid pace of development, combined with sometimes poor regulation and lax enforcement, conspire to degrade coastal waters. Seabed destruction, fisheries decline, coral reef bleaching, mangrove degradation - all are avoidable problems. As if to illustrate the urgency, on the very day the UAE announced next year's water summit one of its more exclusive beaches was closed due to sewage pollution. It was the second closure of a beach in less than a month.

Among the best tools to combat environmental degradation are environmental impact assessments, mandatory reviews that plan for and mitigate threats, both to groundwater supplies and coastal resources. And on paper, the capital's EIAs are well designed.

The problem comes with implementation and enforcement of the laws behind the regulations. For instance, while the UAE is a signatory to the 1990 protocol for the protection of marine environments from land-based sources, it has never ratified it.

Without stronger laws, EIAs will have little effect. As a United Nations working group reported last year, projects are sometimes altered after approval with no amended EIA. Playing fast and loose with the letter of the law can have irreversible consequences for the environment.

From solar-powered desalination plants to carbon sequestration projects, the UAE is showing how technology can protect the environment. What is also needed for the UAE to be equally focused on the regulatory side of environmental protection.