x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Most residents stay away from UAE's natural attractions

A disappointingly high proportion of people living in the UAE have never visited four of its main natural attractions.

A disappointingly high proportion of people living in the UAE have never visited four of its main natural attractions: mangrove swamps (67 per cent), coral reefs (67), nature reserves (52) or wadis (46). Of those who have, most consider all four to be "doing OK but could do with some attention". Only a small proportion are aware that mangroves (eight per cent) and coral reefs (12 per cent) are endangered by development in the UAE.

"This is very bad," said Thabit Zahran al Abdessalaam, director of marine biodiversity management at Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi. "That tells me we need to review our strategy. We are doing awareness campaigns and have written books. Maybe it is the way we target the messages." Respondents to the National/YouGov survey are also unsure which factors pose the greatest threat to the Emirates' marine environment - pollution (blamed by 24 per cent), man-made islands (21 per cent), coastal property development (19 per cent), untreated sewage (15 per cent) or land reclamation projects (13).

"The biggest threat is coastal development which is unregulated, and the lack of planning and regulation," said Mr al Abdessalaam. "Another significant threat is climate change." Compared with these two factors, he said, desalination had so far had minimal, localised impact on the marine ecosystems. In the National/YouGov survey, only four per cent identified desalination as one of the most significant threats to the marine environment in the UAE; in fact, experts say the use of desalination, escalating as demand for water rises, is increasing the already high salt content of the Gulf's coastal waters to levels harmful to marine life.

The survey found that 46 per cent of people regularly swim off public beaches in the Emirates and 20 per cent off private beaches. Forty-five per cent, however, never do, some because they are wary of pollution (eight per cent) or sea creatures, such as jellyfish (seven per cent). The good news for an emerging plan to have the UAE's beaches rated by the international Blue Flag scheme is that 65 per cent of respondents say they rate the quality of the nation's beaches as good (45 per cent) or extremely good (20 per cent); 29 per cent rate it as average, but only a tiny minority say it is poor (four per cent) or extremely poor (two per cent).

But in the past six months, the 70 per cent who have visited a beach in the UAE have seen rubbish (35 per cent), signs of algal "red tide" (18 per cent), dead fish or birds (16) and oil (12). The sight of pollution would persuade 60 per cent not to swim again at that beach, 13 per cent to forsake all the beaches in that emirate and 12 per cent to cease swimming altogether in UAE waters. Seventeen per cent would continue swimming regardless.

Encounters with marine wildlife appear to be very rare. In the past six months, while 26 per cent have seen jellyfish, sightings of creatures including dugong, dolphins, turtles, sea snakes, stingrays, sharks and whales are almost unreported. jgornall@thenational.ae vtodorova@thenational.ae