For the people of Abu Dhabi, the Arabian Gulf is much more than a body of water. It stirs memories of hardship and hope, when fishing and pearl diving were the main source of income and daily meals. It reminds one of ancient trade, where goods were exchanged between the East and the West; and of course, of beauty and nature.
The Arabian Gulf is busier than ever. Maritime traffic is booming. In 2014, the emirate of Abu Dhabi received around 35,000 commercial vessels and nearly 100 cruise ships. Twenty per cent of oil traded worldwide moves by tanker through the Strait of Hormuz. Furthermore, Abu Dhabi is set to become the regional hub for “halal cruising”. The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi is working on new initiatives to encourage cruise lines to cater for the needs of Muslim travellers and expects the annual growth rate to exceed more than 10 per cent. To accommodate the current and future marine traffic, the Abu Dhabi Ports Company is dredging to deepen and create channels and build new harbours.
While shipping and dredging are key elements of Abu Dhabi’s economic development, they surely have an environmental impact. Ships may discharge wastewater, oil and grease, fuel spills, anti-fouling chemicals (to impede the growth of marine organisms in vessels' hulls) and ballast water (to improve vessels’ stability) into the marine water. Those discharges are not only a source of pollution that affect marine water quality but also of exotic species carried in ballast tanks that may become invasive, out-competing native species that can disappear. Dredging places additional pressures on marine water quality. Excavations can reduce water clarity by moving sediments from the bottom. If the lack of clarity persists for several months, it can kill seagrass beds and corals, which need sunlight to thrive.
To reduce the pressures on our marine waters, we need to raise awareness of the problems associated with shipping and dredging and implement regulations consistent with the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments that was ratified by the United Arab Emirates last June and entered into force in September 2017.
Marine Water Quality in Abu Dhabi has also been affected by rapid population growth. More people means more demand for food, energy and water. Abu Dhabi depends on desalination plants to produce fresh water. The emirate has seven major desalination plants, which produce nearly 3.2 billion litres of water per day. Discharges from these plants affect the salinity level of the water as well as its temperature and have a negative impact on marine life.
More people also means more treated wastewater from residential and industrial areas is discharged into the Gulf, increasing the concentration of nutrients in seawater, causing a phenomena called eutrophication, which can lead to outbreaks of harmful algal blooms that can cause oxygen depletion and kill aquatic organisms. HABs can also affect desalination activities, as algae can clog the intake pipes and membrane filters of desalination plants shutting them down. Abu Dhabi’s marine water quality is considered good and safe for public use, including swimming, as eutrophication does not present a direct health risk to recreational water users and there is no bacterial contamination that can pose a threat to public health.
Ensuring that the emirate’s coastal waters remain safe for people, plants and animals is a fundamental mandate of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi.
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In 2006, EAD started a marine water quality monitoring programme. Through a network of monitoring stations, we collect samples and measure different water quality parameters to understand the levels of nutrients, organics, microbes and heavy metals in seawater. We have also developed an early warning automated system that helps forecasting the formation of HBAs. The system collects data every hour, seven days a week, which is evaluated by our staff to assess water quality. We use this information to develop and enforce policies and regulations to mitigate the impacts of human activity on the marine environment to protect public health, biodiversity and our economy.
EAD also plays an important role in regulating and controlling the industrial sector from polluting marine water since effluent discharges from industrial facilities are a source of nutrients, sediments, heavy metals and other contaminants into waterways. This control is done by issuing environmental permits for industrial facilities and projects. We also provide recommendations on how to reduce their environmental impact. Our role does not end with this, but extends to the construction and operational phases of the projects by reviewing quarterly monitoring reports and inspecting the facilities to ensure their complying with the terms of the permits.
In 2012, the Higher Committee for Enhancing Marine Water Quality was established under the chairmanship of Mohamed Ahmed Al Bowardi, EAD’s managing director. All relevant stakeholders are represented on the committee. Its role is to follow up on implementing all projects and initiatives in the executive plan for improving marine water quality, and to ensure co-ordination between relevant stakeholders to handle challenges and develop appropriate solutions to protect public health and the marine environment. The committee develops and oversees the design and implementation of inter-agency marine water quality protection initiatives. About 37 initiatives have been completed and 26 are under study.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, once said: “water is more important than oil”. This is inclusive of marine water in a country whose past, present and future is intrinsically linked to the Arabian Gulf, a living system that we need to preserve.
Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak is secretary general of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi