x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'House becomes like an earthquake'

Villages in the northern emirates remain blanketed by dust two years after the Federal Environment Agency ordered quarry operators to reduce emissions.

Mohammed Alawi, a resident of Ghalilah, holds a vacuum cleaner bag full of quarry dust.
Mohammed Alawi, a resident of Ghalilah, holds a vacuum cleaner bag full of quarry dust.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Villages in the northern emirates remain blanketed by dust two years after the Federal Environment Agency ordered quarry operators to reduce emissions. In a 2008 edict, the agency gave companies one year to limit emissions of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, suspended particles and dust. That directive has apparently gone unheeded as resident complaints and particulates pile up.

The Khor Khwair area, once cradled by the sea and the mountains, is now surrounded by cement companies, a port and a highway clogged with industrial traffic. The town itself is powdered with thick, grey dust. "I think each family must have one or two members with asthma at least," said Abdulla al Shehhi, a member of the Federal National Council who is from Khor Khwair. He is also a former director of the Ibrahim bin Hamad Obaidallah Hospital. "The main problem is the industrial area is bigger than all these villages. It affects Ghalilah, Rams, Sha'am, and al Jir. All these families cannot leave their places."

The RAK Environmental Protection and Development Authority was not available for comment. Around 105,000 people reside in rural RAK, and almost of all of them live near a quarry. Most are families with young children. Mr al Shehhi believes the economic benefits of the quarries do not justify the health hazards and irreversible environmental damage they are causing. However, the 103 quarries and crushers in Ajman, Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah are crucial to the economies of the northern emirates. According to 2005 statistics, 40 per cent of Fujairah's labour force was linked to the emirate's 64 crushers.

"We develop this country and its people," said Ahmed al Amash, the managing director of Gulf Cement Company, which has spent about Dh100 million on methods to reduce emissions, such as installing more filters. "Our people study here and work here. If this cement factory was not here, the UAE would not boom. Without cement, how many airports, roads, or schools would we have?" Emad Mohammed, the operations manager at Belhasa Quarries and Crushers, said his company invested Dh500,000 on a new spray system, domes and paving after the plant was shut for two months in December and January.

"We spent money for the environment but there is no money for the crusher," said Mr Mohammed. "It's good to keep the dust down, but it's come at a time when business is dead. We're spending money and there is no income." Quarries near Jerief were recently closed to comply with a portion of the 2008 regulations mandating that crushers cannot operate within 2km of residential areas. In Wadi Siji, blasting has stopped between the hours of 8pm and 7am as per the regulations.

Still, some locals say that enforcement of the regulations is intermittent and inconsistent. Saeed al Hefaiti, 29, said the government carried out inspections, but not on a regular basis. "We heard many crushers are not putting this filter," he said. "We see one thing and the municipality says another thing. They are not very strict." Mr al Hefaiti, a father of three children under the age of five, lives 500 metres from a quarry that remains open despite the 2km rule. There are nine plants near his village.

"Every morning people are sleeping, then the blasting comes," he said. "The house becomes like an earthquake. Many people now from Siji have transfered to Masafi, to Thouban. They are escaping the crusher." Mr al Hefaiti plans to leave as well, but he is not going happily. "We know they are going to stay for 20 or 25 years and we would lose our life," he said. "Which came first, the crusher or the people? I am born here. I cannot leave my land. But what we can do?" @Email:azacharias@thenational.ae