x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

UN: heedless development has high costs

Gulf warned it should give serious consideration to environmental costs of large-scale land reclamation projects.

The World, a 300-island project expected to add 232km of beachfront to the UAE coast.
The World, a 300-island project expected to add 232km of beachfront to the UAE coast.

Abu Dhabi // Gulf leaders should give serious consideration to environmental costs before approving large-scale land reclamation projects, a senior United Nations official has warned. Land reclamation to accommodate tourism, leisure and industry has become the trend in the region and developers in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain are pursuing an array of megaprojects, said Dr Basel al Yousfi, deputy regional director of the UN Environment Programme for West Asia.

"Coastal zone reclamation projects are proliferating all over the region in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar," Dr Yousfi said. "It becomes a fashion. Everyone will like to have an artificial island. "I am not against development, but we need to have checks and balances ... We have to have serious environmental impact assessments before implementing such projects." Land reclamation is the process of forming new land area at sea or on river beds, sometimes by building artificial islands.

The region's first step towards large-scale reclamation started in 2001, when the Dubai-based developer Nakheel launched the Palm Jumeirah with the intention of doubling the length of the emirate's shoreline. Nakheel is now working on two more palm-shaped island projects. Work is also progressing on The World, in which 300 islands are expected to add more than 232km of beachfront, and on The Waterfront - a 1.4 billion square foot destination Nakheel says is the largest waterfront development in the world.

Early this year, the developer announced The Universe, a group of man-made islands, which, according to the local press will cover 3,000 hectares. Plans are also under way to expand Port Rashid into a mixed-use development housing 200,000 people. Early this year, Nakheel said it had invested Dh220 billion (US$60bn) in projects that would extend Dubai's 70km of natural coastline to more than 1,000km.

Smaller-scale land reclamation is being carried out or planned for Abu Dhabi, as well as Umm al Quwaim, Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah, where the Al Marjan Islands - a 2.7 million square metre project - is scheduled for completion in 2009. In Fujairah, an artificial island is being constructed near some of the UAE's most popular coral reef areas. In Bahrain, a US$3bn resort, Durrat Al Bahrain, will see 21 square kilometres of land being reclaimed from the sea. This is in addition to the Diyaar al Muharraq Island, which will see an area of 2.2 million square metres being reclaimed. In Qatar, a man-made island of 400 hectares is being reclaimed east of West Bay as part of the Pearl-Qatar luxury residential, leisure and tourism development.

Mr Yousfi said financing the megaprojects was not an issue because high oil prices had brought a surplus of cash to the region. Large infrastructure projects also fit in with governments' plans to diversify the Gulf economies by developing tourism. But the economic benefits of tourism needed to be considered together with the industry's impact on habitats and other natural resources. "Calculating the environmental cost will give us a good indication if it is really a profitable project or not, if it will benefit the community or not," said Mr Yousfi.

"In the last few years, the region has gone a long way ... in integrating environmental issues in the decision-making process," he said. "Nonetheless, there is more to be done." Habiba al Marashi, chairman of the Emirates Environmental Group, said land reclamation projects could cause lasting damage to marine environments. "Reclamation projects cover large portions of the seabed and coastline areas once covered with coral and other living organisms," she said. "These areas are forever gone or would take decades to regenerate".

According to a report on the website of the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water, land reclamation is believed to be one of the greatest threats to the marine environment of the Arabian Gulf. It says dredging, coastal land clearing and filling are the main threats to the well-being of seagrass beds. "Reclamation is coupled with dredging and the dumping of dredged soil, which may involve the direct excavation or smothering of seagrasses, or limit the growth and survival of seagrasses through increasing turbidity," the report says.

Seagrass is essential to the survival of the dugong, a large sea mammal native to the Indo-Pacific region and one of the UAE's flagship species. The Arabian Gulf is believed to host the second-largest dugong population in the world. Reclamation projects threaten to increase the salinity levels by impeding water flow, which can negatively affect the well-being of coral reefs. The reefs support populations of marine turtles and fish.

The negative impacts of the boom in offshore development were not only felt at sea, said Dr Christophe Tourenq, manager for science and research at the Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wildlife Fund for Nature. It has increased demand for rock and other products, which in the UAE are often sourced from the Hajar Mountains. The rapid increase in the number of quarries and the lack of planning and implementation of environmental protection laws has put increasing pressure on the mountains and their endangered wildlife.

Among the species under threat is the Arabian tahr, a goat-like animal that lives in the mountains of the UAE and Oman. Sweetwater wadi fish are also threatened as the industry's unregulated growth is damaging the mountain's fresh water catchment basins. "There is a problem not only in the UAE but in the whole region, which is tourism," Mr Yousfi said. He added that tourism developments often failed to take into account the environmental cost such as depletion of natural resources and the cost of mitigation measures that might be needed to offset the negative effects of the projects.

Land reclamation has been used as a solution by small countries with growing populations, including Singapore and Hong Kong. "Northern Europe had an awful lot of coastal reclamation in the 1940s and 1950s," said Nial Moores, the co-founder of Birds Korea, a conservation organisation in South Korea. Mr Moores was one of many environmentalists fighting the world's biggest land reclamation project in Saemangeum, South Korea. The project, which involved damming the estuaries of two rivers and destroying wetlands along the Yellow Sea coast, could not be stopped and has had a devastating impact on the number of migratory birds that visit the area.

In Europe, where there is greater public awareness of the need to preserve wetlands and coastal areas, recent proposals for large-scale reclamation works have been blocked, Mr Moores said. Japan was also slowing down due to increased awareness of the negative effects of land reclamation on fisheries and the loss of recreational areas, he added. @Email:vtodorova@thenational.ae