Last week I had the opportunity to speak with over 200 young people from the UAE. As a mother of five young boys, I was interested in the virtual sessions that were a part of Connect with Nature, a programme which encourages youngsters to help protect the environment.
One discussion – part of the 'Reimagine Youth Circle Series' – was about inviting youth to think of life post Covid-19. These were all enlightening conversations. One was on devising ways to work with decision makers in the government and private sector to drive change.
The one closest to my heart, however, was the discussion on learning from the past and saving for the future; a talk that focused on how to balance modern life, keep Emirati traditions alive and protect the integrity of our ecosystems.
I hope that the younger generation understands what this means and takes responsibility to protect our natural and cultural heritage.
My relationship with nature began at an early age as I grew up watching my father, who to me, was a naturalist. The way he took care of our plants despite the excessive heat and humidity taught me three lessons.
I learnt the importance of resources and how using them judiciously made a difference and affected the survivability of living things.
I learnt to appreciate the balance that exists in nature and how tampering with any one aspect alters the health and integrity of another.
The third lesson I imbibed from father was the value of hard work and how ones’ own efforts make a big difference.
These lessons guide me in my work and personal life and I try to pass them on to my children. All of us have opportunities to learn from our elders. We are often in fact defined by such life lessons and they affect what we do as individuals, communities and societies.
I am blessed to be born in a country where the leaders value culture and traditions as much as they do development. As I learnt from my father, I also learnt a lot from our Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed. He was a great visionary and a passionate naturalist who left a lasting impression on our Emirati national and cultural identity.
As Emiratis, we take lot of pride in our traditions and try to ensure that this intangible cultural heritage is preserved for posterity. From falconry to hunting with saluki dogs, to camel racing and pearling – these are all part of our natural and cultural heritage. Thanks to the efforts of the UAE, falconry was recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco in 2010.
Our water channels are a wonderful example of how we have managed to preserve our natural traditions. Water has always been an especially valuable resource in the desert. And our irrigation system, Aflaj dates back to 3,000 years ago. Sheikh Zayed cared about water channels and even helped dig some when the traditional system was renovated in 1946. Much of Al Ain's greenery today is attributed to the same Aflaj system.
Taking into account such traditional practices bears on how we address important local issues, such as over exploited fisheries and overgrazing by camels. At the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) we collate the knowledge of fishermen and herders and integrate it with science.
Just last week the government issued a law to regulate grazing in Abu Dhabi and preserve natural areas. Through our community partners, we will continue to encourage owners of camel farms to return to more traditional practices of grazing, which will allow shrubbery to naturally regenerate and flourish.
Traditional examples of grazing include: rotational grazing where animals graze in one area for a short while before moving to a different area. Additionally, in the past herds were much smaller and according to narrators of our oral history narrators, families had 20-30 camels while today there are 200-300 in some cases for one family.
Following old traditions meant that benefits were shared across the entire community, not just for one family. Another solution to overgrazing is seasonal grazing during the rainy season, and travelling to other regions and the communal sharing of groundwater resources.
This sort of knowledge of the natural world has been collected over decades. The past is, after all, a part of our identity and we must try to protect it. Our elders have for generations lived closely with nature and learnt about the natural world. We have to preserve that wisdom that they have passed down to us so that we, in turn, can share that with the younger generations.
As our leaders engineered to protect our cultural heritage, they were also instrumental in the preservation of our natural heritage. The story of the Arabian Oryx is one of the best examples; a species hunted to near extinction revived through the pioneering initiatives of Sheikh Zayed. Due to his foresight, there are nearly 5,000 Arabian Oryx in Abu Dhabi alone, including over 850 that roam freely in the Arabian Oryx Protected Area in Abu Dhabi.
Another story that is particularly close to my heart is the creation of Al Wathba Wetland Reserve in Abu Dhabi. The accidental release of a small amount of water from the nearby sewerage treatment plant attracted some bird species, including flamingos. Attempts were made to breed these birds but those were not successful.
The late Sheikh Zayed ordered the area to be protected by the Abu Dhabi Police and to be managed by us at EAD in 1998. Today, the reserve is the only breeding site for flamingos in the Arabian Gulf and recognised globally as Ramsar Site by the Ramsar Convention and on the green list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
It is one example of how we live in an interconnected world. Every organism, big or small, interacts directly or indirectly with other elements of that ecosystem. It is time we learn to appreciate the delicate balance and be mindful that human activities can disrupt it.
At EAD we are trying to do just that – maintain that balance by protecting all elements of our environment. Our network of 19 protected areas under the Sheikh Zayed Protected Area network protects some of the most iconic species; from the Arabian Oryx to the houbara, from dugongs to turtles, from coral reefs and small insect species to flamingos.
We at EAD can provide all the information that one needs to learn how to behave with respect to the environment, but individual contributions are equally important. One day our generation will retire and it will be up to the youth of today to step in.
They have a responsibility to learn about our nature and our culture and to pass on that knowledge to the next generation. They have the intelligence and access to the most advanced technologies and I am confident that they will shoulder this responsibility well.
Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri is secretary-general of Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi