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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Saving the world's wetlands can also save the planet

World Wetland Day highlights the UAE's preservation efforts

The mangroves in Abu Dhabi. The UAE has seven designated as Wetlands of International Importance. Fatima Al Marzooqi /The National
The mangroves in Abu Dhabi. The UAE has seven designated as Wetlands of International Importance. Fatima Al Marzooqi /The National

Cities and nature have an uneasy relationship. The pressure of expanding populations and economic growth have often been at the expense of greenery and wildlife.

Wetlands are particularly at risk, in the past often seen as useless areas good only for draining and redevelopment. World Wetland Day, on Friday, aims to promote their value and encourage governments and communities to work for their preservation.

Organisations like the Emirates Wildlife Society working with the World Wildlife Fund are working to protect wetlands in the UAE.

With much of country arid desert, the mangroves that grow along the coasts are particularly precious – and fragile.

The UAE has seven designated as Wetlands of International Importance, also known as Ramsar sites, named after the Iranian city where the convention where international standards were agreed in 1971.

Marina Antonopoullo, marine programme leader with the EWS-WWF, says the kind of areas that can be described as wetland is much more diverse than most people realise, "You might expect mangroves and wadis, but there are many different types like marine areas and seagrass fields that you also find a lot of in the UAE.

The most recent area to be added was Al Zora in Ajman last July; a section of the creek which features mangroves and mudflats and is home to 87 species of birds including flamingos and the vulnerable greater spotted eagle.

Abu Dhabi’s huge Bul Syayeef covers 14,500 hectares across the Mussaffah Channel and is home to nearly 3,000 breeding pairs of the greater flamingo and dugong. Its proximity to the city and the industrial area means Bul Syayeef is particular sensitive to man’s encroachment.

Dubai’s Ras Al Khor lies deep in the Creek and is hope to more than 20,000 migratory waterbirds. On the East Coast there are the mangroves at Khor Kalba and Wadi Wurayah National Park where fresh water flows through springs, pools and waterfalls.

But as the EWS-WWF points out, this is no reason for complacency. Khor Al Beida, in Umm Al Quwain is an important area for migratory birds – “a jewel of the UAE coastal habitats” – and it currently well preserved. But the wetland has no formal protection “and is regularly threatened by important development projects that can put the value and health of the whole ecosystem at high risk of disappearance”.

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More generally is the challenge posed by water extraction across the country, which is dangerously lowering the level of water tables and draining aquifers in many areas.

Information released by the Ramsar Convention for International Wetlands Day 2018 points to areas being put under even greater stress by growing populations.

Martha Urrego, the organisation’s secretary general, estimates that four billion people or nearly half the world’s population, or around four billion people, now live in urban areas.

That number will grow, so that by 2030, the number of cities with more than 10 million inhabitants will jump from 31 to 41.

The need to create a sustainable future for wetlands under these pressures is the theme for the 2018 World Wetlands Day.

“Today`s current development of human settlements is a major concern for wetland conservation and wise use. As cities grow and demand for land increases, the tendency is to encroach on wetlands,” she says.

“They are often viewed as wasteland available to dump waste or be converted for other purposes.

“Yet when preserved and sustainably used, urban wetlands can provide cities with multiple economic, social and cultural benefits. They are prize land, not wasteland, and therefore should be integrated into the development and management plans of cities.”

Ms Antonopoullo agrees. "It is happening everywhere in the world, people are going to need more space. But it doesn't have to be seen as one thing or the other. Wetlands can help your cities. They have long term value."

Properly managed, experts say that wetland can benefit people as well as wildlife. Their ability to act as giant sponges means they can absorb heavy rains and prevent flooding, while protecting against storm surges.

Of particular importance to countries like the UAE is how wetlands filter water that refills the aquifers, and cool the air in surrounding communities.

They can filter out pollutants and treat sewage. Studies have also shown that as recreation areas they can reduce stress and improve health.

As with Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Mangroves, they can be a tourist attraction, creating jobs.

This October, Dubai will host the 13th meeting of the Ramsar Convention where the first wetland cities will be accredited – and a chance for the UAE to show its own conservation achievements on the international stage. "There has been a lot of work done in the UAE to a very good standard," says Ms Antonopoullo. "This is another chance to showcase that."