Delicate balance to guard environment

A new poll finds widespread satisfaction with the UAE's environmental efforts. But protecting wetlands, for example, is not always top-of-mind for everyone.

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Fully 87 per cent of Emiratis and Arab expatriates in the UAE are "satisfied with the country's efforts to preserve the environment," according to a poll on which The National reported yesterday. Levels of satisfaction with both air and water quality were distinctly higher than in the comparable 2009 poll.

To which some scientists, who hold environmental stewardship to a sterner standard, reply: "Yes, but …"

Positive public sentiment needs to be weighed against scientific opinions about some aspects of land and water use policies that the public does not see. We wonder, for example, how many of the 5,000 survey respondents know about the warning issued in July by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, which said that the six most important wetlands in the UAE are all under threat, from both neglect and development.

For most of us, water and air quality are aspects of daily life: the colour of tap water or the smell of the air on our block. Coastal regions are more likely to be out of sight and out of mind. But dredging, pollution and hasty development can damage marshlands, reefs and other precious coastal resources before the general public knows what is happening.

In every country, environmental quality and national parks are part of the natural patrimony, protected by government for the good of all. The alternative is "the tragedy of the commons" - individuals using a public resource for private advantage, damaging or depleting the resource in the process. Coastal development is a fine example: there's only so much coastline and once it is fully developed, public options are limited.

In the UAE's full-speed-ahead development, protecting natural spaces has sometimes been subordinated to commercial imperatives. At times, that has made sense, but the balance has to be weighed carefully. Since 2005, for example, more than half of Reem Island's mangroves have been destroyed. Dredging for ship channels, construction of new islands and coastal building leave mangrove re-planters and other naturalists scrambling to limit losses.

No matter how high the satisfaction ratings, then, authorities have a duty to assess the environmental impact of development as they give - or withhold - approvals. Economic development is a national priority, but so too are the intangible benefits of preserving some of the country's ancient natural diversity.