Environmental troubles loom in Gulf region, new report warns

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  • 2011•11•22     Hamilton

    A new report by the United Nations University (UNU) warns that sustainable coastal management, regional coordination and long-term, holistic solutions are needed to protect fragile ecosystems in the Gulf Region of the Middle East, which are at risk of serious environmental degradation.

    The report, by the Canada-based UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), is entitled “Managing the growing impacts of development on fragile coastal and marine ecosystems: lessons from the Gulf.” It claims that fisheries and other valuable services provided freely by the Gulf’s ecosystems are at risk of being lost because of inadequate environmental management. The report warns that the rapid, large-scale coastal development underway in the Middle East must be better planned and managed to avoid aggravating already “severe” losses in the fragile marine ecosystems shared by eight Gulf countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

    Launched on 16 November 2011 at UN headquarters in New York, the report is based on direct research and experience in the Gulf and on published literature. It warns that coastal development in wealthy Gulf countries has been so extensive and swift that “there has not been enough time to develop adequate regulatory, technical, and monitoring capacity to guide this growth appropriately”.

    Consequences include “severe loss and degradation of important habitats, including mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs”, greater pollution and other environmental setbacks. Potential health problems and “the permanent loss of nursery grounds for commercial shellfish and fish species” are also among the troubles foreseen in the report.

    “Though focussed on the Gulf region, with its enormous new artificial islands and waterways, waterfront cities, ports and marinas, the report is relevant to other parts of the Middle East, to China, parts of South-East Asia, and elsewhere in the world where rapid coastal development is also underway”, says co-author Peter F. Sale, Assistant Director of UNU-INWEH, citing UNEP predictions that as much as 91 per cent of all temperate and tropical coasts will be heavily impacted by development by 2050.

    Lead author of the report, Hanneke Van Lavieren of UNU-INWEH, agrees: “Relatively little information exists on the short- and long-term environmental effects of coastal mega-projects…. Without good planning and careful consideration of existing coastal features, hydrodynamics and offshore seafloor conditions, the consequences of such developments could be severe and long lasting.”

    “It is unwise to continue this pace and scale of development without careful consideration of the likely impacts on the health of marine ecosystems and their capacity to continue to provide environmental goods and services that directly support human well-being. If care is not taken, the economic cost of losing valuable coastal ecosystems will be extremely high”, Van Lavieren continues.

    Action is needed now

    According to the report, action is needed in the region to ensure:

    • integrated, forward-looking management programmes that protect vital coastal ecosystems and adapt to a changing climate, while permitting economic growth and ensuring a better quality of life for all coastal dwellers;
    • an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process that is scientifically rigorous, transparent and applied by regulatory agencies with the capacity to enforce decisions and ensure compliance by the development industry — an approach which recognizes that such assessments take time and that development must not proceed more quickly than the EIA process;
    • faster scientific capacity development in the region: over the past several years, among efforts underway by others, UNU-INWEH initiated a variety of training events in the region, but substantial additional improvement is needed in terms of the number and calibre of national scientists and researchers, research institutions, available equipment and funding to sustain research and development; and
    • additional legislation, at regional and national levels, directly linked to coastal development.

    Van Lavieren notes that existing agreements are “incomplete and incoherent” and “current management strategies in the Gulf are ineffective and insufficient to ensure the future health of its marine and coastal resources”. She adds that communication and public awareness can be vital components of successful coastal management because they help build consensus and support for sustainable management initiatives while also ensuring that governments are responsive to environmental needs.

    Dr. Sale observes that several Gulf countries “are in a unique position to provide a leadership role in this region, given the availability of financial resources and the commitment towards environmental sustainability expressed by current leaders”.

    For more information on the report, see the UNU-INWEH website.