x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Preserving nature in Sharjah is not an effort in waste

Dumped car tyres and power cables have given way to grey herons and palm trees after five years of hard work by a team of naturalists.

SHARJAH // It was only an hour after sunrise, and the neighbourhood and roads surrounding the Wasit Nature Reserve were quiet. Inside, however, was a different story. There it was breakfast time, a hub of activity as birds went about finding food using their own individual methods.

At one end great egrets plunged their long necks into the brownish pond water, reemerging just as quickly, their beaks full. Grey herons stood motionless at the water's edge, waiting for an opportunity. Wading birds, such as the black-winged stilt, seemed less proud, their necks bent, beaks picking food from the muddy bottom. Five years ago, the place was a dump. "It was just a pile of rubbish, basically," said Peter Hellyer, a government official and naturalist.

Mr Hellyer was on the team that first visited the site in 2005, a group of experts on insects, plants, mammals and birds, as well as a hydrologist, a landscape architect and an ecologist. They were given a special task by none other than the Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, to assess whether Wasit, if restored, had the potential to become a nature reserve. The area had always been an important place for birds. Mr Hellyer remembered his first visits in the early 1980s when the place was teeming with wildlife. However, as the city grew it crept closer and closer to the wetland, destroying some of it and polluting the rest.

By 2005 the situation was critical. The wetland had been cut into two by the Sharjah Ring Road and was surrounded by houses on one side and power plants on another. And what remained was very polluted. "It was being used as a refuse dump for all manner of both solid and liquid waste from the city," said Roger Godwin, another expert who worked on the project. Pictures taken by the survey team reveal a landscape dotted with car tyres and construction debris. Plastic bottles, bags and other garbage floated in the water.

Yet after a study of the area the experts determined that it could be saved. The go-ahead was given to Gary Bartsch International, a South African landscaping and environmental services company, to start the restoration project. Returning the area to nature meant fencing off what remained of it to keep out people as well as stray cats and dogs. A manual clean-up followed, conducted carefully so as to not further disturb the area. Power cables that had been placed on a berm that dissected the main water body were re-routed. The area also had to be cleared of mesquite trees, an invasive species which stifles local plants.

Some luck - two years of higher-than-average rainfall - also helped, germinating seed banks of indigenous plants that had been dormant. "The re-emergence of plant colonies and insects associated with these resulted in a massive increase in food sources for the birds that flocked to the reserve from the sparser surrounding areas, as well as migrants who set up home and began breeding," Mr Godwin said.

Rashid Mahmood, site supervisor at Sharjah Municipality, has followed the site's progress for five years. Motioning towards the dense canopy of trees, shrubs and grasses now covering the reserve, he said: "In the beginning there was only white sand." Compared to the neat rows of palm trees and other plants of the landscaped buffer around the reserve, the stretches of reeds and salt-tolerant grasses appear chaotic, their green hue mixed with yellow after the long, dry summer. While the landscaped trees and grasses are watered by a team of 20, irrigation for the wild habitat is left up to nature.

However, the growth of native plants and the large stretches of shallow, muddy water banks are exactly what birds needs to rest, feed and nest comfortably. Knowing this brings a greater appreciation of the area's harsh beauty. Gary Bartsch International has drawn plans for a visitor centre, but they were put on hold after the economic downturn. The team still hopes the project will eventually get funding so the public can see the reserve and its inhabitants.

"Wasit," said Mr Hellyer, "has potential to be a natural reserve of regional importance." Not only for what it is, perhaps, but also for what it represents: the restoration of nature in a time of development. @Email:vtodorova@thenational.ae